The innovative and long-lived American string quartet Kronos made another appearance in the Triangle September 21, 2002, at Duke as part of the New Directions Series, sponsored by the Duke Institute of the Arts. Kronos presented a wide-ranging program in Reynolds Theatre, amplified throughout. The discreet use of sound processing and pre-recorded music in many of the works made it clear that the techniques of the traditional string quartet, the 1950s-60s avant-garde, and the recording techniques of popular music have all been assimilated into Kronos’ approach to playing and performing. Continuing the string-quartet-as-rock-band analogy, the concert incorporated extensive but subtle lighting cues linked to a keen sense of drama.

Kronos chose to open and close this concert (the program order shifts from concert to concert, as can be seen in other current reviews of this tour) with the music of Terry Riley and Steve Reich, American composers of particular importance to the ensemble. Riley played a pivotal role in the artistic development of Kronos as the ensemble developed in the late 1970s and in turn Riley expanded his own compositional horizon as he and Kronos worked together on the numerous pieces he has composed for them in the intervening years. “Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector,” an early composition from 1981, merges Riley’s improvisational compositional approach with his love of North Indian classical music to create a score based on modular sections repeated in no particular order. Ostensibly in the Dorian mode, each fragment contains a 14-beat rhythmic cycle reminiscent of the rhythmic modes of Indian classical music. Various patterns and textures are explored throughout, and rhythmic activity ranges from straightforward to highly syncopated. Kronos played what was obviously their own preferred arrangement of the various cells as particular ideas returned, most notably a descending and ascending chromatic figure in the viola and two striking patterns in the cello, one made up of vehement double stops and leaping figures and the second a pizzicato arpeggio pattern. Riley’s music conjured a special mood of both contemplation and motion in a wholly convincing composition that left the term minimalism far behind.

“Pannonia Boundless,” by Yugoslav composer Aleksandra Vrebalov (b.1970), features expert writing for the individual instruments of the quartet in music that makes no secret of its debt to Gypsy tunes and fiddling. Individual cadenzas alternate with ensemble passages in its brief single movement, but at no time does the composer step beyond imitation of her models.

Next came “Svefn-g-englar/Sleepwalker” (arr. Stephen Prutsman), by Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós. Prutsman’s innovative and expert arrangement of this music captures its static moodiness while providing Kronos an opportunity to utilize an expansive sound field by adding reverb and echo effects. In addition, the lighting for the work turned part of the back curtain into an outcropping of hanging icicles or stalactites, emphasizing the cave-like acoustic space that was generated and pointing to the work’s Icelandic origins.

The selections from Kronos’ new CD of Mexican music, Nuevo , all arranged by Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov (b.1960), who has lived in the US for the past 16 years, sat at the heart of the program and displayed Kronos’ great versatility and willingness to experiment with timbre and use of pre-recorded backing tracks. Golijov’s love of and sensitivity to these various types of Mexican music and his amazing ear for alternative timbres and instrumental textures were obvious throughout these selections. With “El Sinaloense” by Severiano Briseño (1902-88), the ensemble sought to imitate the brass fireworks of a traditional “banda” in a virtuosic display that fell short of its goal. In contrast to the harsh brashness of “El Sinaloense,” Golijov used “Se Me Hizo Facil” as a springboard for a brittle, lyrical fantasy on the Agustín Lara (1896-1970) song whose chromatically inflected melody is at conflict with its dismissive sentiment of easily replacing one woman with another. This fractured treatment perfectly captured that dichotomy and drew both romantic and sarcastic playing from the quartet. The abstract nuttiness of “Mini-Skirt” by Juan Garcia Esquivel (1918-2001), the king of Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music, worked beautifully as a string quartet, with whistling and verbal interjections by the quartet adding to the mood.

“12/12,” an ambitious sonic tour written by the Mexican band Café Tacuba and named for December 12, the day Mexicans celebrate their patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, concluded the selections from Nuevo . Set in five parts, “12/12” featured pre-recorded musical selections and soundscapes from both rural and urban sources around Mexico City that utilized Kronos as lead players, accompanists and background noise. Violist Hank Dutt began the piece with a dramatic gesture, not with his viola but with a toy swung over his head that produced the sound of crickets that then bled into a tape of crickets, evoking the ambient sounds of the arid southern Mexican countryside at night. There followed a stark whistle and drum tune that would return throughout, rapidly segueing into the blare of Mexico City traffic, whose dissonant clamor generated the white-noise music given the quartet by Golijov in the most striking moment of the piece. More conventional melody and accompaniment sections using the requinto guitar, electric guitars, drums and synthesizers followed, with the quartet taking the lead or accompanying as the sections demanded. I feel a live collaboration between Café Tacuba and Kronos would yield a more exciting and wide-ranging result and make “12/12” a full artistic success rather than a highly interesting experiment by replacing the limited interaction possible with pre-recorded tracks with the give and take of live performance. The absence of live singing voices, so important in Mexican folk and popular music, also creates a small disconnect in the selections from Nuevo based on songs (“El Sinaloense,” “Se Me Hizo Facil”) as well as in “12/12,” despite Golijov’s imaginative arrangements and the totally committed performances of Kronos.

Not every choice made by a group as willing to experiment as Kronos results in a satisfactory artistic result, and the opening work on the second half, British rock/hip-hop musician Clint Mansell’s “Requiem for a Dream Suite,” is an unfortunate example of this risk. Mansell’s derivative and dull music, while perhaps adequate as aural wallpaper for a film, failed as a concert piece. Cliché after cliché followed in rapid succession as oscillating minor thirds, unison string textures, stabbing rhythms reminiscent of “Diamond Music,” and mechanical articulations emphasized the piece’s pretentious industrial bluesiness while out-of-the box synthesizer patches revealed a composer uninterested in creating engaging sounds.

Kronos did an aesthetic about-face by next performing the Charles Mingus (1922-79) composition, “Myself When I Am Real.” Arranged for Kronos by long-time Mingus collaborator and arranger Sy Johnson (b.1930), the work emerged as a study in harmonic richness, a characteristic emphasized by the sustained sound of the string quartet. The work juxtaposed an opening flamenco section with lush jazz-ballad harmonies, later reprised the opening flamenco tinged section, and at the end sought to reconcile it with a bossa nova as harmonically lush as its earlier counterparts, followed by a fragile coda. Mingus was obviously experimenting with the merger of flamenco and Latin styles, and his clear and concise sense of structure and development drives the work forward.

Steve Reich (b.1936), also part of the so-called Minimalist movement, has relied less than Riley on improvisation to produce a distinctive and important body of work. The use of a clearly-audible harmonic cycle where chord changes occur slowly over extended intervals of time making each one an event, of canonic techniques borrowed from medieval music, and of interlocking rhythmic patterns absorbed through his study of Ghanaian drumming all contribute to his distinct profile. Kronos played the work using two prerecorded quartets, themselves in this case, to great effect – my only quibble being that the backing tracks were louder than the live group, obscuring the primary material given to the first quartet. Based on a repeating harmonic cycle of chords in keys a minor third apart (E minor, G minor, B-flat minor and C sharp minor), the harmonic motion was richer, less obvious, more rapid and considerably more turbulent than in some of Reich’s earlier music. The three sections of the piece, the outer two slow and the middle one fast, retain this chaconne-like harmonic structure while exploiting different melodic material in contrapuntal textures. The first movement showcases melodic lines in canon for the quartet as the prerecorded quartets play rich interlocking harmonies. A long melodic gesture given out to all voices appears in the second movement and, according to the composer, “The third movement resumes the original fast tempo, maintains the original harmonic cycle but treats all the previous material in the piece more freely.” A stunning piece, and greatly effective in recorded form or in live performance, the Triple Quartet represents a considerable increase in emotional and musical depth for Reich as the work is romantic, or even expressionistic, in its emotional impact. This is a striking composition, one that I look forward to listening to and studying as soon as I can track down the CD!

Kronos’ concert at Duke demonstrated all the artistic hallmarks of this unique string quartet in its varied repertoire, experimental edge, dramatic presentation and flawlessly musical execution. It’s a pity more of the younger string quartets haven’t chosen to emulate Kronos’ willingness to search out and discover ways of playing non-standard music for the string quartet, but unfortunately most of the younger generation of quartets would rather present us with another version of the Op. 59 Quartets of Beethoven. Don’t miss a Kronos show if they come anywhere near you; it’s a challenging and worthwhile listening experience.

(Edited to make minor clarifications 9/28-29/02.)