Kronos Released: 1985-1995
After ten years of forcing the issue, the relentlessly eclectic Kronos Quartet can safely consider itself the hippest, baddest, most adventurous and unsettling string quartet in classical music.
Which isn't saying much.
After all, the competition has been minimal. Most other string quartets are quite happy to stick with stuffy tux-'n'-tails traditions, allowing Kronos to separate itself from the herd by simply donning trendy clothes, adopting New Wave hair styles and applying other "daring" pop sensibilities to classical mindsets.
Some of the Bay Area-based group's newfangled ideas have worked: Kronos won fans a few years back by releasing a string of classical singles and mini-CDs--a marketing concept previously unheard of--and the quartet's embrace of unknown composers has helped establish larger audiences for the likes of Estonian mystic Arvo Part and Polish mood master Henryk Gorecki. Indeed, if nothing else, Kronos has inspired legions of living innovative composers to try to catch the quartet's attention.
Just as often, though, Kronos' gimmicks have seemed calculated and cliquish, prompting a kind of reverse form of elitism. At these times, Kronos leader David Harrington and his bandmates come off as self-anointed teachers instructing classical listeners in such things as the "importance" of Jimi Hendrix by playing a showy, stringed version of "Purple Haze." Most music critics, afraid to look as though they didn't "get it," fostered such foolishness, praising every crackpot idea Kronos came up with--be it irrelevant collaborations with tango king Astor Piazzolla or colonialist dabbling in African music annoyingly akin to Paul Simon's Graceland.
Much of what's made Kronos a sensation--the good stuff, the bad and a few plucky pizzicati in between--is featured on the group's new "greatest hits" collection, Kronos Released: 1985-1995, a two-disc set that includes both released and unreleased material. The collection is hampered by the usual Kronos high jinks--goofball compositions, oddball instruments, etc.--but it's also resplendent with more solid string-quartet music. Part's "Fratres," for example, from 1989's Winter Was Hard, is handled with obvious affection, the funereal pace enhanced with gentle shoves. Also nice is Samuel Barber's Adagio (again from Winter Was Hard), a warm, beautifully melodic swirl that Kronos presents with understated force.
More adventurous pieces--George Crumb's "God-music" from 1990's excellent Black Angels CD and Steve Reich's propulsive "America--Before the War" off 1989's Different Trains--also benefit from spirited performances made memorable by the quartet's reverence for, not dominance over, the music.
Such subtleties are rare in the Kronos canon and all too infrequent on this anthology. Released is marred by a Piazzolla tango-tangle, along with an equally short-of-the-mark take on Raymond Scott's "Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals," a previously unreleased stab at Scott's cartoon music that Kronos fails by sounding fey and prissy. The disc of unreleased cuts also includes yet a new rendition of, you guessed it, "Purple Haze." To be fair, this one's weightier and more ominous than the group's original attempt--which means it's almost worth listening to this time.
As with most "best of" collections, Released is missing a lot of better stuff: the Shostakovich Quartet No. 8, from Black Angels; Kevin Volans' nervy "White Man Sleeps," from the 1988 album of the same name; and a snippet, any snippet, of Morton Feldman's daunting Piano and String Quartet, released a couple of years ago.
The Feldman piece, especially, would have been an inspiring inclusion. It's the kind of weird and wonderful composition that Kronos handles best; a difficult, mesmerizing work that indeed teaches something--in this case, a new, contemplative kind of listening. Here's hoping Kronos remembers that particular lesson and keeps studying the better pages of its own textbook for the next ten years.--Ted Simons
Viva! La Woman
It means "food madness" in Italian. Singer Miho Hatori and keyboard/sample player Yuka Honda derived Cibo Matto's name from Seso Matto ("sex madness"), a '70s Bmovie popular in Italy. On Viva! LaWoman, the Japanapop duo's major-label debut, Hatori and Honda spew a scratchy, heavily sampled stew of urban noise--mostly about food. The album is a conglomeration of influences that is surreal, maybe; incongruous, definitely; original, not.
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Of course, nobody would accuse a multinational recording corporation of trying to mainstream a musical trend. So to suggest that Cibo Matto is not ready for prime time would cast undue aspersions on the astute taste monitors at Warners. Imagine the A&R exec in her swank Tokyo office, on the horn to Burbank: "Yes, they're Japanese! ... a little bit World Beat, but with a definite edge, you know ... in the hip-hop niches ... except you've also got your cuteness factor, like Shonen Knife ... well, Pizzicato Five is sure as hell selling a few albums ... yeah, that's what I'm saying--these girls hit all the major adult markets except country. All right, I'll sign 'em."
Take a bite of Cibo Matto's "Birthday Cake." Hatori shouts "Shut up and eat/Too bad no bon apptit/Shut up eat/You know my love is sweet!" then follows up with this rap: "You were born in the '60s/You made a war with the Vietnamese/We loved LSD/We died easily/Can't we just say 'c'est la vie.'" Is there a message in there? We'll probably never know, since the ear-splitting Ping-Pong effects are so painful that probably no one will get through the track. I've got it: punk! Another retro element!
The bizarre juxtaposition of cute and edgy on V!LW is simply too hard to stomach--unless you own everything in the catalogues of Esquivel and EinstYrzende Neubauten, in which case it may be just your cup of tea. But before you partake, reflect on the pseudo-humorous comment of samplist Honda: "I didn't have a life when I was a kid. Soul Train was the big event of my week." Should we laugh or curse?
In the final analysis, what V!LW seems to say (however incoherently) is that popular music has become a Tower of Babel. Major labels (and many of the minor ones) are hard-pressed to understand why and how taste evolves, and so they grasp at straws like Cibo Matto. Performers utilize sampling, lifting bits and pieces of previously recorded riffs; lyricists borrow words, phrases and concepts from already watered-down commercial sources in various languages; and the end result is--what? Better and more interesting music? What's the sound of one cash register ringing?--Nigey Lennon