The Moore Theater
April 29, 2006
Kronos Quartet needs little introduction to classical, alternative-classical, world music or rock music audiences. The quartet; violinist David Harrington, violinist John Sherba, viola player, Hank Dutt and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler run the gamut from atonal experimentation that borders on performance art to more lyrical work such as their collaboration with Argentine Tango Master, Astor Piazzolla. The quartet’s musical range includes works by Bartok, Webern, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk to the Pakistani vocal master, Pandit Pran Nath. Various “world music” recordings by such as diverse
artists as Piazzolla, Malian diva Rokia Traore and Bollywood playback diva, Asha
Bhosle bear the quartet’s idiosyncratic signature.
Kronos Quartet‘s performance at the Moore Theater included a repertoire of abstract, multi-ethnic and even a rock composition by the Icelandic group, Sigur Ròs. While the nearly packed house seem to revel in the quartet’s performance, I found it lacking in heartfelt passion and even when the musicians launched into Icelandic rock, the musicians played with the restraint often found with classical players. When the group performed a somewhat mesmerizing Indian classical alap from Ram Narayan’s composition, Raga Mishra Bhairavi, the soloist, viola player, Hank Dutt possessed restraint and as a friend mentioned, transposed an Eastern music tradition to conform to Western classical sensibility. (Granted, Hindustani musicians study under masters for many years before they perform traditional ragas so I do give a Western musician credit for honoring another tradition and sharing it with a Western audience).
Anyone who listens to classical Indian music will find that it is music that connects the intellect to the heart. Classical Indian musicians play with wild abandonment despite the rigorous workout their brain endures during the course of performing a raga. The string players, (Kronos Quartet), did perform with wild abandonment during the second half of Azerbaijani composer Rahman Asadollahi‘s composition, Mugam Beyati Shiraz, but that was only after we had to sit through a long violin solo and another long garmon (a smaller version of the European accordion) solo. But even so, it was a pleasure to watch the cellist, Jeffrey Zeigler come alive. Up to that point, his main role seemed to be either
providing bass or drone to the overall compositions. I would have loved to have heard a cello solo or a composition in which the cello was highlighted during the course of the concert.
On the first two performances, J. G. Thirlwell’s Nomatophobis, (the fear of naming things), and Canadian composer Derek Clarke’s Cercle du Nord III, (a composition that could have rattled through the late Canadian virtuoso Glenn Gould’s Arctic dreams), felt more like performance art than alternative classical or whatever title we would give to the evening’s repertoire. The first piece which felt like being trapped in a beehive actually had some lyrical moments that bordered on sheer beauty. But the second composition, with its samples of a deadpan monologue of a young woman and wailing dogs, conjured up
images of Inuits on a bad acid trip being attacked by sled dogs or radio talk shows. It too had its lucid moments, but I didn’t feel the need to leap out of my seat like other members of the audience yelling, “bravo!”
If the point was to cause us to feel as if we were trapped in an Arctic storm, then the musicians proved successful and that would be an amazing fete to carry off. Yet, I am more like to equate that experience with performance art than with music.
The lighting design resembled stalagmites suspended in a black hole when the quartet switched gears and introduced a Western version of an Indian raga to a Western audience. Violins were replaced by a small harmonium and Tanpura, the viola was transformed into a Hindustani sarangi and the cello transformed into bass. A mesmerizing piece resulted from the experiment and the audience members, some of which may never have encountered authentic Indian classical music were treated to a taste of Indian music. This was followed by a taste of Iraqi folk music and then the first set ended with Glenn Branca’s Light Field, a composition which was not pleasing to my senses, but again, that might have been the point. After all art is subjective.
The second set which featured a composition by the Icelandic group Sigur Ròs and
the featured guests, Rahman Asadollahi, a garmon virtuoso and Henrick Avoyan on
a drum called nagara eclipsed the first half of the concert. The ethnicity the quartet was trying to convey in the first half of the concert with the introduction of the Indian raga and the Iraqi folk song, finally gelled when Central Asia met American alternative-classical music. Finally, the musicians moved past the restraint expected from classical players, but not necessarily from the musicians in Kronos Quartet and they played more like jazz players on musical fire. This was followed by an encore which featured a pastoral
composition by the Swedish group, Triakel. And then the concert ended with a long virtuoso garmon and drum duet, which the audience relished.
Certainly, the Kronos Quartet have shook up the music world with their inventiveness and pioneering spirit. The musicians have been invited to work with exceptional musicians from a variety of musical genres and commissioned work from groundbreaking composers and some composers that only fancy themselves as pioneers in this world of what I call alternative-classical. But what we often forget when diving into abstract, minimalist and atonal music is that tonal composers broke new grounds too. Numerous classical musicians throughout the centuries wore personalities of today’s rock stars, provided plenty of shock value during their reign and composed some of the most beautiful melodies still existing on this planet.
One doesn’t need to reject the past in order to embrace the future. The problem isn’t with tonal compositions, but with modern interpretations of historic music. Life just wasn’t as prosaic back then as we would wish to think and sterilizing music over time only turns off new generations from enjoying the powerful music of their ancestors. In other words, classical music and all the musical eras lumped in with classical music does have the potential to appeal to audiences beyond high brow intellectuals and elitists.
In my humble opinion, the only thing that matters with music to me, is that the mind connects with the heart. It doesn’t matter how many notes are played, in what order or how fast. It doesn’t matter if you know the biographies of the composers or even what they were trying to convey in their music. And some classical musicians such as
Kronos Quartet do think outside of the box and they do embrace other musical worlds even if the experiments fall flat at times. The work the musicians did with Astor Piazzolla and Rokia Traore certainly possesses enough beauty to stop us in our tracks and encourage us to listen to the quartet.
Kronos Quartet has a heart, but the quartet’s Seattle performance felt too cerebral and detached. Rock attitudes have their place and passion can be infused to any genre of music without anyone lighting their guitars on fire or wearing themselves thin trying to present every genre of music in their repertoire. While this might excite some music fans, we lose sight of why music was created in the first place, to heal us, to calm us, to excite us and to provoke us to discover real peace. Let us never mistake a theatrical music
performance with the power of music. But let us also applaud those musicians that break new ground, even if we don’t always wish to take the journey with them.
Patricia Herlevi is a former music journalist turned music researcher. She is especially interested in raising music consciousness. She is looking for an agent and publisher for her book Whole Music (Soul Food for the Mind Body Spirit). She founded and hosts the blog
The Whole Music Experience and has contributed to World Music Central since 2003.