Kronos Quartet in Kirkland

Last night I saw the Kronos Quartet perform at the Kirkland Performance Center in my hometown. I can’t really stress how important to my musical development the Kronos Quartet have been nor how far I’ve really moved away from what they do.  I’ve always listened to classical music; in elementary school I used to scour the Anacortes Public library for their classical music LPs and when I “graduated” from elementary school among the list of predictions from my fellow classmates was “classical music snob”.  While I did of course eventually add rock and then jazz to my listening I always maintained an interest in classical music and I’d argue my love for long form symphonic works informed what I liked in those other musics.  I mostly listened to the canonical composers with only the “radio friendly” 20th century composers (Shostokovich, Stravinsky, Sibelius, etc) making an appearance. In college I gradually became interested in modern composition the most important event in this was a friend lending me a CD of string quartets by Lutoslawski, Cage, Pendericki and Mayuzumi. I think he lent me this as it was the only Cage he had which I was becoming interested in, but while I liked all of the quartets  it was the Lutoslawski that really grabbed me at that point. Wanting my own copy of this piece I took my meager college budget to Rainy Day Records and scoured their meager classical section. They didn’t have a lot of 20th century composition but they did have a number of discs by the Kronos Quartet include an EP of them playing the Lutoslawski.  I picked this up and the rest, as they say, was history.

Kronos Quartet play Lutoslawski's string quartetSo much music that became very important to me was introduced to me by picking up various Kronos discs: Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Zorn, Tan Dun, John Lurie, George Crumb, Arvo Part Henry Cowell, Harry Partch, John Oswald, Henryk Gorecki, Elliot Sharp as well as those I knew but being just a kid had few recordings of like Anton Webern, Alban Berg, Demitri Shostokovich and Thomas Tallis. Of course many of these composers I’d prefer versions by other ensembles and most of them I’ve more or less since moved on, but they all led me to where I am now. Of course no other discovery brought to me by the Kronos Quartet was more important to my current listening then their recording of Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet.  At the time I was buying their releases as they’d show up and I must have bought this one pretty much as it was released in 1993 (my prime period of Kronos collecting was 1992-1997). I recall finding this one immediately beautiful and hypnotic, it fit in with the ambient music I was also exploring at this time.  But the low volume of the recording was always a bit of a hindrance for me, I felt it wasn’t as well recorded as some of their other pieces. It got shelved for a while but would be returned to as my interest in the experimental composers arose a few years later.

Morton Feldman Piano and String QuartetMorton Feldman and the Kronos Quartet have a quite interesting history, something worth thinking about for those who tend to dismiss the ensemble.  Feldman worked directly with them and scored his epic String Quartet (II) for them though they “only” ever performed a 5 hour version of the piece. These days the Ives Ensemble and the Flux Quartet have performed the entire piece in its 6 hour glory. I recently came across a recording off the radio of Feldman’s first String Quartet performed by the Kronos Quartet that I’ve found to be extremely informative. It is the third recording of the piece I’ve gotten and by far the longest, clocking in at 20 minutes longer the version of it I have by the Ives Ensemble.  But most interesting is difference in the sound of the violins. Feldman specifies a lack of vibrato and his strings often sound dry and grating with the occasional changes in this for effect. Kronos does this as well but there is a resonance to their playing that the Ives players don’t quite seem to use. Perhaps it is a very light vibrato or other bowing technique that is like the string equivalent of half depressed sustain pedal that Cardew felt was the key to Feldman’s piano works. After getting this recording and listening to it on my high end stereo I revisited the Piano and String Quartet which I had not played since getting a copy of the Ives take. Played on this stereo, where its low dynamic range wasn’t nearly an issue, it revealed the same thing as that String Quartet recording, a level of dynamic to the play, that while very subtle and soft really brings out a lot more in the music. Very soon I’ll have a fourth version of this piece with my favorite interpreter, John Tilbury, on the keys and if the Smith Quartet is as good as Kronos on the strings that should be the definitive version of this piece.

While Feldman is the most important composer that Kronos led me too, it is hard to deny the importance of Terry Riley and John Zorn for years of my life. Riley led me to other minimalists and the whole modern ecstatic drone, freak folk and the like which was a big part of my listening from the late ninety’s to about the mid aughts. I’m still on the Aquarius Mailing list from that period as they were best purveyors of such material. John Zorn led me to so much music, though in all honesty I never actually bought a ton of his music. First the ex-pat Downtowners, Wayne Horvitz and Bill Frisell, both now living in Seattle who introduced me to the post-downtown scene that was thriving here from say 1996-2006. This was my primary interest in music for years and I can’t even begin to say how many concerts I saw in Seattle of this ever widening sphere of music. Somehow it got wired into the Jam Band scene and became completely uninteresting, but there was a period where I thought it was some of the most creative music I’d seen. Most importantly though I got onto the Zorn Email list in its prime and from there I got introduced the most modern of improvised music that really captured my interest for all of the aughts. From there I spiraled back to the experimental composers, found other modern composers such as Lachenmann, Nono, Xenakis, Scelsi et al and that brings me about to where I am now. Obviously a highly compressed history there but trying to sort of stay on topic here.

Kronos Quartet Sun Rings performance

I first saw Kronos Quartet perform in Meany Hall at the University of Washington in maybe 2000? I saw them again there a couple of years later, premiering Terry Riley’s  Sun Rings so it must have been 2000-2001.  By this point I had mostly lost interest in them, they had moved away from the music that interested me.  They became increasingly interested in various world composers and while I think there is much great music to be found exploring the dusty corners of the world I just haven’t been all that taken with the compositions they’d commissioned. Additionally I was tending toward preferring other ensembles for many of my favorite pieces of theirs. But finally being gainfully employed and living in the Seattle area I couldn’t miss the chance to see an old favorite. I remember quite liking that show though I can’t find a record of it online and don’t recall what they played. I was pretty into Riley and Zorn at that point and the odds are they played some of both. It was definitely my interest in Riley that brought me to see Sun Rings which had interesting moments but made me realize that I really like early Riley and just wasn’t that taken by his Requiem for a Dreamcurrent output. Since that show (2003) the only Kronos I’ve paid any attention to was their soundtrack for Requiem for a Dream which I quite liked and Fountain which I liked a bit less. I pretty much had stopped paying attention to them and was thus surprised to see them working with Trimpin in that great documentary I saw last year.  I would definitely have gone to see that performance.

At some point last year I discovered that the Kronos Quartet were going to play at the Kirkland Performance Center which I should say is about a mile from where I live.  I’ve lived in Kirkland for three years now and within five miles of it for the last decade and have never visited the Performance Center. Mainly its because they tend to cater to that older demographic with the safe material that it seems to demand.  An opportunity to finally visit the center seeing a group that used to love and figure would still be at least enjoyable was not one to pass up.  I almost forgot about it though, but luckily Christopher DeLaurenti wrote it up in his The Score column in the Stranger reminding me just in time. I bought tickets online which I was able to just print out and leaving work slightly early (7:30 show? – just try to tell me they aren’t catering to an older demographic) I went home and then walked to the venue.  The Kirkland performance center has a 400 seat auditorium and I have to say it is very nice. The acoustics were great, the seating had a steep rise off the stage providing great sight lines from my back of the hall seating (the online chart was confusing, I thought I was buying a front row seat, turned out to be the back row. Worked out okay though, it sounded fantastic there). There was some brief announcements and a bit of history of the group (started in Seattle BTW) and the show began.

Kirkland Performance Center

Kronos Quartet: Tailor Made
Kirkland Performance Center
Kirkland WA USA

Set I:
Bryce Dressner
Aheym (homeward)
Missy Mazzoli
Harp and Altar
Terry Riley
Good Medicene Minimal Americana nit my fav Riley
Alkesandra Vrebalov
…hold me, neighbor, in this storm…

Honestly I don’t really want to write all that much about the music. None of it really appealed to me, it is pretty much exactly as I said above. This program was “Tailor Made” for the Kirkland Performance center and I don’t know if was targeting this demographic or if its just how they are but the program was pretty toothless. There was a lot (a lot) of pieces with tape accompaniment, Harp and Altar, and …hold me, neighbor, in this storm… from the first set and Cafe Tacuba from the second and this almost always were in such a way as to extend the ensemble as opposed to how historical tape accompaniment is used. In Harp and Altar there was vocalizations throughout which initially almost sounded like string effects and blended nicely but then became really pronounced and chopped and just sounded like bad pretentious pop. For …hold me, neighbor, in this storm… there was field recording type of material but also Muslim-ish singing and other vocal aspects. The Riley piece, from his epic Salome Dances for Peace, is one of those later Riley pieces I’m not so taken with. It was like Americana with repeated motifs so Minimalist Americana. It was one of the better pieces all told, but pretty bland. The first piece Aheym (homeward) was probably my favorite from this set. It had a very propulsive sound all of the strings playing in unison. After some time of this various instruments would break off and add various contrasting sounds. It was somewhat cinematic with distinct episodes but it was pretty engaging throughout.

Set II:
John Zorn
Selections from The Dead Man
Hamza El Din
(realized by Tohru Ueda)  Escalay (water wheel)
Traditional
(arr. Jacob Garchik) Smyrneiko Minore
Café Tacuba (arr. Osvaldo Golijov) 12/12

E1: Tusen Tarkon (sp?) Swedish
E2: Egyptian tango

There was a short break in which I took the opportunity to check out the rest of the performance center. It doesn’t have much of a lobby and it was pretty packed with people getting away from their seats for a bit.  There wasn’t much to do so I fairly quickly returned to my seat. The break wasn’t too long and then the second set began.  The Zorn piece it opened with, God help me, was probably the most interesting that they played sonically. Zorn used a lot of extended techniques, especially those favored by Lachenmann. So scritchy bowing brunched against the strings, bowing the back of the instrument, whipping the bows in the air and so on.  It was typical Zorn though, with lots of short quick segments, short little quotations and a cartooney feel.  Zorns compositions rarely do much for me and it was the sounds that I enjoyed the most here. Oddly the piece was played for laughs and as the ensemble would dramatically turn the page of the score after a minute of intense noise making the audience laughed everytime. It ended with whipping the bows in the air, generating clouds of resin which slayed the audience. The following piece, Escalay, was another rather cinematic piece with a pretty droney characteristic. I honestly don’t remember much about it beyond that but it was okay if unmemorable.  Smyrneiko Minore is an old Greek song that Harrington had encountered on an old recording. So musically it was pretty straightforward Greek folk music with the violins alternating on playing the vocal parts.  Short and to me not that interesting.  The last piece was made for Kronos by Café Tacuba a Mexican band that plays Latin Dancey pop music and it more or less had a tape of a full band playing, plus some field recording type of material that they played with. Pretty lame overall, but not my kind of music in general.  They played two encores, one a Swedish song that I’m just guessing on the spelling, that was simple and melancholy and an Egyptian Tango that was, well an Egyptian tango arranged for string quartet. After this there was a short Q&A with questions from the audience. Not much of interest was asked though.

So that was the Kronos Quartet in Kirkland. I’d say that’s about it for Kronos performances for me unless they do something unexpectedly interesting. They really seem to have become toothless as they have gotten older, using the world music, backing tapes and arranging pop tunes for greater accessibility. I certainly respect what they are doing, slipping the occasional interesting and challenging piece over on the audience but it doesn’t seem to be the driving passion for them. There is an issue that I recall being raised in an artist chat I saw with the Ives Ensemble last year about commissions and world premiers:

This led to several questions about compositions written especially for them and John told us that they rarely get unsolicited compositions mainly because they are very picky on what they choose to play. He then brought up that when playing festivals the programmers really want “World Premiers” and that this leads to an issue where a piece is often only played that one time, as after that performance they need the next world premier.  He said that for them they have found that many pieces benefit from repeat performance: “Returning to a piece you find that it has become a part of you – comfortable.” One of the other members then chimed in to say that playing a piece many times is “Honest to the piece” and that it matures and you discover more.

The Kronos have played over 600 pieces many of which were written for them and I wonder if they are susceptible to this issue. They are always trying to play new material and world premiers and things written just for them that a lot of it seems to go by the wayside.  But worse to me is that so much of their material is just slight and seems calculated for popularity. Bollywood pieces? Arranged pop albums? World music? this is all a pretty far cry from Feldman, Crumb, Gorecki, Lutoslawski et al. I’ll always appreciate them for their introduction to so much great music and that really was the point of this post, but they are clearly playing for someone else now.