When Kronos came to town

I take this break from my normal rhetoric to bring a concert review

Kronos Quartet came to Stockholm on May 9th bringing a mixed program ranging from traditionals and popular music to several recently commissioned pieces to their long-time signature. The technical skill of the quartet is as strong as ever, their communication and cohesiveness still at the elite level. Their blend as ensemble is at times hard to judge--they make use of amplification throughout, and choosing to use just a stereo pair of speakers on sticks on either side of the stage makes it hard to tell. That set-up, if using a stereo image of the group (which the engineer was), causes blend issues based on location. I was a bit further house left, so I got a bit more violin in my ear. Honestly, I would make use of a different style of amplification set-up, perhaps utilizing the array already in place which would have done a better job at even amplification across the space.

The program is as follows

  • John Oswald Spectre
  • Geeshie Wiley Last Kind Words, arr. Jacob Garchick
  • Raymond Scott, Powerhouse, arr. Michael DiBucci
  • Traditional, Smyrneiko Minore, arr. Garchick
  • Terry Riley, Serquent Risadome
  • Karin Rehnqvist, All Those Strings!, for string quartet and kantele, featuring Ritva Koistinen
  • George Crumb, Black Angels
  • 1st encore, Jimi Hendrix, Purple Haze (arr. unknown)
  • 2nd encore, Laurie Anderson, Push
Spectre is a piece designed as an opener, utilizing a smooth transition from tuning the string section into the piece. It follows a process from the beginning to the end, from a drone cello tone building up, through the use of electronics, to "a thousand Kronoses" (quote from David Harrington in the show). The process is straight forward and effective. The balance of the electronics to the performers was generally good, though a few passages were almost unheard during the loudest build-up of the electronics. During the climax of the piece, were "a thousand Kronoses" were battling it out, the performers pantomimed playing, either in stop-motion, hitting a position and holding it, or in an exaggerated fashion. This brought some chuckles from the audience around me, as the exaggeration was a bit campy. Pantomime is a difficult performance medium for some to take seriously. 

Geeshie Wiley's Last Kind Words is an old Blues song dating from 1930. Below is a recording of Geeshie Wiley playing the song

Playing a blues song that wasn't originally an instrumental offers challenges. Jazz players do it regularly, with the approach being keeping the form and melody, but adding lots of personal touches and long solo sections. What Kronos presented was the song, in it's entirety, transcribed for string quartet. It was less an arrangement and more a straight transcription.

Below are the lyrics:

Stanza 1: The last kind words I heared my daddy say
Lord, the last kind words I heared my daddy say
Stanza 2: If I die, if I die in the German war
I want you to send my body, send it to my mother, lord
Stanza 3: If I get killed, if I get killed, please don't bury my soul
I p'fer just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole
Stanza 4: When you see me comin' look 'cross the rich man's field
If I don't bring you flour I'll bring you bolted meal
Stanza 5: I went to the depot, I looked up at the stars
Cried, some train don't come, there'll be some walkin' done
Stanza 6: My mama told me, just before she died
Lord, precious daughter, don't you be so wild
Stanza 7: The Mississippi river, you know it's deep and wide
I can stand right here, see my babe from the other side
Stanza 8: What you do to me baby it never gets outta me
I may not see you after I cross the deep blue sea

Here's the issue with instrumentally performing songs--none of those words come across in the performance. That feeling does not get transmitted to the audience magically. The music in many songs aids in the transmission of the lyrics, adding to the ideas present.

A good arrangement of a song like this takes into account the missing lyrics and their meaning. Those emotions must then be portrayed and brought out by the arrangement in some other fashion. Having the first violin play the melody while the other three instruments perform pizzicato accompaniment imitating a guitar makes for a bland arrangement. I was bored in the concert without knowing the piece, and downright irritated after doing a quick search and finding the piece. A standard blues song form, with it's repeated 12 bar set-up, can become monotonous without the lyrics, or the additions most jazz performers add. Not a good arrangement at all.

compare this to Michael DiBucci's arrangement of Raymond Scott's well known Powerhouse. Almost all of you will recognize this piece instantly, even if you don't know the title.

This arrangement was faithful to the original, while making use of string quartet in a variety of fashions. The arrangement was solid, the orchestration well done, and the performance top notch. It suffered from none of the arrangement issues of Last Kind Words.

Smyrneiko Minore ended the trio of arrangements. It was performed well, with a much more imaginative orchestration, though it too stayed very close to the original. John Harrington specifically mentioned the recording below by Marika Papagika

Again, what came out was much closer to a transcription than an arrangement. In this case the musical material already included string instruments, which Jacob Garchick transcribed almost perfectly. The melody line was handled by the first violin, including all the embellishments.

It's interesting to contrast Smyrneiko Minore and Last Kind Words based on their original content and how interesting the transcriptions became in performance. Smyrneiko has a much more florid vocal line, with embellishments and quarter tones thrown around as a part of the expressive character. Last sticks to a more traditional blues style with a strong focus on the lyric character. The difference between the florid and simple settings make for vast differences in the transcriptions. For me, Smyrneiko was more compelling as a transcription, whereas Last would have worked better with a more careful treatment, using the instruments to bring forth the emotion content of the words rather than just repeating the melody.

Terry Riley's Serquent Risadome is a piece written for Kronos' 40th anniversary. The piece is very sectional, making use of a few ideas that are developed shortly, then left behind, to be brought back later for a fleeting moment. I haven't been a huge fan of Riley's more recent works, and this piece also didn't resonate with me. Kronos did a good job navigating the quick changes, and doing a fine job bringing out the moments that connect the seemingly disparate sections of the work.

George Crumb's Black Angels is a staple of Kronos' repertoire. They did not disappoint in their performance. Speaking to a friend afterwards, she was intrigued by the theatrical elements of the piece, and how much was built into the piece and how much was added. It's the type of piece that can draw in an audience into the performance. Kronos chose to have the wine glasses up on a separate platform covered by black cloth, making the reveal quite theatrical. This again brought a few chuckles from the crowd, but this theatricality fit into the piece well, and was part of what made the piece so memorable for my friend.

This is the triumph of new music. The choreography was needed but interesting, demanded in the same way as large percussion set-ups, and done in an interesting way that draws a little attention to the movement, but in a positive fashion. The many different sounds and ideas in Black Angels gives an audience a ride through different territories (figuratively, metaphorically, and literally as far as development of ideas). It was met with raucous applause by the audience.

The first encore was Purple Haze. Here's a quick reminder of Jimi Hendrix:

Pay attention to Hendrix's guitar tone. There's a bit of fuzz, but not an overwhelming distortion. There's an edge on the vocals, more like they were tracked a little hot. There's not a large amount of compression, but it's definitely present. The drums are slightly in the back, with the snares being quite rattly. This is a live performance. Compare to this to studio version, here off the Best Of album

There's obviously more distortion, a more fierce distortion. And yet, each note is clear as day. For all the crunch and nastiness, the pitch isn't obscured by the effect. It's crunched, but soulful. The drums are crunched and compressed, but in a way that is fitting. It's a classic drum sound that has been emulated for ages.

Also notice the funky 1960s style stereo panning with the vocals in the right channel until the later effects that sent it ping-ponging. There's delay and reverb on the voice as an effect, emulating the lyrics.

Hendrix knew what he was doing.

Kronos' version was so distorted and compressed that pitch no longer mattered. Most of the time I had no idea what was being played. The effect was so badly mixed that it was just a wall of noise. I've described to people tonight as "a group of 15 year olds playing used guitars into used, nearly blown Marshall full stacks, with only an old Boss distortion pedal turned up all the way. Everything just cranked all the way as loud as possible, jamming in their parent's garage, just shredding like they're the greatest thing ever."

There's something to a raw sort of version of Purple Haze. But what I got wasn't raw, it was almost unlistenable. If it had been billed as a Merzbow meets Purple Haze, I might have bought it. Instead, I got an interpretation that left me more annoyed than anything.

For a real look into how a group should approach a "new standard," and interpretations of songs, fall down the amazing rabbit hole of doing a YouTube search for All Along the Watchtower. Start with Bob Dylan. Visit Jimi Hendrix. Move to Dave Mason. Listen to Dave Matthews Band if you're so inclined. There's a video of Eddie Vedder. You can listen to Eric Johnson do a version that hearkens back to Hendrix with his guitar tone and style. Take a listen to Richie Havens version. Maybe hop to Jamie N Commons' version. So many groups doing version that range from tributes to Hendrix or Dylan to more original takes. Performers keep their style and their tone, not adapting or aping someone else. There's individuality along with reverence. But be prepared for the rabbit hole that is this search path.

Thankfully, Kronos gave the audience a second encore that was more fitting with Laurie Anderson's beautiful piece. It's a simple song, beautiful in its simplicity. It allowed me to clap and give Kronos the appreciation they deserved.

You'll notice I skipped one piece, All Those Strings! by Karin Rehnqvist. I was unacquainted with Rehnqvist's music before arriving in Sweden. She teaches at KMH, but my contacts were in the electronic department, not the acoustic composition. However, since I arrived here, I've made a point of listening to the music of as many different Swedish composers as I could. Luckily, Rehnqvist has a fair amount of music available through Naxos, so I was able to at least get a fair sampling. What I heard I enjoyed.

All Those Strings! includes a kantele, a type of plucked dulcimer/zither. It's an instrument native to Finland, and is linked to Norwegian Finnish* mythology through the Kalevala, a epic poem written in the 19th century (which has been the source of many works of various art forms since its creation). The Kantele is a beautiful instrument, with a bell like quality. It reminded me of the hammered dulcimers of Appalachia, or the cimbalom. The plucked quality reminds me of the guzheng. All these instruments share the same family, so the relations in my mind make perfect sense.

There are times when I feel a piece is too short. Not because the piece did not give adequate time to the ideas or themes, thus leaving me unfulfilled. This was Brian Ferneyhough's criticism of my piece Dance of Disillusionment and Despair, when my my concept of miniature movements did not end up serving the material (or the material serving the form, to different views of the same problem).

Also not because it was a particularly short piece. There's something to be said for a piece that gets in and gets in and gets out, making it's point.

No, All Those Strings! was simply enjoyable enough that I didn't want it to end. The piece was billed as 20 minutes in length, and it felt closer to seven or eight minutes. There have been few moments when I got lost in a new performance, but Kronos and Ritva Koistinen's performance was impeccable. Rehnqvist's writing was idiomatic and made strong use of all the instruments, employing a range of techniques in a fashion that fit the musical material. The piece is very new, so there are no recordings available at the moment, but do yourself a favour, check out Rehnqvist's music, and put All Those Strings on your "To Buy" list. Hopefully Kronos and Koistinen will make a recording in the near future.

Overall, the concert was performed with the high level of artistry that one would expect from Kronos. The weakest portions were the pop songs, where Kronos seemed to miss the point of the songs with poor arrangements. The strongest were the pieces written for Kronos that made use of all the strengths and breadth of Kronos' skills.

*Edit made 5/12/2014. Why I'm thankful for astute readers! That's just a silly mistake: of course the Kalevala is Finnish. A few of my teachers are shaking their heads right now...

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