Monday, March 16, 2015

Kronos Quartet, 3.14.15, Shannon Hall, Wisconsin Union Theater

I first encountered Kronos Quartet back in 1993. They had released their CD "Pieces of Africa," a collection of compositions by African composers, the previous year. I believe I was listening to a radio program on Utah Public Radio while doing a stint as "security" (cough, cough) for BYU when I heard one of these pieces. I don't remember the exact place or moment, but I do remember being blown away that a string quartet would tackle such an odd, beautiful (and, I admit, the word "exotic" came to mind) set of compositions. This was in the days when the internet (TM) was barely a fertilized fetus, so information on the group was hard to come by. Thankfully, I found the album at the BYU bookstore. I bought the cassette (yes, there were still cassette players then) and listened to the whole thing. It was, musically speaking, a life changer.

As a teenager, I had widely-varying tastes. Punk, new wave, classical, heavy metal, celtic, funk, just about anything but rap and country. But my classical exposure was limited to the standards: Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. Dvorak was about as wild and exotic that I had gotten. Or maybe Holst. I loved "The Planets" suite (and still do). So I had been exposed to a fair breadth of music as I was growing up.

But I had never heard anything quite like this.

It was classical music, a quartet, no less, two violins, a viola, and a cello. But it was so metal, so punk. But . . . not. It was unique, and I had a visceral reaction to it. Unfortunately, their music was hard to come by back then, or I just didn't really know where to look for it. Fast forward to 1997, when I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I remember one day spending several hours in the graduate school library - actually, I remember many days like that - and finding myself in the music listening library (I probably should have been studying something else). There, lo and behold, was a new album that I didn't know was coming out, with the deceptively benign title "Early Music". I listened to it, and, at that point, I can say I was legitimately hooked to Kronos Quartet. I had developed a taste for medieval and baroque music in the meantime, and this album hit that sweet spot, as well as expanding my tastes a bit to such composers as John Cage, Henry Purcell, and Arvo Part. I had listened to a piece or two by Cage and Purcell as an undergraduate Humanities major, but had never heard Part before. So I sought out more of his music and encountered some other names, along the way: Schnittke, Ligetti, Gorecki, and others. I had listened to and loved Penderecki's "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima" as an undergrad, but it was through Kronos that the world of modern minimalism and atonal music really opened up for me. I started digging into their backlist, and tracking their new releases, occasionally buying a CD: "Salome Dances for Peace," "Black Angels," "Requiem for Adam"; and listening to others from the library. I saw that Kronos toured fairly frequently, but being a poor graduate student, then a poor post-MA worker (in the "real" world, outside of academia), my finances never seemed to match the calendar.

Now that I'm a little more well-established, I've been looking for an opportunity to see them in concert, and this past Saturday was the first time when schedules and finances converged so I could do so. And I don't want to sound like an ungrateful slob - Hank Dutt, the viola player for Kronos, came to Madison a few years back and performed a free concert that my daughter (then a viola student) and I attended. It was spectacular. If anyone has access to the recordings of that performance . . . I'm willing to pay . . .

So imagine the anticipation this past week as my wife and I had decided to go to the concert. I had seen some (most of them illegally recorded) live performances on youtube, but watching a performance on youtube and seeing a live performance in the flesh is just not the same thing. I went with high expectations.

And they were met!

The set was spartan: four chairs and easels on a bare stage. A black curtain hung behind them, lit from underneath by colored lights, with the occasional design sprayed up onto the curtain - abstract, nothing too representational, nothing symbolic. The focus was on the music, not the visuals.

The first piece was "Good Medicine" from Salome Dances for Peace, composed by Terry Riley. This is the trademark sort of Kronos piece, full of odd measures, frequently changing time signatures, atonality, and virtuoso playing on all four instruments. The title belies the dark tenor of the music, something that I truly like about their work. This is an angular piece, but philosophical in an existential way.

Next was Laurie Anderson's "Flow". This was my wife's favorite piece of the night, and one of the most enjoyable for me, as well. An ethereal, beautiful piece that, well, flowed from the various instruments like some kind of musical nectar. It was soothing, but not narcotic, a piece that simultaneously comforted the soul and grabbed your mind's attention by the shirt collar.

Komitas' "Groung" and Vladimir Martynov's "The Beatitudes" followed. Both wonderful pieces that led to one of the most exceptional pieces of the night, Mary Kouyoumdjian's "Bombs of Beirut".

"Bombs" began with narratives by people who had lived through Lebanon's civil war, some of them waxing nostalgic about what Beirut was before the war, others recounting events during the war, and yet others bemoaning the loss of the city's soul after the war. These narratives continued throughout the piece, with the composition ranging from bizarre atonality to a beautiful Lebanese dance piece, and then descending into stark screeches and howls that portrayed the hell-on-earth that was Lebanon during the civil war. The piece ended with a recording of actual bombings within the city that crescendoed so loudly that I had to wonder if people outside of the theater didn't think that an act of terror was occurring between the walls. The theater went dark, and silence took over. It took a while for the audience to realize that the piece was actually over - shell shock had taken hold of us, if only temporarily.

After an intermission, things lightened up significantly. "Elvis Everywhere," a whimsical piece played over the voices of several Elvis impersonators, opened the second half. "Last Kind Words," composed by Geeshie Wiley, was next. This was originally written as a piece that was used to sell cabinet record players built in Wisconsin (!) back in the 1930s. Of course, Kronos wouldn't be Kronos if they didn't do something that shattered genre conventions, so they played their arrangement of Jelly Roll Morton's "Dead Man Blues". Charles Mingus beautiful and profound "Children's Hour of Dream" was next, with Dan Becker's "Carrying the Past," a piece inspired by the composer's finding a 78 rpm recording of his grandfather's band that had been discovered by the family.

That was supposed to be the end of the concert, but after the house-shaking applause, they played not one, not two, not three, but four encores. I honestly don't recall what they all were, though one was "A Thousand Thoughts" and one was, I believe, from "Pieces of Africa," that recording that first drew me in to the Kronos Quartet's music.

I've not done the evening justice. If I were to try to really explain the emotional and intellectual depth of the music, I would never finish my next novel. Words really cannot relate the beauty of the music. You need to go listen to it yourself, so do what you must to hear the Kronos Quartet live. In lieu of that, give a listen to their recordings, but prepare for a long journey!

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