By Bryan Buss
Perhaps best-known for their work on the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack (one of the main themes from which was used in the Lord of the Rings trailers and the trailer for the new Danny Boyle film, Sunshine), the Kronos Quartet is a Grammy-winning powerhouse in classical musical circles. An all-strings quartet, Kronos hit UCLA Live's Royce Hall with experimental sextet, Bang On a Drum All-Stars, on Saturday, January 20.
Bang On a Drum All-Stars'a clarinetist, a bassist, a drummer, a cellist, a keyboardist, and an electric guitarist, along with special guest, Czech violinist-vocalist Ida Bittov' whipped through their entire CD, Elida, of sophisticated yet accessible compositions. Each of the musicians is exceptional and all are given the chance to shine, solo and as part of the larger group. Bittova is an accomplished vocalist though there is something a little affected about her yips and squeaks and squeals and stomps. The music veers from quiet piano ballad to a cacophony of instruments and vocals, sometimes within the same song. One can't help but be moved by the brilliance of their musicianship, whether one understands the Czech vocals or not. It's a gut experience.
Kronos Quartet is not a string quartet in the traditional sense. They don't play chamber music, though they are comprised of the standard two violins (David Harrington and John Sherba), a viola (Hank Dutt), and a cello (Jeffrey Zeigler). Their music is hardcore and complicated and beautiful and eerie and the proficiency with which the musicians perform is astonishing. They're experimental rock stars. So when they start banging on bottoms of sinks and pipes and radiators, it's not surprising. They kicked off their set with 'Nomatophobis' ('The Fear of Naming Things'), a composition that had the sense of a Hitchcock soundtrack, by turns frenetic and dramatic, mournful and foreboding. They followed that up with the Michael Gordon composition 'Potassium,' which was commissioned by Kronos's board of directors to commemorate the quartet's 25th anniversary. Seventies-style Iraqi and Iranian pop inspired their next two tunes ('Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me' and 'Lullaby,' respectively), the latter of which'a traditional lullaby'utilized both a plucky bass and mournful violins and viola. The 'Requiem For a Dream Suite,' three Clint Mansell selections from the soundtrack, followed, with the yearning of 'Ghosts of a Future Lost' being succeeded by the tension of 'Meltdown' being succeeded itself by the heartbreak and majestic violins of 'Lux Aeterna.' The Matmos-written 'Solo Buttons For the Meek' was the poppiest of the songs performed, its surf-rock bent an homage to Joe Meek, the '60s Brit rock producer. For an encore the quartet debuted the melancholy and eventually rousing 'Death Is the Road to Awe,' another Mansell collaboration, this time from the Golden Globe'nominated soundtrack to The Fountain. Topping off their set, the four artists pulled off a cover of Jimi Hendrix's Star-Spangled Banner, proving there's almost nothing they can't do.
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