Kronos Quartet at Hamer Hall


Kronos Quartet have been around for over three decades. In that time, they have, somewhat ironically, been canonised as the pre-eminent iconoclastic string quartet. So how does an iconic group like Kronos maintain that hint of elusiveness and avant-garde cachet that prevents them from becoming entirely mainstream? Perhaps it’s their sense of humour and parts of their Visual Music concert, a mixed-media retrospective, are excellent examples of this.

The opening piece, Pendulum Music, was composed by Steve Reich and involves the Kronos members coming on stage and each standing beside one of four slightly different two-metre tall metal structures that contain an amplifier and a microphone attached like a pendulum to the top of the structure. Having been raised in an arc, the microphones are allowed to swing back and forth past the amplifiers and each time they do, a “whoop!” sound of varying length and pitch is created. Reich happened on this little musical possibility in the mid-1960s by chance. The result is a surprisingly varied and dynamic piece of randomised music — reminiscent of the playground sounds of swings or seesaws or what it would sound like if you gave the entire cast of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest clay pipes. The point is that, as Reich himself said, “If it’s done right, it’s kind of funny.” Of course, at the Melbourne Arts Centre, with the Toorakian Musica Viva subscribers rubbing shoulders with fashion-haircut music students fresh from the VCA, not many people laughed … after all, they’d come to hear a string quartet or to worship at the altar of high art.

The hint of tongue-in-cheekness was only compounded by the second composition, Cat O’ Nine Tails, by John Zorn. As though turning the tuning knob on a radio, Kronos merrily raced through this pastiche of doleful chamber music, nursery rhymes, heavy dissonance, gentle plucking and overly dramatic tremolo — a mixture that makes one glad to know the words pathos and bathos. For those in the audience still a little wary, the two-second long snippet of a Bugs Bunny clip projected on the screen behind the quartet was the final confirmation that this was indeed supposed to be funny. One thing that struck me during this piece was that the players were reading the music off the page … so, for example, how does one musically notate that the viola player should use his bow not on the strings but on the side of the viola for three bars? Fortunately, this little issue would be resolved later in the concert.

The tone of the evening shifted quite dramatically with Scott Johnson’s It Raged, which mixed a recording of I.F. Stone discussing Cold War politics with synthesised percussion and Kronos performing live. The religious metaphor of anti-communist Holy War is obviously a sinister forerunner to today’s literal polito-theological clashes and Johnson’s composition adds a strong reinforcement of the illogic, senselessness and confusion of the “paranoia and tribalism” under scrutiny. The contemporaneousness of the words and strings was unfortunately undercut by the clearly dated drum machine that could easily have found a home on an early George S. Clinton album.

In a return to non-string-based music, there were two pieces by Mark Grey, called Bertoia I and II. This time the Kronos members each manipulated infra-red sensors linked to randomised samples of chimes, gongs, bowed and brushed instruments. The effect is always different, which is a tad exciting, but I couldn’t help but think that it’s much more fun for the performers than for the audience … I remember playing for far too long with a similar device in Helsinki once, but that’s another story.

The use of video projection was used throughout the concert but became most effective in the second half of the program in the performances of the score for The Day the Earth Stood Still by Bernard Herrmann (who also notably scored Psycho, Citizen Kane and Taxi Driver), Sun Rings by Terry Riley (a NASA-commissioned piece of music, as if they exist!) and Quartetto per Archi by Krysztof Penderecki.

Penderecki’s music was famously used in The Shining … during the bit where Shelley Duvall looks very concerned and is swinging a baseball bat through the air, if I remember correctly, then again, that describes half the film. Anyway, for this piece, Kronos stood at the front of the stage and faced the projection screen behind them onto which was projected a rolling score. So, if I’d previously been wondering how one notates/reads apparently random music, I now had my answer. In fact, the amazing music and educational value of this piece alone was worth the price of admission.

However, the climax and undisputed highlight of the night was the performance of the Sigur Rós work, Flugufrelsarinn. Delicate, haunting, visceral and, dare I say it, better than the original. The adaptation of this piece reminded me of similarly successful work by Brad Mehldau in revivifying Nick Drake and Radiohead songs for solo jazz piano improvisations. Sure, Flugufrelsarinn will seem particularly wonderful to my ears because of its familiarity and more traditionally pleasing melodic structure because it goes against the deliberately non-pleasing stuff of Reich or Riley that preceded it but that is precisely the reason Kronos put it at the end. They remain an icon not just because they debut new works, use video projections, don’t take things too seriously and play extremely well. They also know how to program a concert and, no matter how ardently avant-garde you might be, it’s far more satisfying to leave at the end of an outstanding concert with Sigur Rós reverberating through the mind rather than the randomised “whoop-whoop” of a pendulum microphone.