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17 June 2009

Classic Kronos

Melbourne // VIC // 06.06.2009

The Kronos Quartet Image: The Kronos Quartet  

As part of the Melbourne Recital Centre’s second series, the Kronos Quartet presented works mainly from their most recent release Floodplain, and two works by Australian composers J. G. Thirlwell and Jon Rose.

It is not really appropriate to critique the work of this group using the same tools as one would normally apply to a string quartet. Employing strong visual and theatrical elements, a Kronos concert is not so much a recital, as a spectacular multimedia event. As such, it straddles the fence between the classical art music tradition and the worlds of popular and world music, albeit sometimes with uncomfortable results. The intimacy and purity of sound normally associated with the medium is definitely compromised by the use of strong amplification, and it must be said that much of the repertoire presented on this occasion, though novel, did not measure up in terms of substance.

Additionally, the use of amplification brought its own problems. The volume was often too loud, whilst the mix was bass-heavy. Harrington’s first violin in particular was often overshadowed, and the high volume level meant that the fine tuning of balance and layering that is characteristic of the best chamber ensembles was largely absent.

J. G. Thirlwell left Melbourne for New York in the late 1970s, where he has developed a multifaceted career encompassing diverse areas such as experimental rock music, electronica, big band and sound sculpture. A relatively traditional work, Nomatophobis (2005) begins with a bang, and slowly winds down over its three short movements. The music has a real cinematic bent, evoking an atmosphere of Hitchcockian suspense. Driven by frantically minimalistic arpeggios, the melodic material in itself is unremarkable, with the work seeming to tread water between ideas. The concluding elegiac cello solo gave Jeffrey Zeigler the first solo feature of the night.

The following short pieces were gleaned from the quartet’s latest commercial release and comprised arrangements from some of the less familiar Middle-Eastern musical cultures. Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me is an example of Iraqi choubi dating from the mid 1980s, Lullaby comes from Iran’s minority black community, and Tashweesh is by the modern Palestinian collective Ramallah Underground. With its distorted samples and interesting soundscape, this was the most effective of these arrangements, all of which were driven by infectiously seductive rhythms.

Herein lies one of the aesthetic problems of this venture. The refinement and traditional perception of the string quartet sound does not sit easily with this kind of collaboration. The quartet instruments were dominated by the more exotic sounds coming from the speakers, and the focus shifted so that it seemed the group was in the curious position of accompanying a tape. The string writing itself was the least interesting aspect of these pieces, usually running to little more than the melody being shared or doubled, and the heavily amplified cello fulfilling a bass role. In their heavy reliance on beat, there was also a sense of sameness about these offerings. There is a danger that this smorgasbord approach of sampling and combining lessens the appreciation of the differences of the individual musical cultures presented. In breaking through these fences, Kronos seems to have enclosed themselves in a small paddock.

This sameness of feel continued into the next piece, Scatter (2008), by the Swedish duo Hurdy-Gurdy. This work is reminiscent of postmodern folk, with its modality and pan-Middle Eastern rhythms, but rose to another level with the gorgeous and totally unexpected, ethereal middle section.

The final work in the first half proved to be the most interesting. …hold me, neighbour, in this storm… (2007) by Aleksandra Vrebalov is a musical melting pot combining the bells of Serbian orthodox monasteries, Islamic calls to prayer and Balkan tavern songs. Beginning with Harrington’s plaintive gusle solo (a small, vertically held, bowed instrument resembling the Greek lyra), the work quickly built up a rhythmic head of steam. Violent, isolated chords punctuated silences in a dramatic central section, before whirling off into a rough dance. The piece was accompanied by recorded sounds that included church bells and the composer’s grandmother’s voice, and a subtly changing light display, played on the textured walls of the theatre behind the group. In this instance, the quartet’s attempt to extend the confines of the medium was most successful. 

The second half began with another more traditionally cast work, Hanna Kulenty’s String Quartet No 4 (A Cradle Song) (2007). A sense of hopelessness was effectively generated by a sombre melody that drooped sorrowfully at phrase ends.

Music from 4 Fences by Jon Rose provided both the apex and the philosophical grounding of the performance. To quote violinist, founder and artistic director David Harrington from the program notes, Kronos 'attempts to make statements about our world', and Rose’s installation gives them the opportunity to do just that. Rose has been playing concerts on fences since 1983, usually in situ or in public space installations. For Kronos, he has constructed each member a large, moveable rack, strung with lengths of heavily amplified industrial-strength wire and barbed wire, which are bowed, scraped, plucked, caressed and bashed to produce all manner of strikingly evocative sounds.

The work itself seemed to be semi-improvised, with signposts which enabled the group to shift texture and gave the piece some structural girders to hang the ideas on. Images of the performers were projected onto the walls surrounding the stage. After a mostly abstract build-up, where the performers positioned the fences in a line across the stage that divided them from the audience, the piece built through a simple, repetitive rhythm up to an extremely loud and percussive climax. By this time, the fences had been moved again so as to totally imprison the quartet.

In some ways, this piece exemplifies the musical dilemmas that Kronos seeks to address in attempting to bring the string quartet to new audiences. They are rhythmically very convincing, and have spent a long time learning to work with live electronics. They have also managed to inject some folk vitality into their playing by roughening up their individual tones on occasion. Whilst there is no faulting the musicianship or technique the group displays, the use of amplification often detracts from the natural beauty of the string sound, and the overuse of rhythmic backing tracks made the group sound slightly mechanical at times, distancing it from the audience. In opening up new fields for classical music, Kronos has had to reposition itself inside a musical cage of its own construction, which sacrifices some of the subtlety, intimacy and empathy which characterises good chamber music. The concert concluded with a short encore – Kronos played a fuzzy arrangement of a song by Icelandic group Sigur Ros, through a haze of reverberation, significantly positioned behind Rose’s fence.  

Event Details

Classic Kronos
The Kronos Quartet (David Harrington – violin, John Sherba – violin, Hank Dutt – viola, Jeffrey Zeiger – cello)
Music by  J. G. Thirlwell, Aleksandra Vrebalov, Hurdy-Gurdy, Ramullah Underground, Hanna Kulenty and Jon Rose. Also arrangements by Ljova, Jacob Garchick and Kronos. 
Laurence Neff – lighting design
Scott Fraser – sound design
Calvin Ll. Jones – technical associate
Saturday 6 June  2009
Elizabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne, Vic 

Further links

Jon Rose - AMC Represented Artist page
The Jon Rose Web - Music from 4 fences
Kronos Quartet (www.kronosquartet.org/)
J. G. Thirlwell (www.foetus.org/)
Jon Rose in pursuit of music with socio-political intent - a blog article on Resonate


Subjects discussed by this article:

Mark Viggiani is a Melbourne-based composer. His recent works include pieces for the Melbourne and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras, The Song Company and Speak Percussion. In 1997 Move Records released The Rainmaker, a CD of original compositions, to international critical acclaim. In 2009 Viggiani was awarded an Australian Postgraduate Award towards a PhD in composition, following studies with Stuart Greenbaum and Elliott Gyger at Melbourne University.


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