Category: Classical Pimping

Sea change

You can take the cellist out of the quartet, but you can’t take the quartet out of the cellist.

The cellist in this case is Joan Jeanrenaud, a 20-year veteran of the Kronos Quartet. Jeanrenaud left Kronos in 1999 to pursue other projects, something the quartet’s rigorous tour schedule couldn’t quite accomodate.

Jeanrenaud spent some time on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi, then back in her home base of San Francisco developing what would become Metamorphosis, billed as “an evening length solo work … using projection, lighting, staging and multidimensional sound sources”.

Many of the pieces from that show appear on Jeanrenaud’s namesake debut album.

One thing from Kronos has definitely rubbed off on Jeanrenaud — the ability to program diverse works into a coherent whole.

Taken individually, the compositions on Metamorphosis are distinct. The tonality of Hamza el Din’s “Escalay” and Philip Glass’ “Metamorpohsis” share little with the electronic processing on Jeanrenaud’s own “Altar Piece” or Mark Grey’s “Blood Red”.

And yet, Jeanreanaud manages to maintain a unified mood throughout the album. All these pieces share a dark frame of mind, a lot of longing expressed spontaneously through improvisation.

In fact, improvisation — or the appearance, thereof — is the most predominant thread through the entire album. Classical music doesn’t allow much wiggle room for improvisation, which makes Metamorphosis all that more expressive.

Jeanrenaud started composing “Altar Piece” as an improvisation for cello and effects processor, while Grey’s “Blood Red” depends on a computer reacting to the cellist’s performance.

Other pieces feel improvised. Karen Tanaka’s “The Song of Songs” centers around the pitch organization for D and its harmonics but feels far more expansive than that. Of course, “Escalay” sounds like an old traditional song, transcribed for a notated performer.

That leaves Glass’ title track to ground the album to a steady pulse.

Metamorphosis could have very well been a Kronos Quartet album, and perhaps, it’s probably tighter than some of her former ensemble’s most recent concept albums. (Nuevo was great, but Caravan is barely memorable.)

While Jeanrenaud has obviously leanred a lot from her two decades in Kronos, Metamorphosis is a nice first-step into more organic expressions.

New again

Being on the cutting edge is Kronos Quartet’s bread and butter, but after 30 years, even the most pioneering of spirits can seem quaint.

When Kronos released Caravan two years ago, the quartet was essentially upstaged by its Eastern European guest musicians, revealing more obviously than before the Kronos don’t always have the flexibility to perform outside the Western art music spectrum.

For Nuevo, a collection of music by Mexican composers and performers from divergent disciplines, Kronos enlisted noted rock en Español musician Gustavo Santalaolla to co-produce with long-time collaborator Judith Sherman.

No slag on Sherman, but Santalaolla was just what Kronos needed to rejuvenate its sound. Santalaolla has a reputation for coaxing emotionally-charged performances out of such artists as Juanes, Café Tacuba and Molotov. And on Nuevo, the quartet reknowned for its “serious” work sound like they’re actually having fun.

Right from the start of Severiano Briseno’s “El Sinaloense”, the Kronos delivers a frantically joyous performance filtered through distortion. David Harrington and company transform themselves from a string quartet to a four-person street accordion.

The sonic explorations don’t just end at effects processors. On Alberto Dominguez’s “Perfidy”, the quartet overdubbed itself multiple times to recreate the lushness of the 101 Strings. Don’t think the Kronos is getting soft — they’re backing Carlos Garcia playing on a musical leaf.

Yes — a one-armed guy who uses a leaf from an ivy tree to create music.

Kronos definitely keeps up with singers Alejandro Flores and Efren Vargas on the traditional and rhythmically complex huapango song “El Lloar”.

Even a cover of ¡Esquivel!’s “Mini Skirt” feels fun. The quartet hasn’t been so on track with its humourous side since including Raymond Scott’s “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals” in its repertoire.

Kronos does remind listeners it is indeed a classical ensembles, as evidenced by its remarkable reading of Silvestre Revueltas’ dramatic “Sensemaya” and Osvaldo Golijov’s introspective “K’in Sventa Ch’ul Me’tik Kwadulupe”.

Toward the end of the album, Kronos takes makes its most daring creative leaps.

With “Chavosuite”, an arrangment of a television comedy score, Kronos sound sufficiently at ease with itself to deliver some really silly music. They put their instruments through loads of effects on their interpretation of Chalino Sanchez’s narco-corridos “Nacho Verduzco”.

Dig it — Kronos covers a song about drug smugglers.

The album’s apex is the epic “12/12”, composed by and performed with Café Tacuba. A sprawling, sonically-challenging work, “12/12” is the most experimental track on Nuevo, the kind of piece that would have been comfortable on previous Kronos albums as Howl U.S.A. or Short Stories.

It’s also pretty neat to know the most dissonant and jarring work on Nuevo was written by a rock band.

Nuevo is Kronos’ most extreme album to date. Santalaolla really uses the studio to stretch Kronos’ sound, and as a result, the quartet offers up some of its punchiest string playing ever. They really do sound new again.

Emotional rescue

In the past 25 or so years, Kronos Quartet has commissioned more than 400 works. That’s about as many songs Prince reportedly has in his legendary vault.

Of course, that means Kronos shares with Prince the potential to release some awe-inspiring albums or some really questionable duds.

Although Kronos has single-handedly managed to bridge classical music with pop culture — commissioning a piece from Mr. Bungle and performing with Café Tacuba — the quartet is in its best element performing Western art music.

Requiem for Adam fits squarely in the classical arena, and it’s a piece which sports one of Kronos’ most spirited performances. Named after the son of Kronos’ first violinist David Harrington, the piece was written by Terry Riley, the man commonly credited for ushering in minimalism with In C.

Riley stayed away from notated composition early in his career but started up again after working with Kronos in the late 70s. In turn, Riley’s improvisational pieces forced Kronos to adopt a work ethic that involved totally immersing themselves into a piece.

Unlike the overly long Salome Dances for Peace, Riley’s work on Requiem is focused but organic. The beautiful first movement starts off mournfully but midway through slowly builds to a flurry.

The second movement pits Kronos against a set of analog synthesizer effects that sound totally crude. Extracted from the piece on the whole, this movement could have been a somewhat engaging work by itself.

In contrast to the first and third movements, which have no electronics, the second movement sticks out.

Thankfully, the third movement erases any missteps of the second by returning to the dark harmonies that informed the first. Save for an introspective middle section, this last movement is mostly kinetic, an energetic piece propelled by glissando and heavy arhythmic accents.

The album concludes not with Kronos but with Riley performing a quiet piano piece titled The Philosopher’s Hand.

It’s a suitable conclusion the album. Kronos spends a good part of the disc mourning, wailing and screaming through their instruments. Drawing back from that intensity with a low-key piano piece strikes the right chord.

Of all the 400 pieces Kronos could have recorded, the quartet picked a great one to feature on Requiem for Adam. This disc is no dud.

The Divine Miss M

A funny thing happened when I listened to Audra McDonald’s How Glory Goes — I felt the urge to get Dawn Upshaw’s Broadway-themed album, I Wish It So.

A funnier thing happened after I listened to the two discs consecutively — they’re almost the same album.

Like Upshaw, McDonald is the kind of performer who can make a believer out of any skeptic. Whereas Upshaw is the opera singer for people who hate opera, McDonald is the Broadway musical actress for people who don’t like Broadway musicals.

And like Upshaw’s I Wish It So, How Glory Goes is programmed with mostly non-show stoppers, save for a requisite standard. In McDonald’s case, it’s “Somewhere” from West Side Story. (Upshaw, not surprisingly, had chosen “I Feel Pretty” from the same show.)

Broadway music is most powerful within the confines of its story. An overwrought tune such as “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” takes on new meaning when the song’s signature character reveals her true nature. McDonald, however, manages to avoid both forced sentimentality and out-of-context confusion by choosing material that ably displays her thespian abilities.

Who knows what’s the story behind “I Wouldn’t Mind” from The Other Franklin? It’s still a heart-wrenching tune regardless, and one where McDonald makes a convert out of doubters.

But for all of McDonald’s wise choices in making this album, it’s her sweet, powerful voice that matters most of all. McDonald could be singing a shopping list, and it would sound divine.

Oh, and the funniest thing about the whole McDonald-Upshaw parallels — both albums were released by Nonesuch. Upshaw’s in 1994. McDonald’s in 2000.

Makes me wonder.

Eight Lines about Four Organs

Ever since Bang on a Can became a major label endeavor, the adverturousness of the informal music festival’s recordings take on the appearance of losing its initial pioneering spirit.

Critics of Bang on the Can said the primarily downtown New York affair lost its edge about seven years ago when it moved out of the Kitchen and into Lincoln Center.

On the contrary, Bang on a Can has tapped into the slowly built proverbial bridges between popular culture and high art.

Two years ago, Bang on a Can arranged Brian Eno’s Music for Airports for live instruments. In short, it reverse engineered the components of Eno’s seminal recorded opus and toured the piece in a number of international air terminals.

For a follow-up, members of the festival’s house band, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, have done something pretty obvious — they recorded three works by Steve Reich.

Compared to the names of composers championed by Bang on a Can, Reich is about as classically mainstream as, say, Bob Dylan. Not everyone may like his work, but most people can appreciate Reich’s influence.

Reich, however, is one of the few figures in (so-called) art music recognizable in pop circles — well, at least in the underground. Last year, Nonesuch, who also released BOAC’s collection of Reich’s work, rounded up a bunch of DJs to remix Reich’s work.

Bang on a Can present more straight-forward interpretations of Reich’s work, but it’s still easy to understand the composer’s appeal to the electronic music frontier.

Reich’s music sounds synthetic on the surface, but as it unfolds — as it does in the kinetic Eight Lines — a broader sense of beauty emerges. Bang on a Can infuses this seemingly cold music with a real human warmth, and the results are satisfyingly amazing.

P.S. I always thought of myself more of a Phillip Glass fan than a Steve Reich fan, but after listening to Different Trains with more mature ears — and now the pieces on this latest collection — I’d say the scales are definitely shifting.

Caravan headed nowhere

If there’s a group whose discography consists entirely of concept albums, it would be the Kronos Quartet.

Ever since the quartet’s debut recording for Nonesuch in 1985, Kronos has released at least one album a year, each with a different theme. Some yield fascinating results (Early Music, Black Angels), others are just plain questionable (Pieces of Africa, Short Stories.)

With Caravan, the Kronos becomes gypsy musicians. The diminished scales and bizarre harmonies of gypsy music are only a few aesthetic steps away from the usual dissonance of Kronos’ repetoire.

But a jack of all trades is a master of none.

When Kronos explored similar harmonies on Night Prayers, the ensemble produced a work of breathtaking emotional breadth. Caravan features some rather spirited performances, but exactly what it’s meant to contribute isn’t altogether clear.

Like Pieces of Africa before it, Caravan is a nice attempt by a classical ensemble to bridge the western art tradition with a global community. But it’s an attempt that finds the group grasping at a tradition it has only a vague comprehension.

Nothing makes such a stretch so evident as the arrangement of “Misirlou Twist,” the Dick Dale surf twang hit that found new life through Quinten Tarrantino’s Pulp Fiction. On this track, the Kronos does something it’s rarely done and perhaps has yet to master — playing with a drummer.

Kronos, however, must be given commendation for continuing its relentless pursuit in creating a kind of global art. By forcing the western art music tradition to explore times and timbres and tradition the establishment refuses to acknowledge, it insures that classical music has a direction — even if it’s a scattered one.