I’ll start with the lows
I’ve been really grumpy about music lately and the at the start of this concert, my heart sank and I thought my grumpiness would continue. My friends and I got the promenade tickets for the arena area of the Royal Albert Hall (which is laid out somewhat like the Globe theatre, such that people stand around the stage). I had reasoned that string quartets were intimate, so it was better to be close. In fact, the acoustic of the hall are such that even standing not that far from the stage, the only sound I could hear was from the speakers. I might as well have been up way above, at least then freed of the burdensome expectations of non-amplified sounds.
The sound seemed slightly off the whole evening. At first, I thought the group lacked intensity, but they certainly looked intense. Somehow, it just wasn’t getting off the stage, lost somewhere in the compression of the audio signal. Lost in the tape backing they had for nearly every piece? Which (can we talk about this?) seemed to be really naff most of the time. There also seemed to be subtle timing issues throughout a lot of the concert and sometimes it just sort of felt like the seams were showing.
Kronos was my favourite string quartet for a long time, largely due to their distinctive bowing, but also due to their willingness to take risks, defy genre, etc. Unfortunately, this has becoming more and more gimicky as of late. One of their pieces, a BBC commission (so it’s not entirely their fault), had a Simon toy in it. The cellist would do a round of it and then play back the pitches in time, along with the other string players who also copied it. Along with tape backing, of course. Some of which seemed to be samples of Radiophonic sounds. I thought I recognised a single bass twang of the Doctor Who theme and I hoped they would just play that rather then the piece they were actually slogging through.
The best bit
However, they also played Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No 4: Amazing Grace, which was the piece I was most looking forward to. I didn’t know the piece, but I know the composer. The piece’s setting is lush Americana – Copland-esque but in a twenty first century context. The piece has a lot of busy-ness in it. It’s Americana glimpsed through the windows of speeding trains and moving cars. America between facebook posts. Constant distraction, the theme fragmented and subsumed in the texture of life. At one point, the violins and viola are busily creating their densely fragmented texture, while barely audibly, the cellist was playing the noted from Amazing Grace on the overtones of the highest parts of his strings. The notes of the melody become metaphor for Grace itself. Something transcendental and beautiful is always going on, giving meaning to a jumbled whole, sometimes so subtly that it’s difficult to perceive. The occasional moments of thematic clarity thus reminded me of tragedy, as that’s when grace becomes most apparent and evident.
It was really really beautiful and I teared up a bit.
Sofia Gubaidulina’s String Quartet No 4 was well-played and my friend Irene especially considered it to be a highlight. It’s a very good piece, but I’m sure I’ve heard the work before and I think it came off a bit better on those previous performances.
I thought the Swedish folk song Tusen tankar was also a high point. The piece was short, unpretentious and well played.
In general, they seemed to warm up and get going over the course of the concert and if they had ended with the last piece on the program, I would have gone home and felt pretty happy about them, but then they played an encore.
The tape part
I like tape (by which I mean any fixed media, like CDs or whatever). I write tape music. I like it when ensembles play along with tape. Tape is great.
Tape music is also sound that doesn’t immediately come from an instrument. So if it’s playing really processed or artificial sounds, that’s perfect, because those sounds couldn’t easily come from an instrument. But when it’s just filling in for a backing band that nobody wanted to pay to hire…. it’s naff. It’s inexcusably naff.
If Kronos wanted to play an encore with a metal band or whatever, I would have thought it surprising and maybe slightly gimicky. But they played an encore with a tape of a rock band. A tape that at one point got really loud with synchronised lights, while the quartet kept sawing away an unchanging string accompaniment. At that point, they played backup to a tape and tried to make it seem ok with lighting tricks. A tape of a rock band, not any kind of acousmatic tape. A let’s-just-play-a-tape-it’s-cheaper.
The high point of the concert was fantastic, but the low point . . .. I give them a mixed review overall.