Saturday, April 17, 2010

About Time

You're probably wondering why I haven't been blogging lately, and the reason why is pretty fascinating! I was walking past an apartment building in Chinatown when a woman on the third floor opened her window and accidentally knocked a flowerpot onto my head. I lost all memory of my previous life and was taken in by a gang of street toughs, who enlisted me in their high-stakes craps game. I won and lost a fortune, but during a raid, when a police baton duplicated exactly the cranial blow that erased my memory, my name and my love of classical music came back in a rush, and I returned home to post this entry.

Just kidding, the reason why is super boring. Let's talk about the Kronos Quartet, instead!


So I went to the Kronos Quartet's tribute to Terry Riley couple weeks back and basically it was the most fun thing ever. Obviously I mean the concert was, but the whole trip down to the city was a blast, since I was reunited with a favorite Greg AND got to chat with two of the boys in Kronos AND hobnobbed with some of your FAVORITE INTERNET CELEBRITIES, such as Steven Swartz and Darcy James Argue and Sidney Chen. You love them! Also spotted, but did not dare to speak to, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, and somebody who looked vaguely familiar and later turned out to be the Edge, as in the lead guitarist from U2, but as I was saying LA MONTE YOUNG AND MARIAN ZAZEELA were there, wearing their La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela outfits. Love.

Okay, now, MUSIC. The Kronos recital was part of a series at Carnegie Hall, where the quartet was playing a whole weekend's worth of concerts down in Zankel, ladling out basically every food group from their buffet of recitals: Music from Around the World, Collaborations with Western Vernacular Artists, etc. Same thing they do on their records—on the one hand you've got like Short Stories, which was one of the first classical tapes(!) I ever bought myself, during those formative years when the existence tape full of concert music for string quartet that freaked my parents out (Sharp, Zorn, etc.) came as something of a revelation—and then on the other hand you've got something like Nuevo, where every piece on the program was unified not only by nationality but by the distinctive stamps of star producer (Santaolalla) and arranger (Golijov), even though basically every piece was not only by a different composer but in a different genre (pop and folk and concert music all together).

But for all the awesomeness inherent to Kronos's project of Exploding the Recital, my favorite program of theirs is still the vastly more traditional Composer Portrait–style show. Their all-Górecki/all-Schnittke/all-Glass albums are far from the most typical records they ever put out, but for my money they're some of the best. I like my Kronos thick 'n' meaty (chawmp).

And so I was super stoked to check out this all-Riley thing, which surveyed the quartet's history with Riley from the now-classic (the words "Terry Riley" have been synonymous with Kronos even longer than the words "leather pants") to the brand-new. Or, I guess the survey ran the other way round, starting with a world premiere: Another Secret eQuation was written for string quartet plus Young People's Chorus of New York, and wow Riley did a ridiculously good job of writing for children. The very first gesture in the piece is an exploitation of that thing only kids can do with their voices, that super-high squealing noise they're always making on the playground or wherever. The sound of children at play always cuts through me like an icy dagger, so imagine the intensity of hearing an ENTIRE CHORUS of screeching children, one of those acoustical effects whose pressure you can actually feel inside your ears. The slow crescendo to full, deafening screech was like hearing a hungry mewing kitten outside my door, and then slowly opening it to see AN ARMY OF HUNGRY, MEWING KITTENS, AS FAR AS THE EYE COULD SEE, innocent supplication amplified to the point of menace.

As an effect, it was of a piece with the piece's message to the audience. The text consisted of two semi-cryptic lines, one accusing (something like, simply "they don't care about us"—dammit, why didn't I take notes? I assumed the exact words would be printed in the program and then of course forgot them long before I got around to sitting around and writing this) and one consoling, after an I guess somewhat Buddhist fashion (something like, "the universe just makes it up as it rolls along"). So, the sort of thing that would seem like hippie cliché if it weren't couched in the work of an intensely original artist. The point is that the lyrics openly preached to, chastised the audience, in the voices of these children, while the children themselves actually seemed to be having a great deal of fun, bopping along with the rhythms and really getting into all of Riley's extended techniques (the singers also, whilst squealing, scratched their nails on the outsides of their choral folders, and later the piece had them affecting a nasal sort of quasi-Oriental tone). The music was challenging, but clear; the chorus was the focus of attention, and the string quartet was playing second fiddle.

Riley had, in other words, flipped around the triangular power-dynamic of composed music: the pleasure of the performers, specifically the choir, was obviously as high a priority—if not higher—than the pleasure of the audience (we were, nevertheless, quite pleased); the audience was not just entertained but confronted by the composer and performers (we were, nevertheless, highly entertained). It was a cute piece, but not just cute, and not condescending to the young performers. Thrilling, actually.

The rest of the program feature Kronos without guests. Now, one of the things that makes the string quartet such an exciting medium is the relatively limited resources of the ensemble. You've got to flesh out each musical idea, and introduce the germ of the next, without wasting a player or leaving anything out, with just four (basically) monophonic instruments. Different composers have responded to this challenge in all different ways—you can meticulously construct the piece to respond to the demands of the form; you can smash through the classical paradigm to create a new kind of string quartet; you can "cheat" and supplement the string quartet with electronic resources (and of course, "electronic resources" run the gamut from taped accompaniment to interactive digital tech).

The Zankel concert demonstrated that, over the course of his partnership with Kronos, Riley has basically done all of these things, and done all of them well. The rest of the concert continued in reverse chronological order, ending with "Good Medicine" from the old Salome Dances for Peace, an airtight movement of interlocking loops (for acoustic string quartet), and starting with, before the intermission, the New York premiere of Transylvanian Horn Courtship (for string quartet alternating between detuned Stroh instruments, and amplified conventional instruments with digital looping). The Stroh instruments for this performance were the product of Kronos's partnership with Walter Kitundu, MacArthur Genius and Kronos luthier-in-residence. The Stroh violin, invented during the era of acoustic recording (wax cylinders and such), before microphones, was designed with a trumpetlike bell coming out of the top, to focus their sound towards the bell of the recording equipment, instead of a having a pair of F-holes carved into the wood. Riley had the instruments tuned down a fifth, for an even more uncanny sound, as if the performance were emanating from some remote place and time.

…Except for the movements where the players switched back to "modern" instruments, and played against live digital loops of themselves. Live looping is a tricky thing, since a pedal-stomp misplaced by one 32nd-note can trainwreck the whole megillah—but it has the advantage of conceptual rigor; all the music you hear has been created live for you, onstage, no "cheating."

The electronic accompaniment to the next piece—The Welcoming Baptism of Sweet Baby Grace—was taped, but also quite focused, consisting entirely of a sampled tamboura, the instrument that usually provides the drone for performances of Indian classical music. Obviously, one reason for Kronos's fruitful relationship with Terry RIley is their mutual fascination with non-Western music, and Kronos' investment in repertoire beyond the Euro-American pays off with a left-hand technique perfectly matched to Riley's Indian influences. I'm tempted to call this piece a sort of meditation or prayer, except wouldn't most of this program fit that description? That Secret eQuation is certainly some kinda sacred work (the combination of young voices and stringed consort accompaniment reminds me of those amazing choral albums Fretwork has been putting' out), and of course Salome Dances for Peace, though radically different in style and composed decades earlier, is another invocation of the same spirit, isn't it?

And then of course, "One Earth One People One Love" from Sun Rings, a piece written as a commission from NASA and originally realized as a huge multimedia spectacular for string quartet with electronics, video projections, and choir (no choir or video tonight). Befitting the cosmic scope of the commission, the electronic accompaniment pulls out all the stops—space sounds and speeches from the NASA library, prerecorded strings, and percussion with dub reggae–style echo delays (suggesting again the influence, on Riley's composition, of non-European music, and possibly also the influence of smoking big old giant splits?). Newish Kronos cellist and new-music sex symbol Jeff Zeigler's solo soared—I forgot how much of this piece is all about him. Gorgeous! His playing, I mean. We need a recording of this, ASAP.

And so after augmenting the string quartet with a choir, a tamboura, custom-made anachronistic instruments, conceptually focused and cinematically expansive electronic accompaniments, we ended up with Salome Dances for Peace, whose "Good Medicine" movement sounds more or less how you'd expect a Terry Riley string quartet to sound—which is actually pretty atypical for any piece by Terry Riley—sort of "minimalist" I guess—and everybody made it look easy. Riley wrote a meaty piece, and Kronos bopped through those elaborate, layered rhythms like they was nothin'.


Their latest album, RAINBOW, is an unusual project for them, starting with the digipak (oh did I say "digipak"? I meant DOUBLE DIGIPAK). The logo says Smithsonian Folkways, not Nonesuch; and the record's subtitle is Music of Central Asia Vol. 8, which tells you right away this is not really an integral part of the Kronos oeuvre, but something else, and indeed! The artists are listed as "Kronos Quartet with Alim & Fargana Qasimov and Homayun Sakhi," but really it's the other way around—Alim & Fargana Qasimov, and Homayun Sakhi, with Kronos Quartet as backup band. Not that they don't play with plenty of personality (dude they're still Kronos how could they not), but they play modestly, letting their guests take the spotlight at every moment.

The title track (a.k.a. Rangin Kaman) by Afghani rebab player (rebabist?) Sakhi, has Kronos accompanying like the orchestra in a concerto, in a long piece that takes the listener on a musical tour to all four corners of Afghanistan; but while world-music enthusiasts will enjoy tasting the rainbow of Afghani musical culture, the disc's greatest pleasure, as far as I'm concerned, is the astounding voice of Azerbaijani singer Alim Qasimov. In this, our post–Peter Gabriel age, I think we've all grown to accept and appreciate the high, pinched sound of great Central Asian vocalists, but Qasimov's instrument—full and ringing even in its topmost registers—is really something else, striking even to big dumb Ugly American ignoramuses such as myself. Again, Kronos's accompaniment is just that (accompaniment) but it fleshes the sound out nicely.

The DVD that comes with Rainbow is not a huge deal. There's also an Interactive Glossary of the instruments played on the recording, so you can see what they look and sound like as well as what they're called, which is brilliant and terrifically useful and educational, and while the documentary about the educational initiative funding these recordings is really sort of a long commercial, it might be worth watching just for the footage of those classes of adorable kids playing their little hearts out on all kinds of different Central Azn instruments. The documentary about the recording of the album is a bit more satisfying, however—not that the interviews are so illuminating or that there's so much performance footage (nay and nay), but the cinematography is quite fine, and it's interesting to see what kind of work actually went into the making of the album. A string quartet that can't improvise and doesn't speak Azerbaijani, working with a singer who can't read music and doesn't speak English? I would ASPHYXIATE FROM SHEER FRUSTRATION, but Qasimov and Kronos, no doubt thanks largely to the highly capable arrangers and translators we see in the film, instead make beautiful music together. If you're at all a fan of music from this region, or if you enjoyed Kronos' recent foray thereinto on their disc Floodplain, you should probably check this one out; if you're looking for a disc of avant-garde string quartet repertoire, well you can keep on looking.

Next post: the NY Phil's latest CONTACT! concert.

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Anonymous A Greg said...

I think the line may have been something like "They never let us have any fun" - which is more characteristically playful...

April 20, 2010 at 8:13 PM  

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