Early this afternoon my wife and I took the time to watch the entire YouTube video of Testimony, the full-length concert by the Kronos Quartet, which was recorded in the Bing Concert Hall of the Stanford University Campus. This leaves readers with a couple of days to share the experience, since free viewing will no longer be available after Monday, November 2. As I had observed in my preview article, the program for this concert “was planned as a musical reflection on the immediate impact of this moment in our nation’s history.”
It is probably fair to say that the strongest substance for reflection came not from the music that Kronos played but from the recitations of original poetry by Darnell “DeeSoul” Carson, Zouhair Mussa, Cecelia “CeCe” Jordan, Anouk Yeh, and Jarvis Subia. After all, what makes the immediate present such a momentous occasion has to do with questions of “American identity” posed by any individual that is not white and male. All five of these poets speak from personal experience about what it means to be regarded as “other” in one’s own country, while three of the Kronos musicians, violinists David Harrington and John Sherba and violist Hank Dutt are about as white American male as you can get. All five of those poets delivered their words with both clarity and expressiveness, leaving no question about the messages that they wanted to deliver.
In contrast I have to acknowledge that Kronos has had a long history of playing an extensive repertoire of highly inventive music without providing audiences with any useful background to negotiate the listening experience. This is a practice that dates back at least as far as the mid-Eighties, when I was attending their regular concerts at the University of California at Los Angeles. Just about every program I experienced presented audience members with a single sheet of paper listing little more than titles and the names of their respective composers. I still remember what it was like to wrestle with my first experiences of the music of Alfred Schnittke!
Providing that minimum information at the bottom of the screen for each work that was performed would have been a great improvement over making viewers wait for the entire program to scroll by at the conclusion of the program. At least the YouTube Web page not only enumerates the musical and poetic selections but also provides time codes for all of them. Nevertheless, by the end of the program I found myself wondering whether there might have been a risk of a generation gap when it came to how listeners would react to the music that Kronos played.
Consider how the program began, with an arrangement for the quartet by Stephen Prutsman. The title listed on the YouTube page was “Star-Spangled Banner (inspired by Jimi Hendrix).” I suspect that, for many of my generation, Jimi Hendrix’ solo electric guitar account of the national anthem was one of the high points (if not the high point) of the 1969 Woodstock music festival. Half a century later that music still reverberates in conscious memory, even though I no longer have either the audio or the video account of the Woodstock movie. Thanks to that memory, I could appreciate Prutsman’s technique in evoking the Hendrix riffs at their wildest, even if the arrangement was only “inspired,” rather than intended to duplicate. Whether or not those of younger generations would react the same way is left as an exercise for the reader.
Somewhat more confusing was the listing “Strange Fruit (inspired by Billie Holiday).” The composer was listed as Abel Meeropol, who wrote both the music and the words of “Strange Fruit.” Only after it was written did it come to Holiday’s attention, leading to her recording it. So that parenthesis muddies the waters of understanding, rather than clarifying them. More accurate was crediting Jacob Garchik with arranging Meeropol’s music for Kronos. HIs arrangement did more than adequate justice to Meeropol’s original charts; but only those with a sense of history would have remembered that the words of the song are an account of lynching.
Vocalist Meklit Hadero (screen shot from the YouTube video being discussed)
Garchick provided the arrangements of most of the other musical selections. (The one exception was Michael Gordon’s somewhat twisted account of “God Bless America,” which managed to efface any association with Kate Smith. Nevertheless, in the context of the overall program, I found myself wondering how many enthusiastic conservatives enjoy singing this song at the top of their lungs oblivious to that fact that it was composed by Irving Berlin, who was Jewish!) Among Garchik’s other efforts, I found the arrangement of John Coltrane’s “Alabama” the least effective, while his treatment of Zoe Mulford’s “The President Sang Amazing Grace” was the best (even if I would have preferred somewhat better diction in Meklit Hadero’s treatment of the words).
Taken as a whole, the program was definitely mixed in quality; but the impact of the assets was strong enough to allow the liabilities to pass by with little, if any, notice.