Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Happy Birthday, Kronos Quartet!

I've gone on about them elsewhere but they deserve a post all to themselves, especially on their 40th birthday. Despite being someone who is not particularly knowledgeable or even uniformly appreciative of (western) classical music, I'm still strangely fond of Kronos Quartet. I think this has a lot to do with their very varied repertoire and collaborations with musicians from every imaginable genre and country pretty much.

I originally wrote a couple of paragraphs listing all the different works they've performed and tried to link one of each kind, but that's a hopelessly colossal task. So I'm going to content myself with writing about their live performance today to celebrate their fortieth - Kronos at 40 at the Greenespace in NY. As it happens, their set was well chosen to showcase their versatility, so it will serve my original aim perfectly.

The first piece they performed was written by Nicole Lizée specifically for Kronos Quartet. Death to Kosmische was actually more like a celebration of Kosmische Musik. Or maybe it was named thus in the sense that people say "they killed it". Yeah, that must be it, because Kronos did just that. The facility with which they switched back and forth between their regular string instruments and some really fantastic looking instruments was a joy to behold. But the greater joy was in listening to the brilliant sounds they created with all of these. I really really need to look up the composer to whom an equal share of praise is definitely due. When the piece ended, I couldn't help breaking out into rapturous applause even though I was sitting at home watching the video stream and knew they couldn't hear me. Sometimes (or is it most times?) applause isn't about showing appreciation so much as an involuntary response to a moving experience. Much like tears - which almost fell by the end of today's performance. But more on that in due course.

After that impossible to top opening piece, they played an arrangement of an old blues song by Geeshie Wiley called Last Kind Words. While this was really good, it didn't quite measure up Death to Kosmische for me. Admittedly, part of the reason for this is that Krautrock/Kosmische Musik is a top favourite genre of mine. But I think more critically this piece suffered from the lack of vocals. What's a blues song without the singing, eh? I can imagine how good this song would be with the right vocals and lyrics (the host recited a few of the latter and they were quite promising), and I mean to look up the original soon.

The third piece was also one that wasn't written specifically for Kronos, but they nailed this one. It was a special arrangement of a Cuban song - Margarita Lecuona's Tabú. I loved it. Hank Dutt was bang on in his introduction when he called it a very sexy, seductive song that it would be hard not to move to.

The final work was specially commissioned by Kronos Quartet as part of their Under 30 Project. In her introduction, the composer Mary Kouyoumdjian said that her piece was influenced by Steve Reich's Different Trains - one of my very favourite compositions ever. Unfortunately, I missed the first minute or so of Bombs of Beirut thanks to a bit of a snag in the live stream and/or my wireless network. When the video came back, my brain immediately recognized the Reich influence, but it took me some time to truly get into the piece and feel it. By the time the part where Kronos's playing and the voices narrating faded away to be replaced by the sound of the bombings (actual field recordings from the Lebanese civil war) came on though, everything except the music and the atmosphere it created had faded away as well. The last movement/section was extremely moving and I simply had to close my eyes and listen with all my being. When the piece ended, it left me in a completely different place from when I began listening to it. This time there was no bursting into applause. Just a sense of awe and also of emptiness.

After giving myself some time to recover, my first impulse was to seek out another song which was brought to my mind by this one. Very different in style, but very similar in theme - Vidai Kodu Engal Naade from Kannathil Muthamittaal. It was hard not to feel a deep sense of frustration and almost hopelessness after listening to this song right after the other one. Hard to keep back the thoughts about how stupid and pointless war is and why on earth stupid humans keep fighting each other time after time, all over the goddamned world. But no, I won't go there again. I'll leave you instead with these videos from today's performance (skip to 11:30 in the first video if you want to get right to the show):

My heartfelt thanks once again to Kronos Quartet, The Greene Space, Q2 music, and every single other person behind this amazing show and its live webcast!

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