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Minimalism without spark?
on June 11, 2001
When it comes to contemporary music, KRONOS QUARTET stands for supreme excellence. In all of their recordings, KRONOS-members deliver absolutely immaculate performances. It's no wonder, then, that they are absolutely brilliant this time as well. Those who listen to their records expect perfection from them and are sure never to be disappointed.
This recording, however, is perhaps my least favorite among those I own at present (17). The reason for this lies not in KRONOS's carrying out of the music - which, as I said already, is flawless - but rather in the music itself, which I can't seem to appreciate as much as I myself would like to, given that I am a genuine KRONOS devotee and that I respect Philip Glass's contribution to the renewal of classical music very much.
The problem with Glass's string quartets seems to me to be that they are too often self-indulgent and self-satisfied in quality, as if composing them for Glass were a matter of proving that music can be done that way, that is by using very simple units and combining them in ever new designs. If that was his point, indeed, I don't feel he can be rebutted: undoubtedly music, very nice music, can be composed that way. Minimalism can work! But once that's out of the way, what's left in his quartets?
There are instances in which I think his music does "take off," so to speak, reaching unbelievable heights. But they are instances, and very brief ones I'm afraid. Most of the time, his quartets seem to me to be good examples of "artisanry" and craftsmanship rather than of art. Glass definitely knows how to compose solid pieces of music - his compositions are formally perfect, geometrical even, and completely self-standing. But where is the "divine spark"? If it's there, I can't seem to hear it.
Although in the CD inlay it says time and again that Glass's string quartets were intended as "independent music that could [also] stand alone as a concert suite" - that is, that they are not merely ancillary to on-stage performances - the truth is that, indeed, his quartets seem to be perfect ambience-music, meant to underscore non-strictly-musical on-stage productions. Glass often composes for such events, and I think he is probably very talented as far as that goes - he undeniably is a visionary, and knows how to find the perfect music for given visual settings and mises en scene.
Once I was watching a documentary on TV and my ear was caught by a beautiful melody... I stopped a minute to think and soon enough I recognized it to be Glass's Company, which I had listened to several time from Gidon Kremer's Silencio. It was superlative music, as long as there were pictures flashing on the screen.
So, my point is, that the music is good, even excellent but only if there something accompanying it. Otherwise, its repetitiveness and its intentional lack of development make it flat and even irksome at times. Unlike Gorecki's music - minimalist but intensely stirring - Glass's music is purely decorative.
I think those who enjoy Glass's other compositions will surely like the ones on this CD, as I'm also positive that KRONOS adepts will want to own this record. In addition to these groups of people, perhaps classical music neophytes might find it enlightening. But for everyone else, my suggestion is to try something else out before... Among the KRONOS QUARTET discography, Night Prayers (featuring Gubaidulina, Goliev and Kancheli among others) and Kronos Quartet Performs Alfred Schinttke are more interesting and noteworthy by far.