Avant-Drag

Kronos Quartet, Krannert Center, 3 April 2008

review by Cristy Scoggins and William Gillespie

William: 35 years ago, Kronos Quartet was founded on transgressive sentiment to perform George Crumb’s haunting, evocative Black Angels, a piece of music based on the Vietnam War incorporating unconventional instruments and spoken word. The quartet has continued to perform and commission unusual works, sometimes receiving accusations  from the stodgy black tie classical music establishment of being trendy or superficial, with their striking fashions, cool hairstyles, and eclectic repertoire including their much-cited Hendrix cover arrangement. I had preferred to idealize their work as growing out of the spirit of the 1960s—protest against a repressive establishment, be it political or musical—and forward-looking in its embrace of diverse styles and cultures. Their music is undeniably transgressive in the sense of crossing boundaries, but is it also progressive in the sense of yearning, leaning toward a fairer world?

In 2008, for their performance at the Krannert Center, the program suggested that the quartet was responding to the new resurgence of U.S. militarism by including music from Iraq, Iran, Serbia, Armenia, and India, in addition to music by composers usually filed under “rock,” “jazz,” or “soundtrack.” I thought this would be a bold refutation of the elitist hegemony both of U.S. culture but also high-brow, “classical,” European art music. After the concert, I am less convinced.

Cristy: An avant-garde chip on my shoulder, I have. Experimental music is inaccessible, noisy and—frankly—boring. But I went to Kronos with an open mind, although I had many questions for William (a more “seasoned” listener): If you attend an avant-garde concert, what are you supposed to look for? For instance, is weirder better? If the group’s use of cutting, abrasive dissonance is more than your poor ears can take, is it a good show? To me, avant-garde music sounds like Thanksgiving holidays at my grandma’s house when all the kids pound annoyingly on the piano. My minimal experience watching contemporary classical music performances has reinforced this. But there has to be more to it—is there?

W: One idea is that art or music should not be an entertainment, any more than you or I should be forced against to wear jester costumes and prance around for the amusement of rich people. Art should evolve so that culture may follow it. Avant-garde refers to the scouts of an army who secure new ground so that the masses of troops may advance in their footsteps. Art is in this metaphor like an organism we assume is mutating into increasingly sophisticated forms, more highly evolved than our ears, trained on primitive, obsolete, and even repressive harmonic codes, like three-chord songs, can understand.  A corrupt, violent, and decadent social structure is reinforced by its traditional or commercial music, and perhaps new forms of art can shatter habits and help society itself to evolve into better forms.

Unfortunately, the hungry masses whom it behooves to instigate social change could not afford $30 tickets to hear the incomprehensible music Kronos offered that night...

The stage was cluttered with a junkyard of contraptions: four piles of arty trash—assemblages of yellow construction tape, a birdhouse, an old bedspring, a bicycle rim, a motorcycle fender. When the band emerged to sit in a pool of light in the middle of this wreckage, they seemed damned, their colorful fashions like motley rags, and I imagined them as the original ensemble who performed Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time in the prisoner of war camp. Kronos Quartet appeared to tune, but it slowly becomes clear that this is the piece itself, and then it becomes clear that the piece is on tape, and their bows are not touching the instruments. The tape crescendos from a sonorous sustain to a roaring noise as they mime flailing their bows. Then silence and the stage goes black. It turns out that we have heard a piece not on the program, a collage by plunderphonics stylist, the celebrated plagiarist John Oswald. At the piece’s loudest, it comprised the sounds of 800 simultaneous Kronos Quartets (on tape, because the ensemble did not deign to touch bows to strings to raise the number to 801).

I have been confused twice and the program hasn’t started yet.

That was neat, guys, now how about a string quartet..?

Guys..?

C: Why didn’t they tune before the show? I thought. Why are they wasting our time with this? A few audience members tittered knowingly, which caused my heavy eyes to roll. (The same kind of situation happens at Shakespeare plays, when an otherwise intelligible joke causes snickers among those who want others to know they got it, when in actuality they probably didn’t.) The quartet writhed in their seats like robots and the music swirled, louder and louder (like the end of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”). So it’s performance, I surmised. Okay, I can appreciate this.

The second piece reminded me of creaky, twisty film noir, something out of an old Hitchcock or horrifying sci-fi movie.  Kronos could make their simple string instruments sound like organs from outer space. They placed gracefully, with needle precision. And the dynamics? They put Nirvana’s quiet-loud-quiet method to shame.

W: This was Nomatophobis (2005) by J.G. Thirlwell. Thirlwell has shown up filed under “rock” performing as Nurse With Wound, and Foetus, among other names. This piece, in its intense looping, reminded me a freight train rushing past, moaning off quietly into the night, and then backing up back past the listener at a slower pace. While remaining repetitive, it morphed from section to section through transitions as smooth as they were inexplicable.  Parts involved the violins shrieking an almost childlike dissonant sing-song over a steady cello groove. An almost minimalist repetition stood in for any sort of pleasing melody to make the music somewhat coherent to the ear. I am not a fan of extended repetition in quartal time signatures—not in techno music and especially not in chamber music. This prejudice of mine ended up alienating me from about half of the repertoire performed this evening.

C: The next two pieces again reinforced my reasons for not being into the avant-garde stuff. The first, by John Zorn (The Dead Man, 1990), was dedicated to artist/photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Maybe it was, but to me it was more like the soundtrack to a Warner Bros. cartoon—those harsh, staccato beats tailor-made for Wile E. Coyote chasing after the Roadrunner.

At the same time, however, I appreciated the quartet’s chemistry. The instruments talked, argued, debated, fought for dominance. That was cool.

W: Your take on the Zorn piece is prescient, Cristy. The soundtrack music for the Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner cartoons was written by Carl Stalling. Zorn, who wrote liner notes to the CD release of Carl Stalling’s music, has openly confessed that Stalling was a big influence on him.

C: A-ha!

W: And while Zorn’s music irritates me (except for The Big Gundown), I enjoyed the comic staging of The Dead Man. Stage lights cast gargantuan silhouettes of the quartet on the Tryon Festival Theater wall. They would perform a brief burst of confusing music, then pause to simultaneously, pretentiously turn the page of their scores. This was highbrow, serious cartoon music: the whimsical shifts in mood, the exaggerated, ominous theatrics, all brought desperate seriousness full circle into a parody of itself. And the final movement involved trick bows that released puffs of dust when whisked about in the air. Admittedly, these silly gestures fell short, but at least they defused the implication that the music needed to be taken seriously. David Harrington seemed very much the mad scientist with his shock of grey hair and a long waistcoat that looked like tails. (Though he was trying to look fashionable, he seemed more like Elmer Fudd in a German opera.)

The next piece was a composition by the German industrial noise band Einst├╝rzende Neubauten (Armenia, 1983). Supposedly having something to do with an Armenian folk song, it consisted of an unpleasant, relentless tape loop and the four quartet members banging on the trash their roadies had assembled around the stage. I was reminded of the Saturday morning cartoon Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids in which the characters would perform songs on debris from the junkyard they played in, plucking mattress springs in the manner of upright bass playing and so on.

C: Maybe that's what I find grating about this type of music. It seems elite and highbrow, not the music of the masses; at the same time, I feel like I could’ve stayed at the office tonight, listening to the construction dudes hammering and drilling in the undeveloped office space next door—and it would have sounded the same as Kronos. At least then I’d be able to hear the strains of Van Halen twofers wafting from their industrial-size boombox.

W: There was a bit of bowed string instrument playing, but you could have missed it, especially when the cellist Jeffrey Ziegler used a circular saw on some metal, creating a shower of sparks, plumes of smoke, and the noise you might expect. Mad scientist hissed into a microphone and performed the interesting but regrettable feat of making his violin also sound like a power tool. Wear safety goggles when performing. I just had to laugh. The theater smelled like a burning tire when the piece was over and they all, ridiculously, bowed, pleased that the fatuous audience would eat anything they served. That music was bad, but at least it was funny-looking.

C: The remainder of the first half of the concert, I have to say, was more of the same. The raga was slow and droning, as I find many ragas to be. The next piece sounded like racecars circling an Indy track, Doppler effect and all, with smoky distortion. The crowning piece of the first half—Requiem for a Dream Suite (Clint Mansell, 2000)—was a three-part musical study in the frightening, compelling dismal air of chronic drug use (the topic of the movie it’s from). The stage was bathed in a sickly, ectoplasm green. At intermission, I staggered into the light of the lobby, relieved and exhausted.

W: I loved the raga: “Alap” from Raga Mishra Bhairavi by Ram Narayan. They played it pure, without hokey staging or postmodern rearrangement. The groovy but unecessary lightshow was reasonably subtle. I enjoy that style of music. My critical acumen relaxed and floated downstream. I drifted away on the slides and drones, and entered the state music scholars call Rasavadhana, a mystic state unrelated to desire and its attendant suffering. Though I would relapse promptly after the raga ended.

Cristy, my notes on Michael Gordon’s Potassium (2000) are the same as yours. Violins passing on the highway. It was not clear whether there was a tape accompaniment or whether the instruments were being fed through distortion pedals, and I didn’t care. I was beginning to lose any sense of being at a music concert; I was watching smooth charlatans lip-sync with violins. Like much of the set, the piece was repetitive, using predictable rhythms to drive home shrill, insistent, forgettable musical gestures, loops sawing slices of melody. With those downward bends, the music seemed too drunk to stand up; and then it rolled in seizures on the floor. At the end, the bends had begun to slide upward, but the effect was hardly triumphant. The composer says he named the piece Potassium because he didn’t know anything about potassium. I am unimpressed with the message that sends.

Requiem for a Dream Suite, a soundtrack to a movie I hated, also involved tapes, 4:4 rhythms, machinelike repetition, and forced my toe into a spasm of unpleasant tapping.

During the intermission, in trying to explain the pieces in the second half to Cristy, it dawned on me that the program notes for the coolly tough-sounding Shuffle 25/Bloodstone—Remix 1 (2007) by Kronos Quartet and Amon Tobin made no sense at all. Apparently the piece had something to do with samples recorded at a Kronos rehearsal, infrared sensors and computers. The music sounded like a collage of samples from Kronos’ recording career. The four musicians stood beside their respective piles of trash manipulating what looked like compact discs above their instruments. I saw no correspondence between their motions and the onslaught of samples; the relentless barrage of musical information continued even while none of the musicians moved. I resented the boring, pretentious staging, and the vague notes that referred to technology that may not even have been used. It seemed that we watched the musicians pose with their instruments while a tape played. I absolutely resent the use of technology for its own sake, and demand that the sculptor who may have created those high-tech instruments send his MacArthur grant directly to us.

Look, I’ve heard it said that the power of live performance is the presence of live humans onstage, but this piece regressed to where having those pompous men onstage detracted from sounds I would have preferred to listen to at home (or maybe I would rather just go home and listen to a Beethoven quartet instead).

C: The traditional Iranian piece (Lullaby) was beautiful. Of course, it was highly pleasing to the ear, with haunting, beautiful chord combinations. However, by the end of the concert I was so tired of the repetition, the constant assault of dissonant hammering, that my mind started drifting far, far from the Krannert Center. (This is how bad it got: I started wondering what happened to the kids in my first-grade class who moved away.)

W: I had been looking forward to the Iraqi and Iranian music, but they flashed past while my ears were still ringing from the Tobin fiasco. The Iraqi folk song (“Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me”—hard not to be reminded of Abu Ghraib by this title) disappointed me when I heard tape behind the ensemble. The use of their ubiquitous tape backing here bothered me because a pure arrangement of Iraqi folk music for Western string instruments would have constituted a translation—some kind of connection between the two cultures. Using a recording implied that the group wished to distance itself from the material—not immerse themselves in it, but keep it manageable, so it could be shut off with the touch of a button. Anyway, I doubt that tape is a traditional Iraqi instrument.

My frustration continued to climb with the piece by the Serbian composer (...hold me, neighbor, in this storm... by Aleksandra Vrebalov, 2007). If I had heard the piece alone, rather than tacked onto the end of a bewildering concert, I might have found a foothold. It moved through many lovely moments, with swinging, lurching rhythms, dissonant figures, and some lovely melodies that were permitted to appear for short periods of time. Though, like the concert as a whole, it seemed to take pride in its disjointedness. The music is loaded with cultural messages lost on us, I thought, but what is the musical message? Must all this traditional music be shredded through the filter of avant-gardism? All this diversity is starting to seem like a way of dismissing, not embracing, a variety of cultures by knowingly feeding bits of them into the postmodern blender without sympathy, without reverence, without surrendering to their beauty. On the tape there are Serbian voices, church bells, clocks ticking—but the tape sounds like tape.  Those gaudy outfits, hairstyles, and chic aura ruins this precious musical material, making the unknown knowing, making it safe, the way my friend Marty says the cute McSweeneys stamp on the spine of Vollman’s Rising Up and Rising Down drains the book of all danger.

Do all the beautiful moments in this piece, this concert, add up, or do they beat against each other in one big crashing cultural cacophony?

C: I’m a pop chick. I like short, sweet melodies; harmony, not dissonance. Hell, even the few pieces of classical music I like are wimpy, sugary stuff: Beethoven’s 7th, Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Kronos is far from pop, but it’s important for us novices to see this stuff—even if it’s to simply reinforce the reasons we don’t like it. Even if you’re not into it, you can appreciate the Kronos’ vision and musical prowess, as well as the creative ways they channel fellow artists. Really.

W: For their encore, they performed “Night of the Vampires” by Joe Meek, and a Sigur Ros composition. It was excellent. The Meek was very fun. The Ros was majestic, lovely and vulnerable. Maybe this is what Kronos is best at, I thought—schlock and pop.

C: Kronos can transform a Sigur Rós composition from art rock into classical sophistication, worthy of 1700s Vienna. When you see members of our community—everyone from grandparents to high school students—mouths agape during Sigur Rós, then Kronos accomplished what they continually aim for—shattering musical boundaries.

But I was still glad when it was over.

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