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SCRUTINY | The Kronos Quartet Five Decades Offers Brilliance, Impressive Tech, And Humanity

By Hye Won Cecilia Lee on May 13, 2024

The Kronos Quartet (Photo: Lenny Gonzalez)
The Kronos Quartet (Photo: Lenny Gonzalez)

Kronos Five Decades — George Crumb: Black Angels; Aleksandea Vrebalov: ilektrikés rímes; Steve Reich / Triple Quartet; Peni Candra Rini (arr. Jacob Garchik & Andy McGraw) / Segara Gunung: Movement I; Sun Ra, Terry Riley & Sara Miyamoto (arr. Paul Wiancko) / Kiss Yo’ Ass Goodbye; Nicole Lizée / ZonelyHearts. Kronos Quartet, May 9, 2024; Koerner Hall.

On the evening of May 9, 2024, the audience packed into Koerner Hall for the Kronos Quartet: Five Decades. Celebrating their 50th year, Kronos’ sixth concert in Koerner was built on its cumulative identity as a true leader of new music, opening the concert with George Crumb’s Black Angels, followed by four works never heard before in Toronto.

Kronos’ performance of the Black Angels is legendary. Written back in 1970 as a lament for the Vietnam War, it still doesn’t get played very often due to its difficulty, but the work has a manic following of listeners — even in flat, 2D recordings played through tiny headphones and speakers, it mesmerizes. Kronos plays it often, with incredible ease, and it was definitely the audience’s favourite.

Crumb’s work demands not only instrumental mastery, but a complete embodiment and commitment from all four players. Dealing with amplification where the smallest and the faintest sound comes alive in the hall, they must exert superb control on their instruments, and be at ease with the technology to create a balanced output: without creating feedback, being able to play using monitors, and figuring out the actual logistics of tangles of cables, plugs, and dials. This is no small task.

The additional requirements: glass rods, thimbles, three sets of crystal glass harmonicas, big gongs, maracas, shouting and whispering, make this intricate score, hand-drawn by Crumb, beautiful and terrifying for performers tackling the work for the first time — or maybe the nth time.

There was no flaw in their Crumb. Or rather, there was no room left to look for a flaw, as their musicality and commitment simply overfilled the near-capacity hall. The Pavana Lachrymae, a quote from Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, so quiet and pale that it was nearly inaudible, was deafeningly loud for the listener as its meditation on death and sadness felt true. The three Threnodies in their decisive explosive phrases, ranging from quartet unison or pizzicatos, to amazingly dense and loud playing in super high registers, contrasting with absolute silence, was exactly what Crumb asked for: ‘Vibrant, intense!’ ‘Furiously, with great energy!’ then ‘disembodied, incorporeal’ back to ‘Vibrant, intense!’

The concert involved extensive technical design, required and additional, and the tech team, Laurence Neff, Brian Mohr and Calvin Ll. Jones, elevated this music even further. Walking into the hall and seeing the stage with its impressive set up, including hanging instruments — including lines suspended from the ceiling to allow the quartet to hang their instruments up, so that they could navigate the stage easily — was a decisively provocative decision.

It is shocking and amazing to realize that Kronos’ current tour involves a rotating repertoiren — not just one or two substitutions, but each program for the month of May seems to only share two or three works the most, in five to seven selections made for each concert. And, that we’ve been lucky in YYZ that they brought this iconic work.

For Toronto, they chose Aleksandra Vrebalov’s ilektrikés rímes (2021) as the second selection, a work that somehow shared much sentiment from the Black Angels, though written nearly 40 years later: ‘… a plea for health, love, and creativity, after times of disease and fear.’ A COVID pandemic commission for Kronos, its pale colours, sometimes at the verge of cracking, to joyous pizzicatos reminiscent of African Kora, this Canadian premier was a fitting end to the first half. The passages often spoke in hushed tones, with no real consonants, and its lack of distinctive melody may have been challenging for the audience, but its gentle curves in murmuration were beautifully executed.

The Second half was all Kronos commissions: Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet, followed by ‘Segara Gunung’ (Ocean-Mountain) by Peni Candra Rini (2023), arranged by Jacob Garchik and Andy McGraw. Then an arrangement of ‘Kiss Yo’Ass Goodbye’ by the cellist Paul Wiancko of a composite work of Sun Ra, Terry Riley and Sara Miyamoto, and a current Kronos favourite: Nicole Lizée’s Zonelyhearts (2022).

Out of the second half, the Zonelyhearts was a standout, especially for its soundscapes and elements of surprise. Inspired by Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, 156 television episodes spanning over the 5 years from 1959-64, the work takes chunks from the past — from direct media clip replay to manipulation of time through repetition and glitch — products of various technical malfunctions. Going beyond the instruments, the quartet members spoke, slammed books closed, dialed rotary phones, and ate popping candies with their mouths open to the mic.

It is interesting that these ‘extended techniques,’ should we call them that, often make us laugh. There were many audible laughs scattered throughout this work, as surprises kept coming. The sound and physical presence made by these techniques are theatrically effective, and the actual sounds work well in the aural context. But, it’s the unsolicited laughter that is interesting: what’s making us laugh? Is silliness and playfulness allowed in serious arts (one would hope)? Is it a social signal to say: I understand this, as the way people eagerly start to clap before anyone else at the end of a jazz solo? Whatever it may be, a physical reaction from the audience — laughter in the concert hall usually filled with reverential (and heavily conditioned) silence, is a definite triumph for the creators and performers. There was plenty of that.

Perhaps it’s the evocation of childhood, or a heavily-coloured nostalgia (with hint of pink wash) that makes this work a success. It is weird to realize that though I grew up a world apart from Lizée’s world, in South Korea, her provocation of nostalgia was real for me. Half a world away, and thousands of dollars of GDP per capita apart, in that early boom of the global village of the 1980s, whatever was left from the shared world of electronics and technology was shockingly real, even if I didn’t know much about the Twilight Zone. Would this be a different experience if I grew up in another era, another place? What does this work mean to millennials and gen-Zs who mostly grew up without mechanical tech glitches, where your tapes got jammed, VCRs choked, and batteries signaled their death in slow-and-slower downs? Kronos not only created a musical experience, but a real cultural perspective in their inclusion and performance of Zonelyheart — this is what they do best.

Last Thoughts

With plentiful media access and unlimited playback options, we are often now lost. Where are the real experiences, and how are they any different than any other experiences? How do we determine the merit of anything, and when we praise a performer, what are we valuing really? Many people haven’t been to a live performance for years — some fell off the habit during COVID, and never came back; some just no longer can be bothered to commit their physical existence for a few hours, when there are so many secondary experiences available for free at the touch of a screen.

When we go to a live performance, what are we there for?

Before the days of free and plentiful videos, often the listeners were left in mystery while listening: how are these sounds actually made? The performers also spent many hours with furrowed eyebrows, staring at the fresh scores: what exactly do you want, and how should it sound?

The Kronos Quartet occupies a unique place; they exist in that liminal space — from the old-school avant garde music, where sine wave tapes were the peak of sophistication, to current works that require a great technical complexity — Kronos members became their own technical engineers. Their setup in Koerner Hall left no doubt, from bowed glasses to sophisticated backtracks and live processing. They also elevated music from being a simpler aural experience, to real, comprehensive performance — their conviction and embodiment of music is clearly expressed in their speeches, gestures, and countless non-instrumental instructions.

With Hank Dutt and John Sherba passing on their batons in the next season to Gabriela Díaz and Ayane Kosaza, the quartet will evolve yet again. But, transformation and adaptation were always at the heart of Kronos. There is no doubt in their pursuit of excellence.

The true question would be: where would they take us? The Kronos Quartet: Five Decades, feels like a brief stop in their incredible journey. Perhaps a few fervent Kronos groupies are slowing down- — aging does that. Yet the group feels just as ferocious and sharp.

This concert was pure excellence, and should there have been a few mishaps, let them be. Experiences such as this are not built on perfection, but on provocation and resonance. Long live Kronos.

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