Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Finally... Kronos Quartet

Last week, Cambridge Union promoted a square go  between Kissy Sell Out and Stephen Fry, over whether classical music is irrelevant to today’s youth. In Glasgow, where art happens instead of being debated, The Kronos Quartet played in The City Halls and provided an answer. For students pondering where to spend that nine grand on an impractical degree, Glasgow proved that it has music worth going to see while you piss your future credit rating up a wall. Cambridge offers examples of how badly England deals with the idea of the public intellectual, pitting the one man twitter machine against an artist who thinks that playing Altogether Now by the Farm and having a slot on Radio 1 makes him a figurehead of da yout.

Unlike Fry and Out, Kronos aren’t spending their time on facile arguments. They cover Sigur Ros string quartet style, get works from Reich and Riley commissioned for them about Big Political Issues, invite Inuit throat singers and electronic experimentalists onto their stage, and rock the sound system as hard as four guys on violins, viola and cello can. They even get up and start whanging on a specially amplified set of barbed wire fences. Radio 1’s obsession with New Music translates as four guys with guitars rehashing pop rock tropes, or a couple of teenagers in their skidders, talking about empowerment. Kronos find new instruments and fly around the round, seeking collaborations. While I am sure that Kissy Sell Out managed to define the meaning of “relevance” during his speech, Kronos have settled on the more traditional notions of “interesting”, “challenging” and “exciting”.

Across the weekend, The Kronos Quartet gave the Scottish premiere of Reich’s WTC, added Tanya Tagaq as a fifth member – her panting, growling voice an earthy counter-point to the quartet’s discipline – teamed up with Alim Qasimov Ensemble for a chamber murgham mash up that sought a compromise between the Azerbaijan group’s improvisation and the west’s carefully notated scores, and scrabbled through jazz cut-up maverick John Zorn’s Dead Man suite. They had time to premiere David Kirkland Gamer’s Lament for the Imagined, a melancholic meditation on the Scottish Diaspora, and make a new friend in Scottish harpist Catriona Mackay, before revisiting their collaboration with long term associate Wu Man on a new piece from 1960s minimalist legend Terry Riley. Apart from the strings, they played percussion, squeaky toys and plugged into a sampler for a John Oswald encore. Oswald invented the mash up back in the 1980s, through a series of disorientating and boldly political remixes.

Yes, but is it relevant? Can young people dig it? Never mind those family events, or the teenagers at opening concert – what does it say to the youth? What sort of message are they giving?

Even if they are a bunch of old white men playing in an established tradition, Kronos’ eclecticism would impress the most exaggerated stereotype of a diversity officer. Equally, their willingness to unearth any manner of music – Tagaq sounds as if she spends her weekends eating raw flesh and the crossover with the Scottish Youth choir makes human voice and cello sound like a techno hymn – mirrors the sort of selection that would appear on the i-pod of a teenager with unlimited access to the world’s music, like there used to be before the record companies started sending mentally ill old women to prison for downloading. Sure, classical music is irrelevant. Just read what Kissy Sell Out has to say in the Independent’s tabloid version. After all, Radio 1 has always been hip, and never more so than when its DJs exercise their formidable intellects in a newspaper that is so pleased with its new format it has forgotten that it needs to have engaging articles.

As part of The Kronos Quartet’s weekend in Glasgow, a late night Saturday bill hands the stage to Tagaq and another set of collaborators, Baltimore’s electronic mischief makers Matmos.Having already teamed up with The Kronos Quartet for Tundra Songs, and showcased her incredible vocal range and style – imagine Bjork with a larger range of octaves and a penchant for rhythmic growling, Tagaq comes on stage accompanied by a violinist and a drummer. A short talk about her inspiration – her throat singing is an Inuit technique, and needs a little explanation  before she lets rip – and the trio dive into what appears to be an improvisation. Tagaq obviously leads the musicians, as her snarls, yelps and grunts determine the mood and pace: the piece shifts from erotic intensity to calming interludes, through aggressive tribalism and ecstatic crooning. It’s too easy to reduce her to an exotic curiosity, when both her stage presence – her movements border on contemporary dance – and commitment to deep emotion make her the embodiment of what rock’n’roll pretends to be: sensual, feral, alien and disturbing, while utterly gripping.

 If Matmos' recent albums have seen them move into glitch-based keyboards, and away from their outrageous sampling tapestries, their live show is a mixture of the wildly experimental – a sinister improvisation based on tests for telepathy – to the more danceable and joyous. Joined by a guitarist, the duo balance minimalist repetition with an earthy bass that manages to be both abstract and groovy. While the absence of the classical forum makes this an unlikely pairing rather than an integrated show, the combination of Matmos and Tagaq ensured that, outside of the Cry Parrot celebration across the town, there was no more experimental and engaging music on show in Glasgow.

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