Monday, August 18, 2008

Kronos, etc.

Last week I saw the Kronos Quartet perform at Tanglewood, part of wanting to support the festival in going beyond their classical-music-as-usual format, which is treated with such annoying reverence here in the Berkshires. It was the first time I’d been in Seiji Ozawa Hall, which was built in 1994 for $8.7 million and designed by William Rawn Associates in Boston in a manner aptly described by my friend, Scott, as “I. M. Pei channeling Charles Rennie Macintosh.” The relentless woodwork is gorgeous, veering close but thankfully avoiding association with the cheesy faux-Mission look that’s become so ubiquitous in furniture and design in the years since the hall was built. The entire back of the building opens up to include picnickers on the lawn, and exterior stairways contribute to a pleasant indoor/outdoor ambiance. My only complaint is with the decidedly un-ergonomic wooden chairs which, with thin cushions on the seats and none on the backs, are much more uncomfortable than they need to be—especially when listening to challenging music. I was familiar with much of the Kronos’s aggressively adventuresome repertoire, but didn't realize that they’d commissioned over 600 pieces in their 35-year history. While some of their choices push the limits of my tolerance for cacophony—a sound I associate, rightly or wrongly, with contemporary academic composition—there were moments that were completely transporting, among them Flugufreisarinn by Icelanders Sigur Ros (rightly described in the program as “at the forefront of invention in today’s international post-rock scene”), of whom I’m a fervent fan, and Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet.

The Kronos, like many contemporary musicians, make free use of pre-recorded audio, the only part that, for me, was disconcerting. I don’t mind sampling because it’s clear what it is, but I found it distracting to sit there and wonder what was live and what wasn't. This is one of the things I value in—and have learned from—the visual work of Robert Irwin and Olafur Eliasson, who make a point of keeping their means obvious so that the experience is the experience, and not marred by conjecture about how it’s done. One of my companions at the concert, Gregory, suggested that the Kronos might be better off having someone behind the computer up there on the stage with them, just to acknowledge the source of the sounds. But in general I don’t love the combination of canned music with live performance (even with dance)—it reminds me too much of lip-syncing (how about those Chinese?), or the violinists in the subway whose backup orchestra is a CD in a boombox.

I found a YouTube version of the Kronos playing Flugufreisarinn, which hardly does it justice, but can give you a taste. And finally the stunning new Sigur Ros video, Gobbledigook, has been posted, so I can include it here rather than make you go to their site to download it. It was done in collaboration with Ryan McGinley (Scott asked, “Does this mean that now I have to like Ryan McGinley?” and the answer is, "Yes."). Of course this is exactly what it’s like to be in Iceland, but with more trees.

The Kronos Quartet playing Sigur Ros:

Sigur Ros video Gobbledigook

I neglected to bring my camera, so Gregory took these pics of Ozawa hall with his iPhone:

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