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It must be twenty years since I first heard Kronos Quartet. Back then, a teenage me thought he'd struck gold as the Quartet's 1993 collection SHORT STORIES, borrowed from my local audio library, began filling my bedroom with some of the strangest and most beautiful sounds I'd ever heard. Here was a string quartet for whom strings were just one part of the performance. Indeed, the entire first track on that album is made up of percussive typewriter noises, adding another dimension to the album's cover art; a vintage Underwood typer engulfed in flames.
Since then, I've become very familiar with the boundless invention of San Francisco's foremost string outfit. Their recordings have explored the music of such respected composers as Philip Glass, Alfred Schnittke and Henryk Gorecki as well as breathing new life into the works of Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Jimi Hendrix and, more recently, Pete Townshend. The Quartet has also continued to collaborate with such eminent artists as Terry Riley, Kevin Volans and Canadian throat singer Tanya Tagaq, further demonstrating their multifaceted approach to world music and, indeed, sound itself.
Tonight, the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds played host to two sets from Kronos Quartet and what the Quartet describes as a "bounty of new compositions and arrangements" collected since their last tour. Bathed in ambient blue light, violinists David Harrington and John Sherba along with viola player Hank Dutt and cellist Sunny Yang lulled the audience into a state of meditative silence as they opened with a delicate rendering of My Desert, My Rose, composed especially for Kronos Quartet by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov. This ethereal piece gave way to the jagged edges of Satellites by Garth Knox which required that the musicians leave the comfort of their four strings to explore the sonic capabilities of their bows, swished through the air above them with meticulous thrust.
The Quartet's old friend Terry Riley was represented with a performance of his One Earth, One People, One Love from SUN RINGS, composed for Kronos by the master of modern minimalism. The piece, which uses sound samples of readings by poet Alice Walker and Apollo Astronaut Eugene Cernan, demonstrated that the Quartet isn't shy when it comes to utilising technology in its otherwise organic performances. Such an approach was explored again in tonight's closing performance of Donnacha Dennehy's One Hundred Goodbyes which incorporates haunting abstracted recordings of Irish singers from almost one hundred years ago.
Although the Quartet's dazzling rendition of Pete Townshend's Baba O'Riley, recently performed on the BBC's Later...with Jools Holland, inspired rapturous applause from tonight's appreciative audience, the unquestionable highlight of the show was a performance of Seiche, a piece especially composed for the Quartet's current tour by folk musician and member of Lau, Martin Green. There was a sense of wonder rippling around the room as Harrington and Yang departed from their traditional instruments to play a pair of Kronoscillators, devices constructed by Green and involving stretched metal slinkies and electrified liquorice tins. When struck with vibrating tuning forks, the slinkies produced a sound not unlike that of sparking electrical points as a tube train rolls into its station or, perhaps what the composer was going for, the sound of undulating waves beneath the surface of water. A genuinely arresting few minutes in a wonderful evening of awe-inspiring music.