In 1990, while beginning an immersion with "traditional" classical music, such as that of J. S. Bach, the subject of an earlier post, a dabbling also commenced with the "avant garde" strain, such as that of John Cage and Steve Reich (both of whom will figure subsequently.) The first exposure, though, to "modern" classical was through the remarkable work of Kronos Quartet and their fantastic 1990 album Black Angels. In fact, given the very limited exposure of newer compositions in the concert hall as well as the recording studio compared to that of "traditional" classical, the success of Kronos in building a highly-successful career playing "modern" classical, including many original commissioned works is stunning. Two opportunities to see the quartet live, one at an Orange County junior college and the other at U.C.L.A., are concert-going highlights.
My favorite album from Kronos is Howl, U.S.A., released in 1996. Here the quartet of David Harrington and John Sherba (violins), Joan Jeanrenaud (cello) and Hank Dutt (viola) work with four brilliant works. The first is Michael Dougherty's "Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover," which might be good to listen to after watching the recent biopic of the notorious F. B. I. chief. Dougherty used snippets of Hoover speeches over three decades that highlight his obssession with Communism, as directed through such techniques as wiretapping. The title comes from the composer's use of the string quartet as a "singing" complement to the digitally sampled speeches, while the sounds of sirens, machine guns, and patriotic singing add palpably to the piece.
Following is a section of the great Harry Partch's work "Barstow: Eight Hitchhikers' Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California." Partch, also to be covered in this blog later, developed a new system of notation and built his own instruments to create a music that often drew heavily from sounds and themes of the ancient Greek world. Yet, he spent some of his earlier years roaming the country as, essentially, a hobo, riding trains and then using those experiences in pieces like "Barstow." There, he literally used inscriptions from the roadside railing to demonstrate the loneliness, pathos, ironic and dark humor and, even pathetic attempts at finding soulmates that could be found among life's weary travelers, both figuratively and metaphorically. The voice of Ben Johnston is strangely perfect in voicing these all-too-human messages.
Scott Johnson's "Cold War Suite" from How It Happens (The Voice of I. F. Stone) is an apt counterpoint to Daugherty's Hoover piece. Johnson uses a Stone speech, from a 1983 radio address, and a wiretapped voice section, to show the journalist and political philosopher's keen sense of observation, outrage, perspective on history and other qualities in a voice that is ideally suited for Johnson's manipulations with echo and rhythmic repetition. Two of Stone's quotations stand out: the first, that American movies have had more influence on the world than any Marxist/Communist propaganda and, second, that America's military prowess, capped by the acme of the atomic bomb, was unable to prevent the debacle in Vietnam (or Russia's misadventures in Afghanistan (naturally, our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are interesting to examine in this light now.)
Finally, there is "Howl," with music by Lee Hyla and the reading of the famed and notorious "beat" poem rendered by none other than its creator, Allen Ginsberg. As explained by the poet, the work was essentially built upon his feelings concerning America's Cold War-era military buildup and what he saw as a "repressive police bureaucracy." He also, however, added that he hoped "Howl" would bring "a clean Saxon four-letter word" to high school audiences in spite of authoritarian attempts to block such language! Notably, Hyla remarked that the work initially has Kronos performing in a complementary manner to the cadences of Ginsberg's recitation, but then moving independently towards the latter part of the nearly 26-minute piece, as if the two were "telling similar stories in separate ways."
The rendering of "Howl" alone is spectacular, but to have three other impressive pieces that tie-in thematically, while presenting varied musical approaches, makes this album a real masterpiece in "modern" music. Kronos has made many great albums of widely ranging styles, but Howl, U.S.A. stands out as a particularly brilliant concept and presentation.
1. Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover 10:40
2. Barstow" Eight Hitchhikers Inscriptions . . . 9:49
3. Cold War Suite from How It Happens . . . 10:35
4. Howl 25:41