5 Dec 2008: Carnegie Hal New York, NY
Sometimes it’s not the name in lights that’s the main attraction. When the esteemed Kronos Quartet took the stage at the equally esteemed Carnegie Hall in New York, we all expected a series of alternately annoyed WTF-fits and accepting passive trances brought on by the abstract semi-classical collages the group is best known for. We got both, but because of the drums, not the viols. “But wait,” you’re surely gasping, “Aren’t they a string quartet?”
Right you are. But about halfway in, Glenn Kotche, Wilco drummer and the night’s featured guest, strolled on stage looking like a disembodied chip of Brooklyn hipness floating in a sea of pomp, and he quickly emerged as the star of the night. He’d written a piece specifically for the quartet, which is notoriously commission-happy, and as it unfolded, he transformed before our eyes from a rock and roll rhythm section into an utter space cadet of… well, Kronos caliber.
Some of it was just wind-chime textural babbling in the percussion or swoops and screeches amounting to the same in the strings, but the high points were the parts where the abstraction in one was matched in the other by something more concrete. For example, after hearing the string parts doubled on mallets, I started scanning the stage to see which Krono had switched instruments. I did a double take after my third pass—they were all still on strings. Kotche, in his most impressive virtuoso moment of the night, was playing melodic lines with one limb and percussive parts on the drum kit with the other three. It made my head hurt.
Although Kotche was compelling as a performer, his composition seemed a bit scatterbrained, perhaps a bit too eager to show all his cards in one go, as though he needed to get all his weirdo ya-ya’s out before heading back out on the road with Wilco. (To be fair, he’s not the only one grappling with that problem—paging Nels Cline.) At times, it seemed to be more about spectacle than sound; we were probably a good twelve minutes in before he so much as hit his snare drum. His art-house technique of choice seemed to change every few bars (the cracking of twigs into a microphone being the most obnoxious phase) and I shuddered at the thought of what he might have planned for the giant gleaming golden gong planted stage left.
Every once in a while, however, his trick bag settled into a harmonious coexistence with whatever the quartet was getting into at the time. Most strikingly, he surrendered his second hand to the mallets just as the string parts went legato, letting each note ring out just a little longer, and the reverberant contrails from the instruments quickly wove themselves together into a compelling emergent combination, like Jell-O meeting pineapple or the cast of Gossip Girl meeting an oncoming train.
Kotche left the stage when his Imaginarium finally went dry about twenty minutes in (which raises the question of what he’s going to do on his next go-round), at which point the quartet started digging into George Crumb’s “Black Angels”, an avant-garde-as-all-hell piece from 1971 for electric string quartet which has become the closest thing they have to a signature piece outside of the theme from Requiem For A Dream. Despite having listened to their 1990 recorded version dozens of times in the days leading up to the show, I couldn’t get my head either into or around it. It’s a deliberately messy construction, at times heavily atonal, and even punctuated by outbursts of shouting, which are nevertheless among the more sensible compositional elements. Now, not everything has to be pretty, and there are times when bizarre can be brilliant, but with apologies to both Crumb and Kronos, “Black Angels” wasn’t among them—his fault more than theirs, I think.
And anyway, we were all still waiting for the gong. When it finally showed up, it was all I could do to keep from high-fiving someone.
With that elephant finally disposed of, the spotlight could shift to the raised platforms behind the band, the dark cloths draped atop torn aside to reveal crystal wine glasses tuned to specific pitches with varying amounts of liquid. It was another stunt, sure—the platforms were even lit from below, the glasses shining like humming amplifier power tubes—but the surprising part was that Kronos still sounded like a cohesive, well-rehearsed unit, even with 75% of the ensemble playing dinnerware.
The room went dead silent when the wine glass movement drew to a close, and it almost seemed like the creaking of the performers dismounting from the platforms might be written into the score. After all, if twigs are fair game, why not plywood floorboards? I, unfortunately, had to write all this down, which is harder than you could possibly imagine during absolute silence in of one of the world’s most finely tuned acoustic spaces. I eventually stopped myself mid-chicken scratch, mortified that I had violated some sacred code with the unforgivable din of ballpoint on glossy fancy-pants Carnegie program stock.
And, I must admit, feeling like a bit of a space cadet myself. John Cage would be proud.