Music review: Kronos Quartet, Perth Festival

The renowned quartet in collaboration with established and emerging composers.

The Kronos Quartet are the rock stars of contemporary classical music. Original members David Harrington (first violin), John Sherba (second violin) and Hank Dutt (viola) have been playing together since 1973 and, at least for this old Gen X former prog-rocker, they still haven’t lost their cool. They belong to the same generation as comparably influential and wide-ranging figures in avant-garde popular music like David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno or David Byrne.

Unlike those artists, Kronos are primarily interpreters of the music of others; but just as Bowie or Gabriel continually reinvented themselves and their sound, so Kronos have progressively embraced a breadth of repertoire that is surely unparalleled among classical ensembles, extending from medieval and Renaissance music to the various strands of 20th century modernism and postmodernism (largely skipping over the Classical and Romantic repertoire), as well as arrangements of world music and tracks by Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin.

In so doing they’ve expanded the possibilities of what a string quartet can play or even sound like; the only comparable classical music ensemble I can think of would be the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO).

Like other great classical ensembles (and rock bands) of their generation, Kronos have resisted the temptation to cultivate an excessively blended or polished sound; instead they’ve retained and even refined their own sharply individuated voices. As became apparent during the Perth concert, Harrington could still coax the wildest sounds from his violin; Sherba was an incisive, almost astringent counterpart as a second fiddle; and, despite his deadpan demeanour, Dutt was surely the funkiest viola player on the planet.

This ethos of diversity in unity extends to their new cellist Paul Wiancko, who played with enormous delicacy and finesse, and who briefly became the star of the evening in the second half of the concert when the quartet played George Crumb’s ‘Black Angels’, which in its third and final movement features haunting extended solo cello passages eerily backed by the other three players playing water-tuned crystal glasses.

Like the ACO, Kronos have also enjoyed long-term relationships with established and emerging composers, and played a key role in commissioning new works. Most recently they’ve embarked on a project called 50 for the Future, commissioning and recording 50 new works in a huge variety of genres and making these – together with sheet music and supporting material – freely available online, with the intention of inspiring and enabling future musicians to carry the torch of tradition and innovation into the 21st century.

A selection from this body of work formed the bulk of the first (and for me most successful) section of their Five Decades Tour recital at Perth Concert Hall. Indeed I almost wished they’d devoted the entire concert to this new repertoire, perhaps supplemented by a few choice items from their back catalogue – but more of that later.

The opening selection of works from 50 for the Future showed off the Quartet’s and the new repertoire’s variety of sounds and styles. West African singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo’s ‘YanYanKliYan Senamido #2’ was a gently swaying piece based on traditional Beninese vocal music, with Kronos nimbly accommodating its complex syncopations and cross-rhythms.

Next came Indonesian composer Peni Candra Rini’s ‘Maduswara’, a moody and atmospheric work that featured weirdly sliding microtones, insect-like patterns of ostinato, an occasional burst of percussion or shouting, and a background field recording of burbling frogs and the sounds of a gathering storm. 

This was followed by Serbian émigré composer Aleksandra Vrebalov’s ‘My Desert, My Rose’, an emotionally and physically gripping piece with scooping melodic fragments of lamentation and increasingly insistent rhythms that reminded me of Balkan or Romani folk music and took things to another level of intensity. After this, electronic musician Jlin’s ‘Little Black Book’ gave things a darker and more contemporary urban edge, at times almost sounding like a nerve-wracked film score by Bernard Herrmann.

An excerpt from Canadian composer John Oswald’s ‘Spectre’ (which was written for Kronos in 1990) was a little more conceptual, beginning with the Quartet ‘tuning up’ and then launching one by one into a series of long held notes and tremolos, to which overdubs were added until they became a 1000-piece string orchestral version of themselves, the whole piece building to a shattering tsunami of sound. 

The quartet were then joined by 12 musicians from the University of Western Australia (UWA), the Western Australia Academy of Performing Art (WAAPA) and the Western Australian Youth Orchestra (WAYO) in a generously conceived performance of Philip Glass’ ‘Quartet Satz’, another work commissioned for the 50 for the Future project.

Glass has written for and been championed by Kronos since their inception; this particular work had a lightness and lyricism that made it an ideal pedagogical exercise, as well as being an homage to the composer’s long-standing relationship with the quartet (and more distantly to Schubert’s unfinished and similarly titled masterpiece).

The last item in the first half of the program was a new work by local Noongar composer, musician and scholar Maatakitj (Dr Clint Bracknell) commissioned for Kronos by Perth Festival and entitled ‘Bindari’ (Thunderstorm). The Quartet were joined onstage by Maatakitj, alongside fellow Indigenous performer Rubeun Yorkshire leading five other young First Nations dancers. Personally, I found all these elements made for a slightly awkward and uncomfortable fit, but it was warmly embraced by the audience and the quartet, who vigorously lent their instruments to sounds and rhythms that would traditionally be made by voices and clapsticks.

After interval came a dramatic change in tone, substance and scale with a highly charged, sombrely lit and elaborately staged performance of ‘Black Angels’, which began with the Quartet’s four instruments hanging from wires like corpses waiting to be brought back to life. Crumb’s macabre anti-war masterpiece for amplified string quartet also involves a battery of percussion and other sound objects – including gongs, maracas and an array of water-tuned crystal glasses (which were initially concealed beneath black cloths on tables upstage).

The work was written in 1970 in response to the Vietnam War, but also evokes other atrocities – not least with its outbursts of shouted or whispered counting in various languages, its sinister musical references to Schubert’s Death and the Maiden and the Dies Irae, and its terrifying high-pitched vibrato swoops and screeches on the upper strings, as well as other unconventional bowing techniques and tapping effects on the strings and fingerboards. 

It’s an extreme work – one that apparently inspired Harrington to form the Quartet when he first heard it on the radio. It has since become something of a Kronos signature piece since they first performed and later recorded it, so it felt like a harsh but appropriate way to close the program.

To my taste, it’s almost impossible to listen to anything afterwards; to paraphrase Adorno’s dictum about writing poetry after Auschwitz, to play an encore after Black Angels is almost more barbaric than the work itself. 

So it felt like a false step to me when the work was followed by not one but two encores. The first was a ‘remixed’ version of the Tune-Yards track ‘Colonisation’, for which the Quartet were rejoined by Maatakitj on vocals and clapsticks, alongside dancer Yorkshire in body paint, all of which again felt a bit clumsy and inept to me – though, again, the audience were enthusiastic.

The final encore was an arrangement of Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ as sung by Janis Joplin, which in contrast seemed like a tasteless display of self-indulgence – especially coming after ‘Black Angels’ – notwithstanding the incredible sounds Harrington wrung from his violin, which indeed sounded uncannily like Joplin.

If anything, I felt, the only appropriate piece to play after ‘Black Angels’ would have been something more minimalist and healing, like Kronos’ equally iconic version of Arvo Pärt’s ‘Fratres’ – perhaps preceded by their searing arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Star Spangled Banner’ or ‘Purple Haze’. 

Read: Book review: The Other Side, Jennifer Higgie

In sum, then: phenomenal playing by one of the great ensembles of our time, in a potpourri of a program that didn’t quite cohere for me despite some effective moments and thrilling highlights. 

Kronos Quartet
Perth Concert Hall
Perth Festival

The Kronos Quartet performed on 4 March 2023.

Wolfgang von Flügelhorn is a writer and critic based in Perth.