Last Tuesday, as a part of the Melbourne Festival, I went to see the Kronos Quartet. Any fan of 'modern classical', 'contemporary classical', 'contemporary art music', 'new music', '20th century classical', or whatever else the intelligentsia are arguing it should be called, should be familiar with the name; they have been recording and performing for decades, and had many works commissioned for them.
My experience with them had so far been limited to Steve Reich's Different Trains recording, and the brilliant Piano and String Quartet by Morton Feldman (more worship of him to come, I promise). I had read many times people comparing the most successful string quartets, usually saying Arditti is the best, then Kontra, Kroger, Kronos (for some reason 'K' plays a large role) and others follow in whatever order. Even still, at that level, some kind of awesome talent is invariably needed, so I was quite keen to see them, if not for them just to experience some of this music live for the first time.
Well, 'this music' that I expected to hear only came in a small portion. All but one of the pieces (maybe two?) had electronics worked in, either in the form of electronic instruments that each member had, or backing tracks and sampled vocals. Now this does not necessarily guarantee awful music, but when you play high caliber string music, and match it with poorly integrated 80's electronic sounds, awful is just the starting point.
There were a couple of decent pieces in there, though one of them was slightly tainted by the ending; it featured them stop playing while a backing track slowly turned to noise (which in itself was pretty great) and resort to choreographed gesticulations instead. Perhaps they were trying to appeal to those who are not simply pleased by what they are hearing.
The main reason for the performance was the Australian debut of Steve Reich's latest piece, 'WTC 9/11'. If the name of the piece isn't obvious enough, the sampled vocals in the form of radio calls all throughout the piece certainly drove the subject home. It's quite ironic that a composer famed for his minimalist efforts can be so heavy handed with his subject matter. The piece itself was passable, though the vocals did get quite annoying towards the end.
They also came out for two encores, which just always seems wrong to me, one of the pieces being a Bob Dylan cover which was just bad. It got a laugh and a cheer, but I just wanted to leave after two hours of these antics.
I may seem a little harsh or stuck up, by going to see music such as this and ripping on it, but in the wise words of one of my teachers who also went 'I went expecting serious contemporary art music; what I got was a circus'.
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Last night I saw a musician of quite a different persuasion; The Tallest Man on Earth. It's safe to say that he blew away Kronos in every aspect of performance, whether it was stage banter, intensity, sincerity and even the in his playing itself. The pieces were definitely better.
Whether it was his crazy-eyed staring into the crowd, the grittier tone of his electric guitars (which he used for most of the songs), or his vocal intensity, there is something about the way that man commands attention. He certainly doesn't dress like any kind of rock star, or act like one either, because he gets more than enough love for his music alone that the captivating performance only served to further court the already drooling fans.
Yes, he is one of those artists who gets shouted at frequently throughout the show; including one love-struck fan showing off her Swedish. To their dismay however, his fiancée made a brief appearance for one song, singing a duet with her man that somehow avoided cliché altogether.
It is the honesty in his performance, this soul-bearing sincerity, which was sorely lacked in the Kronos Quartet show. 'Show' is more apt than concert, as it seemed like they were maybe trying to dumb down or make more accessible the music which is usually called out for being too confronting or pretentious by some. In the end, the popular singer/songwriter tradition succeeded in being taken very seriously, whereas the experimental, avant-garde and erudite 'art' musicians absolutely failed. Funny that.