Sunday, January 07, 2007

KRONOS QUARTET, "BLACK ANGELS"



Ok, I'll admit it--I first heard about the Kronos Quartet after the release of the soundtrack for Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem For A Dream". It's an amazing soundtrack, a collaboration between Kronos and Clint Mansell, and it's still the most enduring part of the film for me. While the special effects & storyline become less and less interesting each time I see the film, the soundtrack always remains powerful. Of course I'm a sucker for highly-emotive string-based classical music (hence my addiction to Schubert quartets).

A few years back, the Kronos Quartet came to the Flynn Theater and I was able to attend (it was the first of two mind-opening concerts at the Flynn that year, along with Philip Glass' orchestra's performance of Koyaanisqatsi (playing in time to the projected film image). It was amazing to hear the "Requiem" theme live, but what struck me even more was Kronos' interest in modern avant-garde composers. With the exception of a passing acquaintance with the work of John Cage, Steven Reich and Glass, I was largely unaware of the amazing work that contemporary avant-garde composers and musicians were writing and performing.

I left the concert with the intention to buy some Kronos Quartet albums, but somehow it never happened.

This week I took a couple of much-needed vacation days and made a solo trip to Montpelier. After picking up a new turntable at the wonderful vinyl shop Riverwalk Records, I stopped in to Buch Spieler's and browsed through their inventory. While I rarely browse the jazz & classical sections at other music stores, for some reason I'm always drawn to them at Buch's--it's a small collection, but well thought out & I've found some unexpected choices on several occassions.

After grabbing John Zorn's "Moonchild" (I've never really been able to get into Zorn, and I'm giving him a second chance), I saw the Kronos Quartet section & out in front was the album "Black Angels". I'd been intrigued by this album since hearing that it is a concept album of sorts, with each song being in some way about war and violence. The title track is a composition by experimental composer George Crumb, whom I first became fascinated with during a Western Musical History survey course I took in college. I remembered that with the exception of Gregorian chant, Schubert & Mahler, I was pretty bored with a lot of the music in the class. And then we listened to a few minutes of Crumb's "Black Angels", which was like a musical version of a locust plague. I loved it, though I was one of the few in the class of 500 who seemed to even be able to tolerate it.

The Kronos rendition of "Black Angels" (which supposedly was written by Crumb as a response to the Vietnam war) is amazing; their dedication and feel for the music evident in every dissonant note. It's obvious they have a respect for not only the harsh and tearing aspects of the music, but also for the delicacy and silences that occur throughout. An incredible performance, and one best listened to alone.

They follow up Crumb with a gentle, melancholy piece by Thoma Tallis, and then back into the eardrum-ringing sounds of Istvan Marta's "Doom: A Sigh" ("Romanian angst" a little? I think so...). The next piece, while seeming a bit out of place at first, has become one of the album's highlights for me--a strange composition by Charles Ives, written during WWI & updated during WWII. An early recording of Ives singing this patriotic ditty (acetate pops & all) is played in the background, while Kronos adds some hard & angry screeches over the top. It becomes a strange discourse, like the ugly truth of war & violence is fighting for recognition over the poppy patriotic propaganda. A neat little postmodern studio experiment by Kronos.

The album finishes out with Shostakovich's "String Quartet No.8", which brings the album back to the heavy, droning melancholy introduced with the Tallis piece. It's a beautiful & sad work, and brings the album to a gentle close. My only complaint is that the Quartet takes up nearly 1/3 the disc, and it would have been nice to have had a couple other selections near the end that bring the mood down a bit more slowly. But all in all, this is a fantastic album filled with some wonderful compositions & performances. Highly recommended.

5 comments:

Tmoore said...

noice.

Funny enough i've been listening to the mogwai/kronos/mansell score to the fountain (awesome.) and if you're a fan of that repetative epic emotive string assault than i'd really suggest picking it up. it's very similar to the requiem score, but i personally enjoy the themes a little more on this one, plus the added disonant guitar textures that mogwai add on certain tracks keep things interesting.

jay said...

I'm glad you mentioned that, because I've been wanting to give that soundtrack a listen. Even though a wasn't a huge fan of "The Fountain" (someday I'll actually get around to finishing & posting the review I started months ago), I did enjoy the score. I was surprised to find out that Mogwai were involved--I've always been a fan, and this was a very different style than what I'm used to from them.

casey said...

I dislike that Fountain soundtrack, Tanner. You could say I'm sick of Kronos and Mogwai overall. But not as sick as I am of myself and my hatin'.

But Black Angels is my favorite of their CDs.

I can get you into Zorn, Jay. Oh yes, I can. I don't think that Moonchild is the best place to start, though. Perhaps one of the Filmworks series? Maybe The Big Gundown. Or even IAO. If you're into the dark magicks, that is.

Speaking of the latter, I'm waiting on a promo copy of the Kenneth Anger DVD... Don't tell 'em I'm not a film critic!

Tmoore said...

i've never liked mogwai, nor to be honnest have i ever listened to a kronos album - i think mansell's compositions are enjoyable, and his use of these two group's aesthetics work well together.

Zorn... i'd have to say, is very very hit or miss. probably because he's so unafraid of experimenting, which is good, but i can't say i've heard a zorn album aside of the electric masada album that i could whole heartedly endorse.

greg davis said...

never really got into kronos too much, i feel like they try to be too all over the map and 'cool'. look we can play jimi hendrix and then charles ives, etc.....ive liked some of their playing on morton feldman's music (im thinking of piano and string quartet). in fact, he wrote his 2nd string quartet for them. that piece lasts about 6 hours. not sure if kronos has ever played the whole thing through. but now there are other quartets that have played it live (i heard a performance in NYC about 5 years ago) and there are 2 recorded versions by the flux and ives quartets that are really amazing.

ive never really gotten into zorn either. stephen drury (at the new england conservatory) is a friend of zorn and a big proponent of his music so i heard a bunch of zorn compositions while i was there. some of them were really nice. i remember one great piece involving symphonic 4 bass drums (i think called dark river or something). really dark piece. also heard a bunch of his piano pieces too. i was in a Cobra ensemble for a semester too. thats a fun piece to play. but generally i dont really get into that quick cut cartoony style of music.

shit that was long....