Chamber Music Review Print

Kronos Quartet at Duke University: 9/11, & Thelonious Monk

September 15, 2007 - Durham, NC:

As their name implies, the Kronos String Quartet is enduring, immune to changing fashion and for 34 years has consistently left indelible musical footprints. They were there before so-called “world music” became a billion dollar industry and they were groundbreakers with respect to collaboration with film and theater productions. They are audacious risk-takers and that naturally translates into offending some listeners some of the time. During the past weekend at Duke University, there was a bit of that as local audiences had a rare opportunity to hear Kronos play two entirely different programs in consecutive evenings.

Both concerts were under the large umbrella of Duke Performances with the first taking place at Page Auditorium as part of their “Premier Performers” series. This program was officially subtitled “Awakening: A Musical Meditation on the Anniversary of 9/11.” Although music played an important part in this country’s mourning of the tragedy (most notably Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”), musical and theatrical representations of the attack still skate on thin ice. Is it still too soon? Can music or theater really even approach the magnitude of this event? Is it practically blasphemous to even try? Each person must answer this for themselves.

Even by Kronos Quartet standards, the setup on the stage of Page Auditorium was disturbingly sinister and disjointed. Their elaborate central setup for instruments, chairs, stands and controls was the focal point, but surrounding that was a mixture of hanging hubcaps, steel bars, metal drums, and an assortment of detritus. David Harrington and John Sherba, violins, along with Hank Dutt, viola, and Jeffrey Zeigler, cello, emerged and the three shoulder-launched players stood in the shadows of the stage and played while the rooted cellist had to take his seat. After just a few minutes the upright three joined Zeigler in their seats and we were off on a long, strange journey. In the space allotted by editorial decree it is nearly impossible to even mention every work played, let alone describe or critically evaluate each. The programs were abundantly rich 14 page booklets, one of the most authoritative and complete that I have ever seen.

Much of the first third of the evening was taken up with traditional adhans (Muslim calls to prayer) from Turkey, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. The members of Kronos have an astounding ability to make their Western instruments sound like ancient cultures (with the help of Brian Mohr, their remarkable sound engineer) without sounding like the equivalent of the proverbial American tourist in hideous shorts in a European church. Much of this was new to this Yankee and I found these sorts of compositions to be the most fascinating, musically satisfying and emotionally resonating. It is when we get to the explicit “9/11” portion of the program that there are real problems – musically, theatrically, and conceptually.

"The Sad Park" was written by Michael Gordon in 2005 and, among other things, it uses eyewitness account recordings of children ages 3 and 4 whose school was merely blocks away from the World Trade Center. The run-of-the-mill tape loops and breakdown of these young voices, especially combined with pedestrian, perpetually-repeated musical clichés, was tiresome and pretentious. Add to this the bizarre specter of cellist Zeigler donning safety goggles, getting up and displaying his skills with power tools while sparks fly all over, and you have definitely entered a “what the f***?” moment. Violinist Harrington also demonstrated his prowess in an acoustic manner, with hammers smashing against garbage cans and metal pipes. Should we be branded as hopelessly provincial if we don’t “get” the profound messages behind these acts? I think not. Plus, the ending attempt to sonically depict the planes’ impact on the towers was limp and unconvincing. If you want a masterpiece of the horrors of mass destruction played by strings (sans electronic effects) listen to Krzysztof Penderecki’s "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima."

The last part of the program consisted of a mix of folk-inspired pieces from Ireland, Russia, and Finland. We cannot deny our Western-ness and this return to familiar modes and harmonies was, well, like coming home. Adding to the “relief” from unfamiliar music and uncomfortable topics was the inclusion on stage of the Durham Children’s Choir, directed by Scott Hill, for the penultimate selection.

In the end, despite the undeniable well-meaning intentions of the Kronos Quartet in this project and the remarkable performances, as an evening of music, theater, and message, this simply collapsed under the weight of its own pomposity.

September 15, 2007, Durham, NC: There are rare moments when you are in the midst of an experience and you are realizing at that moment that this is very special and you do everything to ingrain every moment into your brain. For musical experiences, very few, if any, have come close to the effect that the second concert of the weekend by the Kronos Quartet had on me. Barely 22 hours after the previous night’s somber performance, Kronos took us on a marathon 2½ hour joyride through many of their old favorites, several arrangements of a jazz classic, sparkling examples of great contemporary composers, and a final selection that – I give up, you really had to be there!

As if this wasn’t good enough in its own right, this concert served as the kickoff of the unprecedented 6 week, 18 event Following Monk festival. This is a series, presented by Duke Performances, of concerts of all kinds, talks and theater celebrating the 90th anniversary of the birth of Thelonious Monk, jazz legend who was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. This is a wildly ambitious project that will continue through October 28th and incorporates a multitude of venues and artists. For a complete listing of all events, go here [inactive 8/08].

There are absolutely no musical borders in a Kronos Quartet concert. Where else can you go from the punk band Television to Terry Riley to Charles Mingus to Anton Webern to Jimi Hendrix in one evening, and not for one moment feel that one note is inappropriate or out of place? While, like the previous evening, there was some theatrical effects, these were done playfully, often tongue-in-cheek and with humor.

Without doubt, Thelonious Monk’s greatest combination is the endlessly complex, hauntingly beautiful "‘Round Midnight." For this concert, three separate arrangements of this classic was commissioned for the Kronos Quartet by Duke Performances and the Center for Documentary Studies. There is such a wealth of harmonic and melodic possibilities contained in this brief song that it could easily serve as the basis of a large-scale symphonic work. The only negative remark of the entire concert goes to this first arrangement by Randall Woolf and it’s not even against his skill as an arranger. The loud, obnoxious, incessant hip-hop background to what was otherwise an effective arrangement can only be compared to pouring ketchup on the finest filet mignon. The other two arrangements, disbursed throughout the concert, were by Jason Yarde and Jacob Garchik. These were individualized gems that displayed their talents while still retaining the beauty of the original. Monk was also represented by another well-known composition named "Brilliant Corners." This is a rapid fire bebop tune played almost entirely in unrelentingly pinpoint tight rhythmic unison by Kronos.

Other highlights included several very interesting works that accompanied the poems and actual voices of Allen Ginsberg and I.F. Stone. Jazzwise, they did not confine themselves to Monk, as they delved into the lovely "Myself When I Am Real" by Charles Mingus and even a trip to Saturn courtesy of Sun Ra (who famously claimed to be from the ringed planet). You will not find Kronos improvising as jazz musicians do, like the Turtle Island String Quartet does, but that by no means diminishes their effectiveness.

When the second half began, it was with the addition onstage of a bass guitar and amp, a banjo, a drum set and an acoustic guitar. On everyone’s mind was the thought of what was going on with that – but that was saved for the final acid trip. In the meantime, part B included I guess what can be called the only “legit” piece of both nights – if that would mean what a “regular” string quartet might play. Anton Webern’s Six Bagatelles are exemplars of 12-tone purity and conciseness with some movements barely lasting 50 seconds. They were played with great precision and seriousness and received with equal conviction and appreciation as all the other selections.

I first heard the name Stephen Prutsman at this year’s Spoleto Festival, and while demonstrating his skill as a pianist, chamber musician and composer, nothing prepared me for "Particle 423" which was the final scheduled piece. Those who remember "Revolution No. 9" from The Beatles’ White Album will know that is where this piece begins. It is simply a mind-bending musical collage of snippets, famous melodies buried in noise, and we finally get to see and hear the members of Kronos play the above mentioned non-bowed instruments assembled onstage – quite badly I must say!

It was not profound, it did not “mean” anything, it was about as far from the previous night’s “message” as you can get – it was just a helluva lot of fun. This was one awesome party and no one wanted it to end.

Kronos came back and David Harrington uttered the first words of nearly 4 hours of playing to announce not one, but three encores. An ethereal piece by an Icelandic string band started it off but the evening ended literally with “rockets red glare.” This performance of "The Star Spangled Banner," while based on Jimi Hendrix’s famous performance at Woodstock, made the guitar icon’s version sound as tame as Lawrence Welk. All that was missing was rain, mud, a certain plant, and being 17.