For 20 years now, the Kronos Quartet (David Harrington and John Sherba, violins: Hank Dutt, viola; Joan Jeanrenaud, cello) has been exclusively playing string quartet music of the 20th century, to every increasing public acclaim. The group now gives upwards of 100 concerts per year and has 12 recordings to its credit, all made since 1986.
This success, really unprecedented in the contemporary classical music world, is due not only to Kronos' always polished and committed performances, but also to their extreme image consciousness (they dress wildly) and to programming that carefully dilutes the heavy cerebral stuff with forays into alternative worlds informed by rock, jazz, performacne art, and the folk music of various regions. Their concert Saturday, characteristically diverse in its content, comprised nine pieces, by Michael Daugherty. Osvaldo Golijov, George Antheil, Henry Cowell, Raymond Scott, Sofia Gubaidulina, Arvo Part, John Zorn and Scott Johnson.
Daugherty's "Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover" and Johnson's "How it Happens" began and ended the program. Both represent modern extensions of a procedure poineered by Steve Reich in the '60s in pieces such as "It's Gonna Rain" and "Come Out" and continued in his "Different Trains," recorded by the quartet in 1989. In these pieces taped speech is subjected to repeated looping (or "phasing," to use Reich's term) and then musically claborated. Daugherty, in the anti-establishment political tradition of Reich's earlier work, samples excerpts from Hoover's speeches and parodies them through his musical setting the violins simulate police sirens; "My Country, "Tis of Thee" and "The Star-Spangled Banner" are cast in ironic dissonance; the "donkey" momement from Saint-Saens's "Carnival of the Animals" is quoted.
Johnson's taped material is also political an import, from a radio broadcost of a lecture by I. E. Stone, and unlike Daugherty, Johnson actually incorporates the pitch of the spoken words into his work. We little realize the extent to which out ordinary speech is musical; the rising pitch of an interrogative and the codence of a declarative can be quantified and made into song simply through appropriate accompaniment Johnson does this beatuifully.
Second on the program was Golijov's "Yiddishbbuck," a three movement elegy inspired, according to the program notes, by apocrybhal and Franz Kafka, but commemorating Isaac Bashevis Singer, Leonard Bernstein and concentration camp victims. Such program notes gave a fair indication of the kind of piece that ensued, which seemed all gesture and no substance. (Golijov was present and made obligatory obsequious composers stage appearance, almost refusing to bow in his attempt to give the performers all the credit.) Also disappointing was cobaidulina's
Quartet No. 2, whose stated concern with "differences between normal sounds extracted from stringed instruments and those sounds which are extracted as harmonies" meant a lot of alternation between normal sounds and harmonics, to no apparent end.
Following the Golijov was a pair of short pieces from the time of World War I by Antheil and Cowell. Each written when its composer was 19, Antheil's "Lithuanian Night" reflected the influence of Debussy, while Cowell's quite brief "Quartet Euphometric" gave one an impression of little more than its complexly generated rhythms, based on the then-embryonic theories that would mature into his famous treatise New Musical Resources. Kronos is to be commended for resurrecting the works of these, our little-heard but worthy musical forebears.
Part's "Summa" concluded the first half of the concert. An essential part of the Kronos experience is the mood lighting, and the mottled shadows that materialized on stage here vaguely suggested ivy or stained glass. Either suited perfectly the medieval character of "Summa," a piece that never departs from the G natural minor scale in something like 10 minutes of homophonic wanderings. This is music as meditation, appreciable by anyone who can, like Part, find it to be "enough when a single note is beautifully played."
The centerpiece of the program was Zorn's "Memento Mori." This is Zorn's fifth work for Kronos, and it has much in common with his earlier pieces. Zorn's compositional method is to compile a huge set of musical ideas, each notated on a filing card and lasting a few seconds; cartoon soundtracks are his major influence. While Kronos's attention span is not yet as short as Zorn's, there has been a disturbing tendency in their recent programs toward more and shorter pieces, and toward music with an easily grasped selling point. It is saddening to see a group's rise in popularity so proportional to be gimmickiness of its repertoire.
The two encores were Foday Musa Suso's "Tilliboyo" ("Sunset") and John Oswald's "Specter," the former a pleasant African tune rendered in amplified pizzicato, the latter a terrifying essay in electric feedback. The enthusiastic crowd of 800 was reluctant to cease its applause.