Kronos Quartet's collective curiosity takes audiences all over the map
At the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday, November 5
What’s remarkable about rubâb virtuoso Homayun Sakhi’s music is not the skill with which it’s played, but the way it sounds exactly like his native land.
The higher forms of Afghan music take clear inspiration from their North Indian relatives. The two unnamed pieces Sakhi and his band performed on Saturday night both borrowed the structure and pacing of a typical raga, building from a slow alap to a frenzied demonstration of string-bending passion. And although percussionist Abbos Kosimov’s frame drum, the doyra, is of Uzbek extraction, his stage-right counterpart Salar Nader’s tabla looked identical to what you’d find on any Calcutta or Mumbai stage.
But the music Sakhi and band produced was drier, dustier, and fiercer than most North Indian sounds. Some might miss the perfumed nuances of the sitar and sarod, but the rubâb’s quick decay demands a more physical and less languid approach—which perfectly suited Sakhi’s sonic extroversion, and the harsh conditions of life on the Afghan plateau.
This intense immersion in the spirit of place followed a set from the Kronos Quartet that was all over the map, although in the best possible way. Again, what makes Kronos special is not its members’ collective ability but their collective curiosity: they’re willing to try anything, although it does help that they’re generally capable of pulling it off.
Saturday’s program found them sailing through the intricately woven strands of National guitarist Bryce Dessner’s impressive Aheym; delivering their own tribute to the north Indian tradition with a haunting arrangement of the alap from sarangi master Ram Narayan’s Raga Mishra Bhairavi; negotiating the off-kilter tempos of Syrian wedding singer Omar Souleyman’s La Sidounak Sayyada; conjuring rembetika icon Marika Papagika’s mournful voice on the traditional ballad Smyrneiko Minore; and venturing into outer space for Montreal composer Nicole Lizée’s electronically assisted Death to Kosmische.
At times, various members of the group shed their strings to pick up a small harmonium, a Middle Eastern goblet drum, a droning tamboura, an Omnichord, a Stylophone, and a mysterious, dial-encrusted box that looked for all the world like a space-age anglerfish. Like the program itself, Kronos’s sounds were crazily eclectic—and held together by the quartet’s infectious passion for exploration.
After two such wildly different delights, the seven musicians’ collaboration on Sakhi’s Rangin Kaman was almost a letdown. Almost, but not quite. Although the piece is less deliriously inventive than Kronos’s usual fare, and not quite as focused as its composer’s trio work, it proved a gorgeous blend of European and Central Asian sonorities, marked by intense ensemble rapport and ending with a rousing invocation of hope for Afghanistan’s future.
“What do you do after that?” asked Kronos violinist David Harrington, after acknowledging the crowd’s standing ovation. Well, for an encore, the seven musicians smiled at each other and dove right into Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, as arranged for quartet (but not Afghans) by Philip Glass.
Frankly, it was terrible; even virtuosos need to rehearse. But that they’d attempt it at all was, in some weird way, as much of a giddy pleasure as everything that had come before.