Sept. 17, 2019
Wortham Center for the Performing Arts
Review by Don Howland
I had the chance to thank David Harrington, the Kronos Quartet’s first violinist and figurehead (the one with glasses), after the KQ’s performance at the Diana Wortham Theatre, and while it was as awkward as most of my Asperger-tinged interactions with strangers whom I hold in highest esteem, it was something I needed to do and so, dutifully, did.
I mention, in my written reviews and on my Sunday evening radio show on 103.3 Asheville FM, that I only started listening to classical music deeply about four years ago (and exclusively about a year after that), when I was granted a time slot on Asheville FM’s schedule. I bring this up again here for two reasons. One is to point out to the classical-curious – you, perhaps – that modern classical music can be enjoyed – loved – without a formal musical education (technical or historical), and the Kronos Quartet is a helpful guide to the Modern era. The other, more specific, reason is that the Kronos Quartet’s 2-CD presentation of Alfred Schnittke’s four string quartets on Nonesuch, which I found in a cardboard box of CDs donated to the station back in ’15, was a genuine turning point in my life. I’d known the Kronos name for years, but I was utterly unaware of Schnittke. It was the Kronos name, then, that made Schnittke first on the playlist when I got home (I’d culled 40 or so CDs from the box); in turn, it was that set, within the first listen, that triggered what grew into an obsessive love for modern-era classical music. If Schnittke was the gateway drug, the Kronos Quartet were the pushers. If I may extend the metaphor, the shit was pure. That is why I had to thank David Harrington.
I regard the KQ as gods of sorts for multiple reasons. Foremost, before they are cultural icons, they are great musicians. Like Yo Yo Ma and Gidon Kremer, you have to be especially talented in order to take on the role of proselytizer. In the classical music world, the stars are the super talented, by and large (which is definitely NOT the case in the other arts). Also, Kronos Quartet participated, as peers, in the last semi-exciting classical movement (minimalism), performing works written for them by Philip Glass, John Adams, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley.
Then there are the facts that by dint of their stature that they’ve prominently showcased neglected/little-known genius composers of the modern era (besides Schnittke, they introduced me to Aulis Sallinen, Peter Scullthorpe, and George Crumb’s “Black Angels”); that they’ve given huge boosts to budding composers in the Western tradition (Michael Gordon, Alexandra Du Bois, too many to name); and that they’ve explored contemporary East and Southwest Asian composers writing for Western instruments (Reza Vali, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Tan Dun). They’ve had, I read in one place, over 900 works written for them.
And then they’ve inspired, if not laid the template for, a second generation of open-minded outfits like the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Eighth Blackbird, the Knights, Roomful of Teeth, and Brooklyn Rider, all of whom have attained celebrity of their own by now. A third generation is in the works. You could make an argument that they have been more crucial to classical music’s survival in a densely noisy post-modern world than any other single act.
But it is in their roles as ambassadors to the Wider World of Music(s) that they’ve made their name one all music fans know. Since forming in Seattle in ’73, the Kronos Quartet has arranged music by and worked alongside musicians from the gamut of other Western genres: jazz (they’ve recorded albums of Thelonious Monk’s and Bill Evans’s music, e.g.), hip-hop (see below), rock (they’ve played with Sigur Ros, Paul McCartney, Bowie, and Patti Smith, among many others), bluegrass, folk, tango, samba…. Just as significantly, they’ve collaborated – copiously – with indigenous musicians from every continent except Antarctica (come back in 20 years…); I’d guess about half of their releases – there are 40-something going into this show – could be considered “world music”. They have had number one hits on Billboard‘s World Music chart and have won Grammy awards in the category. Whatever you might say about this project or that (and there are a number I have no real interest in hearing), the collaborations (or at least those I’ve heard) have all been full-on 50-50 collaborations – models of what collaboration should aim for. And that is the Kronos Quartet that fills theaters.
The Diana Wortham set highlighted that quartet’s tireless advocacy and social consciousness, and not (as I might have hoped) its forays into the dark crannies of the Modern-era avant-garde. Accordingly, the program was an ADHD-friendly smorgasbord, entailing a rock-set-like 13 pieces (plus two encores), none much longer than 8 or 10 minutes, with an intermission between numbers 6 and 7. It highlighted the quartet’s current wide-reaching project, called “50 for the Future,” in which they have commissioned works from 25 female and 25 male composers (five apiece each year for five years). It was the sort of bill that, on paper (or laptop screen), may seem gimmicky and almost desperately multi-cultural and gender-conscious but that, in concert works very well, I must admit.
The first piece on the bill was a case in point. It was from the “50 for the Future” project, written by a younger black woman from Gary, Indiana, named Jlin (short for Jerrilynn Patton). I’d never heard of her, but she is (I learned afterwards) famous. (I am out of it, by design.) She creates skeletal, skittering electronic dance-scapes that I have been enjoying quite a bit on YouTube the last few days. (You can hear her electronic demo for the song the KQ played, “Little Black Book”, on their website.) Jlin was a math major at Purdue until she dropped out; she worked in a steel mill afterwards, which she said had no effect whatsoever on the music she’s composed since. It doesn’t get any better than that. How did the gravelly blats and twitters of Jlin’s electronica sound when rendered by a string quartet? It sounded like dark-hued chamber pop, gothy and exuberant at once. It got the evening off to a brilliant start.
Next was an arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun,” inspired, Harrington said, by the Everly Brothers’ version (as opposed to the Animals’?). It sounded like “House of the Rising Sun” played by a string quartet, to the delight of those who are fond of that song….
Getting to hear a bona fide world premiere performance by the Kronos Quartet was a nice perquisite. Harrington explained that the score for the next piece – another “50 for the Future” commission – by 38-year-old Virginian Alexandra du Bois (doo-Bwaa), had arrived that very day. She’d contributed a piece to the quartet’s “Under 30” project back in the W years, which can be heard on YouTube and which I like, a lot. The KQ may be genial ambassadors, but that doesn’t mean they won’t challenge an audience, and it was something like a statement to slot this particular piece so early on the evening’s bill. It is a hushed and inward-looking piece. Sheets of gauzy, minor-key chromata brush against one another like curtains behind a broken window in an abandoned house. It is powerful enough in its understated way to mesmerize an audience. Coughs and fidgets were audible throughout the first few minutes; you could feel people wondering, “Is this going anywhere?” By halfway through, however, the crowd was as silent as believers at a seance. Or maybe they had fallen asleep. It was a masterpiece in my book, like the couple of other pieces of hers I’ve heard.
Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” sounded good in the live version. Thelonious Monk’s piano playing is instantly recognizable even to non-jazz fans, but the oblique, microtonal runs on the piano sound utterly different when played by strings. It sounded like a deconstruction; deconstruction is good.
Then came two by disco-era art stars, Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson. The Glass piece up first reminded me – I need reminding sometimes – that his music is still immediately identifiable even as he has grown far beyond the constraints of the “Einstein on the Beach” or “Koyaaniqatsi” sort of rollicking calliope minimalism I will always associate him with. Laurie Anderson’s contribution to the “50 for the Future” was a very pretty piece called “Flow,” and I’d have never guessed it was by her. It’s in three parts and it is also on the Soundcloud page. It reminded me I like her music more when she is not talking above it.
The last piece before the intermission was a five-parter by a woman named Stacy Garrop, entitled “Glorious Mahalia.” It sets to music excerpts from an interview with two late cultural icons of yore, the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) and the raconteur/author/radio host sans pareil, Studs Terkel (1912-2008). While there were some snippets of Jackson singing (she was an ethereal talent, the sort who fills all space around her when she’s singing a capella), but most of it was talk. Pieces that use spoken words are difficult from the outset because in order to succeed they must strike a very fine balance – not just in terms of volume between the voices and the music but also in terms of what the audience is to focus on. The Kronos Quartet has no peer in performing works of this ilk, having backed Allen Ginsburg reciting “Howl” among many such projects. This particular piece achieved that precision balance as well as anything in the Kronos discography, perhaps because the intermittent clips of Jackson’s singing grounded the piece as a musical composition, instead of a documentary with soundtrack.
(If I may digress a moment, hearing Studs Terkel’s mellifluous rasp again for the first time in years – I was a regular listener to his radio show – got me thinking how desperately we could use a voice, and conscience, like his today. Aside from Naomi Klein, where are –who are – our vital public intellectuals today? It is entirely fitting that the Kronos Quartet would play a piece incorporating a Terkel interview, because at heart their missions – promoting brotherhood and humanism – were/are very much the same, as was/is their approach: chill, gracious, and welcoming.)
Before sharing my not particularly insightful observations on the second-half works, I should acknowledge the Kronos Quartet’s sound and lighting directors, Scott Fraser and Brian Scott respectively. The sound was, in a word, perfect. The lighting was at once austere and absolutely stunning. The 30′ high curtains behind the stage were lit with what appeared to be two spotlights describing a steep X. Gradually shifting colors accompanied the music; the upper lobes of the spots hazily described a heart – maroon on dirty gold-green background or fire engine red on royal blue – and during one song the lobes morphed into a pale white skull with black sockets against a purple backdrop. In the show’s second half, Scott projected Islamic-y calligraphic patterns on the stretched heart shape.
The second half of the show commenced without an introduction from Harrington with a piece by Bryce Dessner. I wasn’t taking notes at that point, because I kept dropping my pen and the notes I’d taken in the dark during the first set were all on top of each other and so illegible, but I remember that I loved it and that I was glad I’d been unaware it was Dessner, since he is in a rock band (The National) and has worked with Bonnie Prince Billy, and I am wary of such things. Which, I realize, is a foolish parameter, since if (say) Aaron Copland had been born in 1950 instead of 1900, he’d have been in a rock band; had he been born in ’90, he’d have been a DJ or electronica person. I know, I know.
Speaking of rock music, aside from learning that Pete Townshend wrote “Baba O’Riley” whilst on a Terry Riley jag, I could have done without the arrangement of that Classic Rock staple that followed. The now-that-I-know-it-I-see-it Riley-esque intro was enjoyable enough right up until the cello took up the song’s guitar part. More than anything, the piece just reminded me of how disappointed I’d been as a junior high school Who fanatic when The Who Sell Out was released. For me, the Kronos Quartet’s arrangements of “Baba O’Reilly” and Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” are the least successful of all the risks they’ve taken. Perhaps it is because the instruments in a string quartet can easily mimic guitar and vocal lines, which tends to sound “corny.” (Irony is – thankfully – never at play with the Kronos Quartet…) Or maybe it is because such material really represents no risk at all. Crowd-pleasers are breadwinners, though, and “Baba” got a big hand from the crowd. I am willing to concede I may have been one in a wee subset of the audience who couldn’t wait for this piece to end.
Next came a very brief 2-part piece by a young man named Charlton Singleton, who I believe is from South Carolina. His piece began in an interesting manner and then suddenly became, at least on first hearing, too straight-ahead spiritual-derived for me. Maybe the two movements were too short for it to register. I need more and more time for everything as old age descends.
The John Coltrane piece “Alabama” worked as well as the Monk one in the first set, in this case because stringed instruments sound nothing like saxophones, either. Harrington’s brief intro was, again, elucidating: I didn’t know the song (one of those classics everyone has heard whether you know it or not) was an ode to the heart-breaking Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing that killed four young girls in September 1963. Given tRumph’s bizarre resonance with the state, “Alabama” was, I suspect, a wry if sober observation on the part of an ensemble that can recognize fascism when it sees it.
(A final digression: should you ever have to go to Birmingham (“have to” because no one would ever go there unless some sort of obligation forced it), you should make it your number one priority to see the Civil Rights Institute there; it is across the street from that church as well as from the park where Bull Conner turned his fire hoses and devil dogs on peaceful civil rights marchers. It is a well-conceived place, and you should allow yourself 90, minimum. It is powerful.)
Next was a snippet from the soundtrack to Requiem for a Dream. The KQ had recorded the original score for that remarkable film and I suspect anyone who saw it recognized the piece (by Clint Mansell) immediately.
The last piece on the program, “One Earth, One People, One Love,” was from the quartet’s most recent album (out this month), a reissue of Terry Riley’s Sun Rings. It is another piece where taped voice (and beats) mixes with the live quartet’s live strings. It is very effective – somber and haunting, nothing blithe or hippy-corny about it. Buy it.
The encore was a song Pete Seeger made famous, “Garbage,” from (I think) the early-’70s. (Googling, it seems the song’s TV premiere was on Sesame Street; Oscar the Grouch has a version on YouTube, at any rate…) It is a clever and nimble ditty about the environmental degradation that goes along with consumer capitalism. A guy whose voice had a reedy Pete Seegerish quality led a sing-along. It reminded many in the geezer-laden crowd that such concerns were not just being voiced 50 years ago but were Sesame Street-obvious 50 years ago… And that essentially nothing has been done in response in the intervening years… Well, much worse than nothing…
The second encore was a brief and smooth version of “The Orange Blossom Special.”
It was, all in all, superfun entertainment. It felt like a carnival. I attended the show with a friend who I’m pretty sure does not own a classical CD but who is very much in tune with the Kronos Quartet’s inclusive message and social awareness (an Ani Defranco fan…), and this friend enjoyed the show every bit as much as I did. You almost take it for granted with the Kronos Quartet, but they have made modern classical music interesting and fun to normal music fans.
Regrettably, the Kronos show was it for the Wortham Center’s classical music offerings in the 2019-2020 season. It’s a shame because, man, the acoustics and sight lines in there are fantastic. The Wortham, however, does have a calendar full of intriguing performances scattered across the next seven months. It’s a good idea to check their website (worthamarts.org), since they don’t exactly blitz the advertising. Capacity is small enough that subscribers and word-of-mouth are probably adequate for most shows; there were, however, a fair number of empty seats on this evening, which I have to think means some people just did not know. I met a few.