2024, Music

Kronos Quartet Live at Koerner Hall Thursday May 9, 2024

I am somewhat familiar with the Kronos Quartet but more by reputation than actually knowing their music. I have heard a few of their recordings – particularly Tan Dun: Ghost Opera – but hardly very many, with many on my list that I’ve never been to. But when I saw they would be here, on the final tour of two of their members, I figured I should go. Ghost Opera gave me a faint hint of what I could expect but, having not listened to it in years, I was really in for a surprise.

The stage was set with strings hanging from the season, with only one chair, ipads sitting on music stands, and some percussion instruments, such as gongs and maracas. There were three black boxes at the back of the stage. We sat behind the stage because the tickets were cheaper. I was a little worried but it ended up being an absolutely great place to watch, both because we were really, really close to the stage and because the bench was actually really comfortable.

Black Angels: Thirteen Images from the Dark Land (1970) by George Crumb

This is apparently the piece that inspired the formation of the quartet 50 years ago. It is an aggressively avant garde piece featuring frenzied playing, often in a super high register, intermixing with quiet, plucking, chanting and whispering, and quotes from Schubert. At various points, members of the quartet hung up their violins on the strings in order to hit gongs. Partway through, three of them walked behind the three boxes on the stage to reveal glasses and played glasses first with their bows and later with pencils. It is certainly one of the strangest, most difficult pieces of “contemporary classical music” I have ever heard but it is absolutely something that benefits from seeing it in person. The glasses in particular were a surprise.

I used to listen to a lot of this stuff and I don’t really much any more. I don’t know how it stands up to stuff by Berio or Penderecki or what have you. It felt less coherent. But it was really fun to watch.

ilektrikés rímes (2021) by Aleksandra Vrebalov

This is a beautiful piece meant to both commemorate the composer’s 50th birthday and mourn the dead from COVID. It felt like the furthest thing from the Crumb piece, for the most part, especially back to back, even though it was clearly quite modern (if somewhat conventional). I really enjoyed it and I will be checking out her work. Unfortunately it seems like there’s not a ton of information about her music on my usual resource.

Triple Quartet (2001) by Steve Reich

After a brief intermission, the stage was reset and we were treated to this piece by Reich. I have listened to some early Reich but not a ton and not recently. This piece is meant to be performed by three string quartets. Of course, there was only one, so they record the two other parts and play along with the recordings. (The theme for the second half was playing with recordings). This was really great and I have added the recording to my list. It had a lot of drama and had a few people tapping their feat or bopping their heads.

Segara Gunung (2023) by Peni Candra Rini

This is a piece of Indonesian music adapted for string quartet. I have listened to a fair amount of gamelan-influenced music but very little of the genuine article. This, of course, was more gamelan-influenced music. There was a faint, rustic percussion sound playing as a recording and the quartet played over top of that. (So faint you couldn’t hear it most of the time.) This was really pretty. It was Jenn’s favourite of the night and among my favourites.

Kiss Yo’ Ass Goodbye (2024) by Sun Ra, Terry Riley, Sara Miyamoto

So this is a weird one. Sun Ra recorded a piece called “Nuclear War” back in 1982 but it apparently didn’t get much or any of a US release. It was later released on an archival collection in 2001. Infamous composer Terry Riley took it and remixed it along with Miayamoto, and improvised to the new remix. Then the Kronos Quartet’s cellist transcribed those improvisations for string quartet.

I don’t think it works, particularly. Maybe it was at least partially the sound – we were sitting away from the speakers – but strings playing along to a remixed Sun Ra track was just…weird. It was pretty meta – transcribed improvisations to a remix of a lost jazz piece by one of jazz’s weirdest people. And it seemed to lack cohesion to me. It was far and away the lowlight of the evening, even if it might have stood out as an interesting piece in a less interesting programme.

ZonelyHearts (2022) by Nicole Lizée

By far the quirkiest piece of the evening was by Canada’s own Nicole Lizée. Beginning with narration meant to evoke Rod Serling, it is full of both prerecorded sounds and also sounds generated by members of the quartet. All through the second half of the show I was wondering what the old telephones were for and in this piece I found out. In addition to their instruments, they utilized books (I’ve never seen anyone play a book before), shakers, the aforementioned rotary phones and these weird plastic or paper tubes that were actually used in lieu of bows. It was super weird and funny despite how serious it might be intended to be. Along with the opening Crumb piece, it was the weirdest work of the night, though this was a lot more quirky than just outright difficult.

This was really quite an amazing show. I was happy to see such a famous quartet for the first time but I also just really, really appreciated the the variety of the programme. Sometimes people look for coherence in programmes (or albums) but here the variety was the real star – we had no idea what we were going to get next and everything was interesting, even if I don’t feel like the Sun Ra thing was successful. I highly recommend seeing them the next time they’re in town, even if two of their longest serving members will be gone by next time. Just a great show.

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