by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, April 10, 2006.
The Kronos Quartet, which is in the middle of a six-concert series at Carnegie Hall, has enacted two revolutions in its more than three-decade life, one of style and one of substance. Back in the nineteen-eighties, the members of Kronos—the violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, the violist Hank Dutt, and the cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, whose place is now occupied by Jeffrey Zeigler—startled audiences by coming onstage in modish fashions, in a look that suggested a genteel art-rock band. They also lowered the lights, projected images behind them, and generally attempted to bring a little atmosphere to whichever hall they had booked for the night. Self-appointed guardians of the classical grail (I was one at the time) dismissed them as purveyors of kitsch. But Kronos wasn’t putting on a show; they were choosing to be their funky San Francisco selves, rather than checking their personalities at the door. Now others have come around to their way of thinking. Vibrant younger quartets like the St. Lawrence, the Pacifica, the Flux, and Ethel make music in whatever style they see fit, dispelling the aura of aristocratic make-believe that surrounds classical music. The new-music ensemble Alarm Will Sound has developed a casually dynamic style that is like Kronos gone orchestral.
Second, Kronos proved that the string quartet, long the most self-consciously “classical” of classical ensembles, could become a kind of all-terrain vehicle in contemporary culture. Early on, they made a near-total commitment to living composers, and also explored jazz, rock, and folk music. Various quartets have specialized in new music—the Arditti Quartet, too, has played hundreds of premières—but Kronos is notable for its global vision. Refusing to limit themselves to classical genres and established new-music circles, they have worked with composers and musicians from dozens of countries, from Argentina to Zimbabwe. As a result, they helped to bring into being the thriving marketplace for what is known as “world music.” The phrase is subject to constant intellectual debate, but in Kronos’s case it signifies a simple recognition that classical music is no longer an exclusively European-American enterprise, and that the role of the composer is undergoing an unpredictable evolution. At one of their Carnegie concerts, Kronos brought in the Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq, who has collaborated with them to create a work called “Nunavut,” in which each member of the quartet improvises on Tagaq’s low moans and piercing cries. There was no “composer” as such, but the experience was raucously unlike anything I’d ever heard.
Anyone who likes Kronos has probably been exasperated with them at one time or another. Their recordings for the Nonesuch label are as inconsistent as Bob Dylan’s post-1966 catalogue, though equally worth sifting through. When they venture too far afield, as in their politely grungy cover of Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” they look foolish; and some of their globalist ventures, such as the 1992 compilation “Pieces of Africa,” are pale echoes of the real thing, world music with training wheels. Still, they are never insincere in their enthusiasms, and when there is a meeting of minds—as happened when Steve Reich created for them his multimedia masterpiece “Different Trains,” or when Morton Feldman gave them a six-hour-long quartet—masterpieces join the canon. The best thing about Kronos is their unflagging curiosity about the world. Their failures are as riveting as others’ successes, and their successes have widened the world of sound.
Kronos’s first three programs at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall offered the usual thrills and spills. The first concert was a long, grim, but absorbing affair, addressing themes such as the Holocaust, September 11th, and eternal Slavic despair. Alexandra Du Bois’s “Night Songs,” a piece inspired by the concentration-camp testimony of the Dutch writer Etty Hillesum, is driven by strong feeling and by darkly pulsing, Janáček-like melodies, but it fails to find a clear form for its ideas. Michael Gordon’s “The Sad Park” is based on recordings of the testimony of children who witnessed the destruction of the World Trade Center: eerily slowed-down, unearthly voices are blended into a soundscape of buzzing, sliding, harshly chanting strings. The 9/11 memorial has fast become a compositional cliché, but this one, raw and ritualistic, felt necessary. After intermission came Henryk Górecki’s Third Quartet, which the composer finished in 1995 but did not release until last year, perhaps because he was unnerved by the freak success of his Third Symphony. Fifty minutes long, it is slow, static, forlornly meditative, frustratingly narrow in compass, and, for several long stretches, totally mesmerizing. Kronos played with awesome intensity throughout.
Exasperation arrived the next night, in the form of a program titled “Alternative Radio: Music in a Time of War.” The left-wing historian Howard Zinn was interviewed by the equally left-wing Colorado radio host David Barsamian, and Kronos played interludes. Although I consider myself left of center, after an hour of Popular Front nostalgia, dark talk about the powers that be, and fulsome praise for the anti-Zionist play “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” I couldn’t help wishing that Condoleezza Rice had been booked for the second half, to read policy papers on Iraq and play Brahms at the piano. My favorite moment came after Zinn said that free speech was being curtailed in America: a man in the balcony yelled “Amen!” and a woman near him yelled “Quiet!” The music came from the innocuous, folkish-wistful corner of the Kronos repertory. Tanya Tagaq’s performance, at the end, was joyously irrelevant to the preceding mutual-admiration society.
The weekend concluded with a superb program devoted to Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, a composer from Azerbaijan, and Rahman Asadollahi, an Iranian musician of Azeri descent. Ali-Zadeh is a quietly substantial voice in modern music, and Kronos has been promoting her for more than a decade. (Another major advocate is Joel Sachs, of Juilliard, who programmed her piano quintet “Khazar” at the Focus! Festival, at Juilliard, in February.) In rigorous and balanced forms, Ali-Zadeh fuses traditional Azerbaijani music—in particular, the intricate improvisations of mugam—with twentieth-century techniques, such as the avant-garde colorings of George Crumb and the instrumental deconstructions of John Cage. She alternates between reflective-static and muscular, driving moods, manipulating the tonal nuances of mugam’s scales and melodic types. Kronos performed “Mugam Sayagi” and “Apsheron Quintet.” The composer joined them on piano in the latter piece, and also played “Music for Piano,” for which, inspired by Cage’s prepared-piano pieces, she placed a necklace on the middle strings of the piano, making it sound lutelike. This music can be heard on Kronos’s recent disk “Mugam Sayagi,” which is a gorgeous object and one of the best things the quartet has done.
After intermission, Asadollahi, who is in exile from the regime in Iran, came on with his garmon, a type of accordion, to present “Mugam Beyati Shiraz” and “Garmon Yanar Odlaryurduna.” His solo in the last piece was a thing of gasping beauty, and the rave-up that followed had a properly explosive impact on the audience. Kronos, playing transcriptions by Lev Zhurbin, achieved the feat of disappearing into Asadollahi’s world. In so doing, they said all that needed to be said about the constructive power of a pluralist, rather than a fundamentalist, view of the world.