The Kronos Quartet
Lingering Echoes of War
During the heyday of the classical music "avant-garde" in the 1960s and '70s, composers believed they had a mandate to reinvent music from the ground up. George Crumb was one of the very few who actually managed to do it. His works—pieces like "Black Angels" written for string quartet in 1970, the centerpiece of this astounding disc by the Kronos Quartet—are perverse and often startling constellations of sound that challenge conventional notions of how music should be organized.
In this and other Crumb pieces, for example, one doesn't detect clear beginnings or endings; instead, the music is a procession of episodes, dazzling textures, and extreme chords that rarely seem to lead into or connect with one another. The Kronos dives in, and within a minute or so of the first movement, gets deep into Crumb's punishing soundscape—the knotted, crying chords were inspired by the Vietnam war, but the piece conjures any place from which there is no clearly marked exit. The four string players gnaw and chatter as if they're reenacting an aerial attack, yet the juxtapositions of sound register with the force of body blows. Crumb relies heavily on percussion (his scores require players to strike a cymbal with a double bass bow). Though he does notate his work, parts of this piece suggest that the "score" might be a collage. He asks musicians to think in broad shapes, not notes, and the effects he generates can be awesome. They can also be terrifying.
David Harrington, the first violinist and conceptual force behind the Kronos Quartet, once said that he initially formed the group to play pieces like "Black Angels." Crumb's challenging piece, which is in some ways closer to the howling dissonance of heavy metal than string quartet music, aligns perfectly with the group's sensibility. Keen interpreters of the traditional repertoire, the four musicians are determined to escape its confines, and do this by applying a rock-auteur sensibility to recording projects. Kronos has commissioned notable contemporary classical works, but just as often goes outside of that world. Its concept albums include Monk Suite, devoted to the works of jazz composer-pianist Thelonious Monk, and the terrific Pieces of Africa, which gathers propulsive and often polyrhythmic work from contemporary African composers.
The theme of Black Angels might be broadly described as "disillusionment with humanity occasioned by war." The Kronos complements Crumb's piece with Dmitri Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8, a woeful, sometimes forbidding testament to the victims of fascism. Also here is a striking interpretation of Thomas Tallis's motet "Spem in alium," and a scratchy recording of a Charles Ives song to which the Kronos fashioned apt accompaniment.
Where Crumb wants listeners to wander over barren lands and share the agony of battle, Shostakovich, whose work closes the disc, describes something less visual but no less visceral—a soul-ravaging brutality, the kind that's accomplished without bullets.
Released: 1990, Nonesuch
Key Tracks: "Black Angels": Part One: Departure: "Sounds of Bones and Flutes" (second movement); Part Three: Return: "God-music." String Quartet No. 8: Largo (first movement), Allegretto (third movement)
Catalog Choice: Crumb: Ancient Voices of Children, Contemporary Chamber Ensemble (Arthur Weisberg, cond.). Kronos: Pieces of Africa; Monk Suite
Next Stop: Uri Caine: Urlicht/Primal Light
After That: Harry Parch: Enclosure 7
Book Pages: 196–197