“Things were turned upside down. There were terrifying things in the air… they found their way into Black Angels.”
– George Crumb
“The light, the textures, the colors of Africa and the African landscape and the sounds of the birds and the insects are totally different from Europe. And the music draws on those elements. It’s not so much cultural as environmental. You can switch cultures, in a way, but you can’t deny your environmental background.”
– Kevin Volans
“In tempore belli (in time of war), finished on Friday the Thirteenth, March, 1970” American composer George Crumb wrote on the score of his Black Angels, a string quartet inspired by the Vietnam War. This piece as recorded by Kronos Quartet on their 1990 cd Black Angels (Elektra Nonesuch) was one of the very first contemporary pieces I heard in my life. Back in the day at my high school I joined acting classes and the director there used strictly contemporary music for all his plays. That’s how Kronos Quartet came into my life. I vividly recall the excitement and goosebumps engulfing me, when I encountered Black Angels for the first time. Well, this is not for the faint hearted. Instantely I became hugely intrigued by this combination of an old world concept (the string quartet) and something completely new for content (Crumb’s score implies extended techniques all right: a.o. the use of crystal glasses, gongs, maracas, as well as shouts and whispers by the musicians).
I also remember to be completely shattered after listening to Dark Angels.. and then suddenly the glorious splendor of Thomas Tallis’ 40-part motet (a nouveauté back in the early sixteenth century) Spem in alium (‘Sing and glorify’) in an arrangement for string quartet kicks in. This is death and rejuvenation in the timespan of just one cd.
Two years later Kronos Quartet recorded the equally brilliant cd Pieces of Africa (Elektra Nonesuch). Kevin Volans’ White Man Sleeps immediately became a heavy rotation item inside my cdplayer back in the day. Last week composer Yannis Kyriakides told me he had the same experience with Volans.
Kronos Quartet became probably the best known string quartet in the world, and ofcourse some outdated snobs take this very fact as a reason to cast some doubt on their artistic credibility. Completely irrelevant and vile if you ask me. There’s no contemporary music quartet (or ensemble, for that matter) which takes such a consistent effort to promote the idea of universal composing, beyond the great, white, dead, male European composer. The integrity, audacity and sheer rigueur with which Kronos Quartet works still moves me, and their new project Fifty for the future may very well serve as a perfect example for that. Interestingly enough, Kronos Quartet also holds a strong connection with Dutch composers such as Willem Jeths and Merlijn Twaalfhoven. Can’t wait to see them tomorrow at Muziekgebouw!
Kronos Quartet is artist in residence at this year’s Holland Festival. Have a look here for an interview with David Harrington (in Dutch). After the (sold out) concert on thursday at Muziekgebouw, on friday Kronos Quartet will host a coaching session with four selected Dutch string quartets at the Tolhuistuin in Amsterdam North. On saturday Kronos Quartet will do a concert at the Concertgebouw.
Wim Bressers, thank you for introducing Kronos Quartet (and contemporary music at it!) in my life.