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Kronos Quartet - Floodplain

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Artist: Kronos Quartet

Album: Floodplain

Label: Nonesuch

Review date: Sep. 3, 2009

The Kronos Quartet are problematic and have always been problematic. On the one hand, I’m grateful for their existence in that they helped shepherd in the post-everything school of contemporary “classical” music which has been on the rise for the past 20 years or so (and which I am tangentially part of as a graduate student in music composition). Their playing for that side of their oeuvre is fantastic and noteworthy, as is their long relationship with folks like Terry Riley and Osvaldo Golijov, and other contemporary composers. Then there are all their genre excursions, into rock, blues, folk, jazz, avant-garde indie rock and beyond, all of which pay some attention to those genres’ conventions and throw others out. On all of those albums, their exquisite classical technique run head first into the conventions of whatever genre they’re appropriating, but nowhere does this collision cause as much trouble as in their “world music” releases. Over the course of five albums (Pieces of Africa, Caravan, Nuevo, You’ve Stolen My Heart, and this album), they’ve explored the musics of the southern hemisphere, transforming many of those musics into things that sound roughly like a string quartet trying to sound like a mariachi band, or a group of gypsies, or a Bollywood orchestra, or a highlife band. Some of these are actually remarkably effective, especially when they are complemented by folks who actually make that kind of music. You’ve Stolen My Heart is the best, and least troublesome, of these albums, in part because Zakir Hussain and Asha Bhosle are there guiding the group through a bunch of Bollywood numbers. (Bang on a Can’s album with Kyaw Kyaw Naing falls in the same category of mostly untroublesome cross-genre collaborations with American classical musicians.)

But on the rest of these albums, and this new one in particular, the quartet hurtles towards questions of colonialism, both in terms of politics and sound. Floodplain is an album of music from the great floodplains that birthed civilization, a highfalutin concept that basically allows them to play music from the Middle East and India without directly ripping off Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. It is immediately clear that the group treats the original musics with the utmost respect; the liner notes practically fall over themselves in paying homage to the countries and cultures where these musics originate. (David Harrington, one of their violinists even injects post-Obama politics in the notes, saying “Floodplain was imagined and recorded during one era in American politics, and then released during a very different one. Our work is a continuously evolving interaction with the world we are part of, and we are always trying to find ways to reflect what it means to be musicians today.”)

But then the playing starts. I don’t want to build a total straw man here by saying that they try to domesticate these foreign, “oriental” musics for a Western audience, since they seem to have at least a bit of post-colonial awareness, but there are absolutely moments when they do just that. These are four Western classical virtuosi who can pull just about any sound imaginable from their centuries old Western classical instruments, and regardless of how they try to disguise that, they still sound like Western classical musicians. The resonance of the viola will never match that of the rebab or the ud, the sitar or the tanbur regardless of how much skill you have. The sounds of the instruments are too overdetermined, too beautiful, too clean. And the solo playing in “Raga Mishra Bhairavi: Alap” or “Mugam Beyati Shiraz” is still only a step or two removed from what you would hear in the Sibelius violin concerto. Their arrangement of “Wa Habibi,” a Lebanese Christian hymn, might as well have been harmonized by Bach. And that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Not everything here leaves me queasy. Their live performance of the Azerbaijani song “Getme, Getme” with the Alim Qasimov Ensemble is stunning in part because it actually retains more than a mere trace of its origins. Alim and Fargana Qasimova’s vocals are heartbreaking, and the Kronos blend in seamlessly with the Ensemble. And their version of a traditional Iranian lullaby, with Harrington playing a wild dervish of a solo violin line is wonderfully alien, and Hank Dutt’s viola melodies revel in the unusual intervals of the Iranian scales and modes. Additionally, their performance of the Ethiopian tune “Tèw semagn hagèré” on specially made instruments is just plain bizarre and wonderful.

All of this begs the question of whether that kind of crossover or fusion is a valid musical expression? Or, more precisely, how can a Western classical ensemble approach musics from beyond the Western classical tradition unproblematically? Is it better for a group to present this music to a Western classical/“new music” audience in a somewhat cleaned up way that marks a middle point between the Western traditions of the Kronos themselves and those of their sources? Or would it be more valid for them to simply be mouthpieces or amplifiers used to project the original musics, unadulterated, to that same audience? And is that audience only listening to this music because it has the Kronos Quartet imprimatur? These questions are all very difficult, if not impossible, to answer in a way that is in any way internally consistent. Either we’re left advocating for the uncomfortably conservative stance that world musics should be produced and consumed in a mythical untouched, “authentic” form, or for the equally problematic quasi-colonial view that the most important part of the process is getting this music to a new audience, regardless of the form the music takes. Perhaps I’m worry too much, diving into the bottomless post-modern rabbit hole. There has to be a middle ground here somewhere that would allow musicians like the Kronos (or Yo Yo Ma or Brooklyn Rider or whoever else) to celebrate these non-Western musics that influence them, and a way for them to enter into musical dialog without either taking advantage of or doing a disservice to those musics. Is it automatically exploitative when the classical music world tries to engage the non-Western world?

Which leads me to the last problematic question this album raises: who is its audience? Does this represent a middlebrow attempt at cultural diversity? World music for the NPR set, the “Fresh Air” set? A way for classical music lovers to feel better about themselves, to feel like they do appreciate music by more than the great dead white guys? Or, do the Kronos Qartet want this to be a gateway to the musics of all the countries they explore here? A way to lead their audience by the hand, to make this music somehow more “palatable”? To prime the pump, as it were, thus creating a (pardon the pun) flood of interest in music from this part of the world? As Harrington said, this is a way of exploring the music of our time. But, the question remains of whether the ends completely justify the musical means?

By Dan Ruccia

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