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Kronos Quartet explores avant-garde music at Sanders


With soprano Dawn Upshaw.

Works by Zorn, Gorecki,

Mackey, Reich, and Hendrix.

Sanders Theatre, May 12.


FROMM FOUNDATION AT HARVARD periodically presents free concerts of top-notch performers. The Kronos Quartet is, deservedly, one of the most well-known performers and advocates of new music today. Friday night's concert at Harvard presented four pieces, all commissioned by the quartet, which represent some of the, well, more interesting trends in new music. First up was Cat O' Nine Tails by John Zorn, inspired by cartoon music (especially that of Warner Brothers' Carl Stalling), which Zorn claims is "the great avant-garde music of America, in that it doesn't make normal music sense." His piece consisted of five- to ten-second fragments of various musical bits ranging from Debussy licks to improvised squeals to bluegrass to the effects in the cartoons where the music slows down with the animation. Although completely absurd, the music was still able to draw an immediate gut reaction. It was also interesting to hear cartoon-style music without the cartoon, and to note how flexible the music really is in transforming from one idea to a completely different one. Although highly amusing, I would be hard pressed to state that this is the future of avant-garde music.

The next piece performed was Already It is Dusk by Polish composer H. M. Gorecki. It consisted of heavily repeated fragments varying between extreme dissonance and rich sonorities, and had a simple texture throughout, creating a very primitive form. Its bluntness accounts for both its success and failure --it was at times powerful and enticing, yet it seemed to lack any real development of its ideas.

Among the Vanishing by Steven Mackey featured soprano Dawn Upshaw and text extracted from the letters of the German poet Rainier Maria Rilke. The music was dense and surreal and tied soprano and quartet closely together. The performance was absolutely stunning (especially Upshaw's), and the music disturbing yet gripping. Other listeners felt disturbed and gripped in less pleasant ways than myself, with "abominable" being one overheard description of the piece. The piece was over thirty minutes long, a very long time for such music. Despite this, I felt the music successfully avoided monotony.

The last piece on the program was Steve Reich's Different Trains, which featured amplified instruments and prepared tapes of the quartet as well as recordings of trains and speech. The piece recalls the composer's childhood train journeys between New York and Los Angeles, and musically conjures images of riding a train, looking out the window. While it had its moments, it quickly became monotonous; I felt bored looking out the window somewhere in Pennsylvania. The piece has received critical acclaim, but I still prefer Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach for classic minimalism.

Kronos has musicianship of the highest order; they work hard and have a feel for the music they play, bringing out the best in it. What made this concert worthwhile was that each of these pieces drew strong reactions (with the exception of Trains, which drew only a yawn), albeit different reactions from different listeners.

For the encore, the quartet brought back the 1960's with a new, highly entertaining version (arranged by Mackey) of "Foxey Lady," complete with imitation pick slides, feedback, fuzz, and even a taped vocal ("I see you, uh, walking down Mass Ave. ..."). Cellist Joan Jeanrenaud trashed her bow for this tune as well as for a second encore, "Purple Haze." Not exactly high art, but a good close to perhaps one of the weirdest concerts I've ever seen.