Combining a fearless dedication to experimentation and a fresh emphasis on visual presentation, the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet has emerged as a leading voice for new music. Its eclectic body of work, unparalleled in its range of expression, has captured the attention of audiences worldwide and earned five Grammy Award nominations. This dynamic recording features the Kronos Quartet playing George Crumb's musical response to the Vietnam War, "Black Angels," in which whispered and shrieked texts, demonic fiddling, and solemn episodes of piety express the relentless horror and senseless grief of war. The quartet also performs Tan Dun's "Ghost Opera," a blend of sophisticated techniques with folk traditions which required the musicians to become peformance artists, chanting text and playing a variety of instruments from gongs dipped in water to finger-cymbals. An electrifying theatrical experience!
For years, the string ensemble known as Kronos Quartet has always been willing to experiment outside the norm. Certainly, performing pieces by composers such as John Zorn or Terry Riley allows their repertoire to be quite expansive and, more importantly, extremely interesting. Their approach to contemporary classical music has always been impressive and creative, and this new DVD, Kronos On Stage is no different. Presented here are Kronos' performances of two extremely experimental and diverse compositions. The first is Black Angels, composed by George Crumb in the 1970s, a dark piece intended as a statement against the Vietnam War. Far from the typical realm for a string quartet, Black Angels is a harrowing collection of pieces requiring the Kronos musicians to screech, howl, bang gongs, and use their bows on glasses of water. The music is certainly difficult and chilling; its impact, effective and disturbing. And this is a terribly beautiful and amazing performance of such a demanding piece.
The second and longer performance is Ghost Opera by Tan Dun, in which Kronos is joined by Chinese musician Wu Man. Though Ghost Opera is not as dark and sinister as the previous piece, it is as complex a piece for a string quartet to perform. From chanting and vocal work to the use of cymbals and even bowls of water, the work is highly detailed and experimental in its nature. The performers must not only play multiple types of instruments, but they are required (as is written in the actual composition) to move around the stage and change orientation regularly. The end result is quite spectacular and an on-stage show quite unlike anything you might expect from a traditional, classical concert.
As always, the devotion Kronos seems to have for a stirring performance is totally evident here. The work presented here is amazing by almost any musical standard, and what's even more fascinating is just how "un-musical" these 2 pieces might seem at first; however, it is their moments of extreme noise balanced with extreme silences that seem to define the path. It is an immersion into a foreign environment; one that's not all that familiar considering it's usually standard to hear such quartets peacefully serenading audiences with their strings. If ever there was a moment that proved what consummate artists Kronos Quartet is composed of, it is this document of their work.