Ladies And Gentlemen, The Kronos Quartet
September 17, 2011 10:29 AM   Subscribe

In their 25 year career San Fransisco-based Kronos Quartet might be most famous for creating the go-to dramatic movie trailer music but they've recently courted controversy with their latest album, 9/11, with Steve Reich (NPR First Listen). The album is another in a long line of collaborations with composers such as Phillip Glass, Terry Riley, and Pēteris Vasks. And like any good instrumental ensemble, they've covered Hendrix, Sigur Ros, and Tom Waits. Oh, and they've been on Sesame Street. posted by The Whelk (31 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Read your post, and five minutes later bought this. Already amazing, thanks for making my day.
posted by tempythethird at 10:35 AM on September 17, 2011

When people say 'exploitative', I think they just mean 'too soon'. Led Zeppelin came out in '68, just 30 years after the Hindenburg - did anyone make accusations of exploitation back then?

Can't wait to listen to this.
posted by Think_Long at 10:38 AM on September 17, 2011

creating the go-to dramatic movie trailer music

I don't even go to movies all that much, but I think I've seen something like 6-7 trailers using either the Requiem for a Dream song or a near copycat of it... and every time I was thinking, "Wow, epic period piece... with junkies. A movie about infidelity... with heroin. A suspense thriller about technology... ass to ass."

I guess Hollywood figured Requiem for a Dream didn't get enough mainstream viewing to worry about the associations people would make...
posted by yeloson at 10:51 AM on September 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

Fantastic post. Thanks, Whelk.
posted by homunculus at 11:02 AM on September 17, 2011

Oh my God, oh my God - this is amazing.

Thank you thank you thank you thank you!
posted by glaucon at 11:08 AM on September 17, 2011

Just saw Kronos Quartet last night at UMCP, they played a lot of really weird atonal arrhythmic stuff with awkward electronic sounds interspersed. I can't say it was anywhere near as enjoyable as I had hoped.
posted by TheMidnightHobo at 11:17 AM on September 17, 2011

You have made it when you get a spot on Sesame Street.
posted by Tashtego at 11:37 AM on September 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

creating the go-to dramatic movie trailer music

Hate to be the pedantic dick, but Clint Mansell created this music. Kronos plays it.
posted by dobbs at 11:49 AM on September 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

Every time we are "remembering" 9/11, we are reinforcing the goals of the terrorists, doing their work for them.

(Almost) every time the US "remembers" 9/11, the methods and goals of those who used 9/11 to launch a war on the world are reinforced.
posted by williampratt at 12:01 PM on September 17, 2011 [6 favorites]

I know it's pretty, but I didn't take it out for air.
posted by Dark Messiah at 12:01 PM on September 17, 2011

Should have done a record of Stockhausen compositions!
posted by spitbull at 12:15 PM on September 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

And, Morton Feldman's Piano and String Quartet, which is probably my single favourite piece of music. The Kronos Quartet with pianist Aki Takahashi performing one of Feldman's last compositions. Thank you for posting this.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 12:54 PM on September 17, 2011

They recently played a concert at the Hamilton Mausoleum in Scotland, reputed as having the longest echo of any man-made structure. Some footage of the rehearsal can be found on the website of the local TV station here.
posted by Jakey at 1:10 PM on September 17, 2011

Oh, so many stories. My cousin Hank is the violist in the Kronos Quartet. In the late 80s they were still touring in a single four-door sedan; at one point when they had a show in San Diego, the four of them slept at my parents' house. I vaguely recall a Thanksgiving dinner (that couldn't be beat) at my grandparents' house where I was seated next to David Harrington and didn't say anything because I was like eight and really shy.

So mostly I grew up thinking that my cousin, like a lot of people's relatives, was in a band, and they occasionally got gigs. Who cares, right? Not a very big deal. I probably thought they practiced in a garage somewhere. Whenever Kronos came to town my family would go see them on the UCSD campus or wherever they were playing, then we'd go to my grandparents' place and have dinner, then go home. Whatever. My parents had a bunch of Kronos CDs, but they never played them-- they prefer classical stuff, mostly, or 60s rock.

When I got to college in 2001 a couple friends told me I needed to see Requiem for a Dream and when the opening credits showed the 'Music performed by the Kronos Quartet' I went 'Oh hey, my cousin's in that' and they had to stop the movie and I didn't know what the big deal was. People had heard of Kronos? But it's just my cousin's band.

The dad of one of these friends was the president of my college's music conservatory, so he got me to bring Hank out to campus to guest-teach a quartet master's class. I sat in and it was pretty neat-- he's a natural teacher, and the two quartets that he coached sounded twice as good after he'd finished than they had after just an hour. Someone asked him what advice he had for making it as a professional musician.

'This is my first job,' Hank said. Which is true: Kronos used to play on San Francisco street corners, long before they got to Carnegie Hall, but he's never done anything else.

So I went through a rather intense period of getting as much of Kronos's recordings as I could. Rather embarrassingly, despite all those CDs my parents had and all the concerts I'd been to when I was like 14 or whatever, I had no idea what they sounded like outside the Requiem soundtrack, so when I first heard them do Crumb or Zorn or whomever it was kind of shocking and offputting. I probably kept listening more out of a desire to care that my cousin was famous rather than anything else.

But now I love the stuff. Reich, Schnittke, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Pandit Pran Nath, my understanding and appreciation of contemporary chamber music is at the point now where I'll put on Black Angels to relax. It's fun stuff. There's a lot of playfulness in contemporary quartets, which you wouldn't necessarily expect.

Looking back, now, I think my dedicated attempting to listen to Kronos stuff is directly responsible for my appreciation for contemporary art-- I learned that there's all sorts of beauty and wonder and humor in 'difficult' art. There is loveliness in bits that I used to think were ugly. If you pay attention, or try, there's limitless magic in the world, as long as you don't just immediately turn it off because it sounds different than what you're used to. This change in my perspective coincided, I believe, with my political maturation from not-thinking-very-hard conservative to broad-minded, questioning liberal.

Which is why I had a part of a minimalist opera performed at my wedding. Hank played viola, his partner Greg was on piano, and it was a family occasion. And I don't think I've told him this, but it was particularly important that Hank played at my wedding, because in a weird roundabout way he, and his garage band and their recordings and their art are largely responsible for the person that I am today. I should probably call him.

Thanks for the post.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:16 PM on September 17, 2011 [42 favorites]

You can't forget about Elvis Costello. I mean, I wish you could, but that jerkoff is near ubiquitous.
posted by Roachbeard at 1:23 PM on September 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't know who's presenting at the very beginning of the Hendrix cover clip, but I want to hang out with him back then...
posted by kuanes at 1:59 PM on September 17, 2011

he, and his garage band and their recordings

I want to take a ride in the car that parks in that garage.
posted by Twang at 2:59 PM on September 17, 2011

shakespeherian: Wow, nice story. It's fantastic that they taught you so much about appreciating art and really broadened your horizons and I mean that sincerely. But, I also do hope (for your sake) that they weren't broadened so far that you're sat typing this wearing shiny leather trousers like the ones in that Sesame Street video.

Fantastic post btw, Kronos Quartet is one of those names that keeps popping up in odd places and I've never really looked into - it's nice to get a quick overview. I'll go seek them some out now.
posted by pmcp at 3:22 PM on September 17, 2011

Yeah I have absolutely no idea what anyone is wearing in those Sesame Street clips.
posted by shakespeherian at 3:37 PM on September 17, 2011

Saw them last year playing Crumb's "Black Angels", which, yeah. I disliked when they used pre-recorded parts of themselves as backing track on Reich's "Different Trains".
posted by yoHighness at 4:33 PM on September 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

...anything called 9/11 is going to be necessarily exploitive. That said, if someone must do a 9/11 album, it might as well be Steve Reich.

That's what I thought when I bought 2 tickets to hear the world premiere (yeah, it premiered in North Carolina, where Reich and Kronos were doing a residency, a week or so before New York got it (one of the few times in my life I'll experience *that*, I'm sure)), but I soon learned otherwise.

We were extremely excited to see this show; both of us love Reich's work and one of us really loves Kronos (I only like them (sorry, string quartets are one of my least fave chamber iterations; it's a thing I'm working on, promise (but I do own a number of Kronos cds and love their world music experiments a fuckload))).

Anyway, the point is, despite an amazing Kronos performance of brief snippets (sans video, sadly) from one of Reich's most brilliant compositions, The Cave (a fascinating and beautiful exploration of the classic stories of Isaac, Ishmael, Abraham, Hagar, Sarah and, yes, Abraham Lincoln (I know, but he totally makes it work with the first act using text from Israelis, the second act Palestinians and the third act USAians)), we left the evening disappointed.

Reich's 9/11 struck both of us as oddly exploitative and surprisingly shallow. I'm usually with the eye-rollers over "too soon" bullshit, but after seeing the work come up generally empty of meaning, I have to say I'm not surprised to read about a controversy over cover art that fetishizes the planes and buildings.

I write this, mind you (coughing out my sore throat at the computer on a rainy Saturday night instead of making that spinach/basil salad I promised myself at work today), while 102 Minutes (an amazing book you should read a few chapters of if you haven't yet before listening to Reich's new cd) is sitting on my bedside table with a bookmark on page 146, so (just to be clear) I'm not someone who's telling you we should shy away from immersing ourselves in the harsh realities of the tragedy to "keep people from thinking about it," as David Harrington says in that SFWeekly link. I also think Phil Kline's description of the cover as "the first truly despicable classical album cover that I have ever seen" is ridiculous, fetishizing the image of the planes far more than Reich's already fetishized piece does.


Reich's 9/11 is just bad (or lame, or dull, or the work of an artist coasting or whichever "this is not this artist's best work" substitute you prefer). It brings nothing new to the table intellectually, repeats stupidly trivial NORAD statements over and over again as if there's some sort of meaning to be mined there (and the other snippets of dialogue Reich chooses to repeat endlessly are just as completely jejune), does nothing musically that Reich hadn't already worked over in Different Trains decades earlier, and, most relevant here, included absurdly blunt and shallow imagery in its live performance. The presentation - big screen shadow of the shape of a plane, background slowly turning red as the flames devoured the building, blah blah - felt like the emptiest kind of disaster porn. Coupled with the shallowness of the text and the retread nature of the composition, the imagery felt borderline insulting and definitely kind of stupid.

Again: that there's now a controversy over blatant, shallow cover art for the CD release of Reich's 9/11 does not surprise me at all.
posted by mediareport at 6:48 PM on September 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was listening to the opening night of the Sacred and Profanum festival where I believe Steve Reich's 9/11 was premiered streaming live on polish radio while riding a greyhound bus through Maine. It was choppy but worth it.
posted by sulphur at 7:53 PM on September 17, 2011

I don't know who's presenting at the very beginning of the Hendrix cover clip, but I want to hang out with him back then...

That's David Sanborn.
posted by various at 8:23 PM on September 17, 2011

spitbull: "Should have done a record of Stockhausen compositions!"

Ha! I was gonna say - if anyone's gonna be doing a 9/11 it'd better be a Stockhausen piece!
posted by symbioid at 10:04 PM on September 17, 2011

sulphur, there's a lot of Reich on the 2011 program for Sacrum Profanum, but I don't see 9/11. Are you sure you heard that piece? Anyway, minor point but if you heard it last week that wasn't the premiere; it premiered in Durham last March.
posted by mediareport at 6:37 AM on September 18, 2011

Oddly enough, the Kronos Quartet also recorded an album of the music of jazz pianist-composer Bill Evans back in the 1980s. Eddie Gomez and Jim Hall appear as guest artists.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 9:48 AM on September 18, 2011

Yes, it's weird to see Reich get more political as he gets older. I haven't heard WTC 9/11 (what a terrible name for a piece, by the way), but I have heard his Daniel Variations, about the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl, and it was pretty uninspired. It seemed like the political needs of the piece shadowed the musical needs of the piece, and while I think timely, politically motivated art can be good, it doesn't seem like Reich is the one to pull it off. I don't think it's a coincidence that his most beloved pieces have abstract titles like "Music for 18 Musicians" and "Piano Phase."

Reich's deicision seems especially weird because there is already a glut of 9/11-themed concert works, e.g. John Adams' (eerily similar in concept, but better executed) On the Transmogrification of Souls and Matthew Tommasini's Torn Threads Rewoven. This is maybe invisible to anyone who doesn't follow concert music closely, but for me, in 2002 and 2003 it seemed like EVERYONE was writing a 9/11 piece, and it was incredibly tiresome, especially in the wake of all the other shitty things happening in the United States. Maybe Reich wanted to wait until that had all passed, but he doesn't seem to have a fresh take on things for all that time. It's not exploitative so much as unimaginative.

I was in New York City on the 10th anniversary this year and I went to part of Music After, a marathon concert of downtown composers who were affected by the event. The nice thing about that is that none of the music was obligated to be about 9/11, and most wasn't. I heard, among other things, Brooklyn, Oct 5, 1941 by Annie Gosfield (whose birthday it happened to be). That seemed like a nice way to repurpose the date; just sit in a room and listen to music and have whatever thoughts you feel like having.
posted by speicus at 10:12 AM on September 18, 2011

Oh I still remember the day I unwrapped the plastic on their 25 Years box set. Oh that was a happy weekend, indeed. Ahhh the memories...
posted by Theta States at 7:20 AM on September 19, 2011

I've been a fan of them for a long time. Kronos' Floodplain has been in my car CD player for a couple months now. Still hasn't gotten old.
posted by aught at 8:52 AM on September 19, 2011

Oh and this is one of the best albums of 2011:
Kronos Quartet, Kimmo Pohjonen & Samuli Kosminen - Uniko
posted by Theta States at 10:26 AM on September 19, 2011

mediareport: No, I heard Daniel Variations, a piece I was already familiar with, not WTC9/11. I thought the 9/11 was going to be played later in the program, but I had gotten off the bus by then and didn't have a connection to hear it. Thanks for clarifying that Sacrum + profanum wasn't the premier.
posted by sulphur at 4:40 PM on September 26, 2011

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