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 - " 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 Musical by Damon Albarn


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