In their own words

J Edgar Hoover speeches sampled, cut up and set to music... The Kronos Quartet have tuned into the spirit of the Fifties.

Imagine an avant-garde British string quartet album intended to summon up the spirit of the 1950s. It could contain a setting of a poem by Philip Larkin perhaps, a sequence of tramping songs collected by AL Lloyd, a digital deconstruction of Harold Macmillan's political speeches ("You have never had it..." - pizzicato squiggle - "so good") and a selection from the leader articles of AJP Taylor. It could, but it probably wouldn't.

The new album by the Kronos Quartet, Howl USA (Nonesuch), features not only a reading of Allen Ginsberg's most famous poem, but a setting of hobo songs by the eccentric composer Harry Partch, a palimpsest of recorded statements by the FBI chief J Edgar Hoover, and a selection from the political commentaries of radical journalist IF Stone. The music almost takes a back seat to the words, but the result remains engaging throughout. Composer Michael Daugherty's wilful damage to the already woeful reputation of Hoover is particularly successful, the same digital methods that interleaved a selection of Elvis impersonators' "uh-huhs" and "bay-buhs" on "Elvis Everywhere" (performed by the Quartet on their last British date), here being let loose on the FBI chief's most asinine statements (taken, courtesy of the Freedom of Information Act, from recordings held in the National Archives in Washington DC). "Your FBI..." - intones the voice of Hoover over and over again - "...as close to you as your telephone", and the quartet punctuates the words with slashing chords and ominous glissandi, occasionally inserting quotations from patriotic anthems and songs - "America" or "The Star-Spangled Banner" - to counterpoint the poisonous rhetoric.

The origins of this album about the Fifties actually lie in the 1970s, when the leader of Kronos, David Harrington, first encountered the writings of IF Stone, whose Weekly magazine digest, published in Washington DC, offered a continuous critique of the American political scene over four decades. "It was back in 1973 that I first came into contact with Stone. I saw a film about him and his Weekly," says Harrington, "at around the same time as I first heard George Crumb's "Black Angels" [a nightmare piece for "electric" string quartet, and now a staple of the Kronos repertoire], and during Watergate and Vietnam. I found him very inspiring and got a hold of some of his books and even got his phone number, but I was a little too shy to do anything about it. Much later, I had it in mind to do a piece with him but he suddenly became very ill and so I talked to Scott Johnson (the composer of Cold War Suite, the piece that incorporates Stone's voice), and he found as many of the speeches as he could in the archives of National Public Radio." Johnson's music is beautifully sensitive, even tender, with Stone's quiet, reasonable voice fading in and out, tweaked occasionally into expressive scratches of repetition.

"If you go back and read what Stone had to say," says Harrington, "you can see that he really had his finger on the truth, and an ability to communicate things with humour and humanity, yet with a twinkle in his eye, a quality that entered his voice. He and Noam Chomsky were friends, but Stone had something of the performer or orator in him."

"Barstow", the Harry Partch composition, arranged by Partch's friend Ben Johnston, who also recites the words in a wonderfully sing-song voice, stems from the composer's time as a hobo during the Depression, when he hitch-hiked through California and recorded in writing the graffiti-messages his fellow travellers inscribed on a highway railing in Barstow. Although only a brief series of fragmentary lines - "It's January 26. I'm freezing. Ed Fitzgerald, age 19... Gentlemen: Go to 530 East Lemon Avenue in Monrovia, for an easy handout... To hell with it, I'm going to walk" - the text nevertheless communicates a Whitmanesque, and very American, air of Romantic affection for lives of quiet desperation. "Harry Partch is for me someone whose music is generally totally unknown to concert-goers," says Harrington - perhaps surprisingly, since the composer, who died in 1974, has become something of a guru for non-mainstream musical culture, even in Britain; yet the fact that Partch wrote most of his music for his own specially invented instruments (delivering 43 notes to the octave) has certainly excluded him from the conventional classical repertoire.

"The idea that he could write this piece when he was homeless was amazing. Johnston probably knew Partch better than anyone and is able to embody the quality of his music, and we plan to perform the piece with him on tour."

The commission for Daugherty's Hoover piece ("Sing Sing: J Edgar Hoover"), grew out of Harrington reading a biography of the cross-dressing FBI chief while he was on tour five years ago. "I couldn't sleep', he says, "it was such a nightmare. We had worked with Daugherty before on a piece that used some rap musicians and it seemed that he was the guy to do it. As it turned out, he even had a private collection of stuff about Hoover and he was exactly the right person to go into the archives, where everything about Hoover is in the public domain."

Allen Ginsberg's "Howl", set by Lee Hyla, the last composition on the album and by far the longest, is read brilliantly by Ginsberg himself, although such is the power of the declamation, and the words themselves, that Hyla's music works almost as a scenic back-drop. "I first thought of the idea of setting "Howl" in the early Eighties," says Harrington, but I didn't feel that I could just call up Ginsberg and ask him to do it. It wasn't until he started coming to our concerts and he knew some of our work that I thought of suggesting it, which took years. Thinking of a composer who would have both the internal wildness and also the ability to work hard and say something, it became clear that Hyla was someone who could do it." Ginsberg has written that the poem is "musical as well as intellectual ... and it should be listened to as well as read", and the performance of what could easily be considered a hip period-piece successfully conveys the power of the poem 40 years after it was written.

For anyone who harbours fears that Kronos is, if anything, too prolific in its recordings, Harrington can offer little comfort. "I have ideas for 24 new albums that are in different stages of completion, and there are 46 composers writing new pieces, from all over the world." The good news, though, is that Britain's Gerard McBurney is among them. Meanwhile, a British Fifties suite, with Suez, suet pudding, Larkin and the Labour Party as possible subjects, still awaits all-comers.

'Howl, USA' is on Nonesuch 7559 79372-2

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015