REVIEW / A problem of attitude: Robert Maycock reflects on the Kronos Quartet's Barbican series

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The Independent Culture
Being the Kronos Quartet must be tough. Never mind the non-stop travel or the all-contemporary repertoire, it's the expectations that kill. The modernists, the easy listeners, the fashion-conscious, the multicultural movement - whoever we are, we want our agenda met. No wonder last week's four-day festival at the Barbican looked like an effort to be all things to all people.

Tuesday's opening concert was a classic Kronos cornucopia. It made an odd collection, less than the sum of its parts. One by one, each piece had something to catch the ear and engage the imagination. As they went by, they sounded more and more alike. This wasn't a question of style so much as attitude and form. In previous generations of new music we could spot the 'Jane Manning Piece' or 'London Sinfonietta Piece' a mile off, as composers rushed to satisfy the received idea of a prestigious commission. Now it's the Kronos Piece.

Generally this is laid-back in expression and pace, with a memorable sound-image early on, a contrasting section, and an alluring texture to keep our attention. If possible, there's an influence, or even a guest player, from a different culture. That's plenty to be pleased with in one composition. Trouble is, if not much else happens, the game grows predictable. Smoothly shaped pieces by Hirokazu Hiraishi, Jon Hassell and Don Byron held the stage confidently and left the memory as soon as the next in line took over. Raymond Scott's quirky mid-century miniatures spoke with an original voice, located somewhere to the south-west of Gershwin's, but the overloaded arrangements for quartet just drew attention to themselves.

Forgive me if I expect a top international quartet to be playing music with the urgency, the allure, or the sheer passion to hold me riveted. As for sharpness of wit, nothing else was up to Michael Doherty's encore collage, Elvis Everywhere, and even that got there on words more than music. Two pieces got some way along the line. Dmitri Yanov- Yanovsky, from Uzbekistan, came in high on the integrity stakes, with his Chang Music V featuring himself as player of the cimbalom-like chang. Typical Kronos Piece it may have been, but its traditional central-Asian ideas and its Western techniques mixed on equal terms, and its middle section had the chang rattling away like a kind of continuo as the strings keened quietly in ways unfamiliar from classical quartets. When American or West European composers do this sort of thing, the 'foreign' element usually ends up submitting to the dominant tradition, like a colonial conquest.

With Ingram Marshall's Fog Tropes II for quartet and tape, the crucial thing was atmosphere. Distant booms like Tibetan trumpets, or maybe fanciful underwater sounds, emerged beneath long, Wagnerian waves of broken chords. Like other pieces that evening, it went limp before the end, but the difference was one of degree: stronger images, lasting longer.

Just one old stager from Australia, Peter Sculthorpe, managed to touch another level of experience. The arrival of a white didgeridoo player, David Coulter, to join the quartet in From Ubirr looked like a Kronos contrivance. To start, it buzzed away on its bass note as the strings rhapsodised. But what rhapsodising - Sculthorpe made his getaway from post-war modernism early enough to be utterly secure in his language now, making many younger escapees sound nervous and contrived by comparison. The lyrical flow, ever changing yet always the same, at last drew playing of full-hearted passion.

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