Technical Brilliance, Empty Notes at Kronos

By Katherine J. Murray ‘11

Saturday, October 2 saw the return of the Kronos Quartet to Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center.  An ensemble dedicated to new music of all kinds, the Kronos could hardly be properly called a traditional string quartet; instead, the group does their utmost to emphasize how little they conform to one’s expectations of a world-class chamber group.  No tuxedos or even tucked-in shirts for these guys, whose rather casual clothing of course did not match.  Second violinist John Sherba wore one of those snazzy 1/4 zip pullovers one buys at outdoor apparel stores, ostensibly to insulate one’s body when performing the “extreme” [sic] sport of one’s choice. But I digress, and a key quote (lifted from Wikipedia, I’ll admit) from first violinist and founder David Harrington betrays more about this ensemble than anything I could write.  “I’ve always wanted the string quartet to be vital, and energetic, and alive, and cool, and not afraid to kick ass and be absolutely beautiful and ugly if it has to be,” he says. “But it has to be expressive of life.”  In keeping with the Kronos’ casual and hip approach to musicmaking, I’ll keep this review a little more “vital, and energetic, and alive, and cool, and not afraid to kick ass” than I normally write them.

Perhaps he could have phrased it more convincingly, but Harrington’s quote has a point nonetheless.  Given that audiences generally treat new music with outright hostility (sometimes deserved, but more often not), Harrington and the Kronos should be commended for their thirty-year-long effort to keep contemporary non-popular (or as laymen call it, “classical”) music alive in concert halls around the world.  That doing so is not an easy task became increasingly clear as the evening progressed.

The performance highlighted all the difficulties with which new serious music has been associated since Schoenberg’s time.  As I noted above, audiences don’t particularly like new music, and incorporating it into a program can be disastrous for ticket sales.  Second, new music often demands more practice and rehearsal time from the musicians performing it than does the traditional repertoire, which the performers are almost certain to have played or at least heard in the past. Worst of all for the audience, new music is often too dense and inaccessible to be properly appreciated on its first listen, even for those listeners relatively comfortable with atonality. But superb playing on the part of the Kronos minimized this difficulty for the audience.  Their impeccable ensemble and technical ease left me with no grounds for even the tiniest quibble.  I like their sound: intensely cerebral, with a studied elegance that never veers into sentimentality. It is a style all the more impressive for the fact that this is not a group that plays Beethoven or Haydn night after night, but instead has brought upon themselves the sisyphean project of convincing picky audiences to enjoy new and unfamiliar music.

The problem with all this is that the music played on Saturday was likely to confirm one’s suspicions about new music in general. (Most of the Dartmouth students I overheard talking before the performance were not there because of some burning interest or passion with regards to new music, but  because the Kronos recorded the soundtrack to “Requiem for a Dream.”)  Audience turnout was low, with no more than three-fifths of Spaulding Auditorium’s 900 seats taken. The program notes featured the composers describing their work in often rather pompous terms, telling of their various inspirations in tiresome detail. Curiously, however, few instructions were provided to a more-or-less clueless audience on how to approach the music itself.  That night I heard generally good music played perfectly; I had no difficulty whatsoever paying attention during the concert.  But looking back, I have serious difficulty remembering the music in detail.  But I shall attempt to do so.

  The first piece was entitled “…hold me, neighbor, in this storm…” by Aleksandra Vrebalov, a City College of New York professor who writes that the piece was “inspired by folk and religious music from the Balkan region, whose insistent rhythms and harmonies create a sense of inevitability, a ritual trance with an obsessive, dark energy.” She wrote the piece using “sounds of the church bells of Serbian orthodox monasteries and Islamic calls for prayer”, resulting in “a way to piece together our identities fractured by centuries of intolerance, and to reach out and celebrate the land so rich in its diversity…” Fair enough, I suppose.  But having prerecorded sounds—bells, human voices, et cetera—booming throughout the auditorium while the musicians played seemed a little gimmicky, and only got more so as the night went on and the technique recurred throughout the program. Brilliant blue and red lights shone on the performers while they played, and shifted according to the intensity level of the moment.  At first, I found the use of lights incredibly distracting—after all, this was a serious concert!  (But I suppose it was also the Kronos, who after all needs to “kick ass” on occasion.) I found it best to ignore the lights entirely and shut my eyes in order to focus on the music, at strong risk of appearing to the other audience members (and to Professor Vrebalov, who was present) as though asleep.  Vrebalov’s piece, rich with heavy Eastern European influence, was compelling enough to keep me focused on its moments of real beauty and elsewhere of frenzied expression.  But I cannot honestly claim that any of these moments were unforgettable.

Second on the program was Amazing Grace (String Quartet No. 4) by Ben Johnston. On the piece and his compositional technique, Johnston writes,


One of the things that I’ve been trying to do over the years is to answer the question, ‘What would this kind of music and that kind of music and this other kind of music and that kind of music have been like if equal temperament had never been adopted, and instead just intonation had been adopted?’ That’s the reason for eclecticism whenever it shows up in my work, and it does in the Fourth String Quartet. (For example, there’s a direct quotation from Harry Partch in  it.) Based on the traditional American hymn ‘Amazing Grace,’ String Quartet No. 4 is also a proliferation of gradually increasing proportional complexity of pitch and of metrical rhythm.

Phew!  Could anything turn the layman off more than the above statement?  A piece devoted to a thought experiment about equal temperament? I feel quite sure most concertgoers sitting in the audience, rather than contemplating a particular method of instrument tuning, would prefer just tunes, please.  And needless to say, few audience members anywhere are likely to be familiar with Harry Partch, a relatively obscure American composer notable for his obsession with microtonality.

Amazing Grace begins diatonically enough in G major, with a pleasant arrangement of the familiar hymn.  There was again a light display above the musicians, this time of a multicolor abstract design that I suppose kids these days would call “trippy.”  All adding to the Kronos’ edgy vibe, of course.  As could be expected from the program notes, Amazing Grace didn’t let us off so easily with a nice mosey through G major; rather, the melodies became less comfortable, sliding sinuously around until tonality and a simple rhythmic meter were abandoned altogether.  What ensued was a mire of sound in which I struggled to find a musical idea amidst a roiling cacophony of notes.  Neither the music itself nor the Kronos players’ body movements gave many clues with regards to where downbeats were, which made my search even more difficult, although I found heartening traces of thematic material here and there. I’d be amenable to a second listen, I suppose.  But before I knew it, everything somehow skilfully melted back into a pleasant G major ending, with the strings ending in unison in near-total darkness, and the players themselves illuminated only by deep blue lights.

The first half finale (and by far the strongest work yet) was the world premiere of a piece entitled Clouded Yellow by composer Michael Gordon, who was of course present.  The composer’s biography claims that “his music… combines the intensity and power of rock music and his formal composition studies at Yale.”  This is an extraordinarily problematic statement, best illustrated by an analogy: I cannot imagine a visual artist’s biography claiming that his art “combines the intensity and power of pornography [or pop culture imagery, or what have you] and his formal studies of the Old Masters at Yale.”  The statement doesn’t work, and any genuine attempt to combine serious music and rock music will result in the aural equivalent of water and oil: fundamentally impossible to mix, though some may try.

But Gordon’s was still a good piece.  It was, in a word, compelling, and consistently of excellent quality; all the better that it had been commissioned for the Kronos by Dartmouth’s own Hopkins Center.  Cellist Jeffrey Zeigler provided an unforgettable syncopated low C pedal point, building intensity while keeping the tempo perfectly taut until the piece’s emotional climax, resulting in sustained, wonderfully exotic sonorities.  A great piece, and one I’d be delighted to hear again.

The second half consisted of mostly weaker music than did the first, though played with the same precise perfection. First was a piece called Harp and Altar by apparently up-and-coming composer Missy Mazzoli.  In the program, she described the piece as “a love song to the Brooklyn Bridge.”  The music sounded vaguely heroic, featuring (as in the first half) prerecorded vocals singing bits of Stephen Crane’s poem “The Bridge”.  I would have been happier without the vocals, which were loud enough so as to distract the listener entirely from the strings.

“This is stupid,” a crabby octogenarian sitting nearby hissed to her husband in a perfectly audible stage whisper during the piece.  It seemed she wasn’t the only one to feel that way; at this point, the less intrepid audience members were getting up and leaving intermittently. It wasn’t that Mazzoli’s piece was so bad, but more that the audience was coming to slowly realize that they weren’t getting any meat-and-potatoes-type-tunes that night.  Perhaps one day audiences won’t mind having experimental new music alongside their schmaltzy Tchaikovsky favorites, but I doubt I’ll see such a phenomenon in my lifetime.

The penultimate piece was String Quartet No. 1 written by Maria Schneider.  Schneider is better known in the jazz world for being, as Harrington put it as he introduced the piece, “one of the only female big band composers in the world today.”  (Perhaps the statement was intended to impress us?)  Again, fair enough.  Though Schneider had never attempted to write a string quartet before this one, the result was still wonderfully distinguished, using a jazz musician’s consummate understanding of chromaticism and harmonic color to subtly create profound feeling.  I loved it.

In the wake of Schneider’s delightful quartet, the last piece was a singular failure: Aheym (Homeward) by one Bryce Dessner, apparently the guitarist of obscure indie band The National.  The ugly opening of the strings sawing away in a loud, aggressive C minor turned me off immediately.  My opinion didn’t improve much: the next part meandered on and on without going anywhere.  While the Kronos did their best to give the musical lines some shape, it still didn’t hide the work’s terrible flatness.  I cannot describe this piece as anything but an unlovely bore, and the ending gave way to the most half-hearted (dare I say, half-assed) standing ovation I have yet seen in nearly twenty years of concertgoing.  I left the concert having enjoyed myself overall, but still a little depressed.

You see, as I write this review only two hours after hearing the concert live, I can’t think of a single four-bar melody from the evening. It’s a curious thing about this style of musical composition now universally taught in conservatories: one can easily develop a sober appreciation for such writing, but developing a real appetite for it seems impossible until after one has endured a few cycles of graduate-level composition classes. 

The Kronos concert gave me hope that there is plenty of compositional talent on the horizon, but connecting this talent with the hearts of audiences everywhere remains a task too great for even one of the world’s most rightly famous string quartets.