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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 8/27/02

Kronos Quartet: Kronos on Stage
2002 (1998) - RM Associates (Image Entertainment)

review by Matt Rowe of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Kronos Quartet: Kronos on Stage Program Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/F

Specs and Features

56 mins, NR, letterboxed widescreen (1.78:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual layered (layer switch at ??), Amaray keep case packaging, program themed menu screens with sound, scene/song access (10 chapters - see track listing below), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0), subtitles: none

The Kronos Quartet, a long-standing and prolific touring unit known for their unique and highly emotive interpretations of primarily 20th century composers, is a grouping of four incredibly talented musicians. The quartet was started in San Francisco by leader David Harrington more than 25 years ago, and eventually developed a different style of their classical elucidations, enough so as to place them into the upper echelon of superior interpretive performers. Eventually, they became sought after by composers, who commission them to recreate their compositions - and recreate they do. Using unconventional methods to derive sound and incorporating those sounds into the fabric of their pieces, they craft distinctive works of haunting beauty.

Kronos is comprised of David Harrington (leader/violinist - first violin), John Sherba (violinist - second violin), Joan Jeanrenaud (cellist - who has since retired but is featured on this DVD and was replaced by cellist Jennifer Culp) and Hank Dutt (violist). Together, they perform with such aching splendor that one is hard pressed to refrain from shedding tears. They have released such a wide variance of music, ranging from the stark accompaniment to Ginsberg's beat epic Howl, to the evocative Ghost Opera by Tan Dun, to Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze. In addition, the great Philip Glass is said to favor the designs of Kronos Quartet, as they have worked with him on a number of occasions including the recent soundtrack of Dracula.

Having produced a body of work spanning 20 years, most of it on the wonderfully supportive Nonesuch label, Kronos has given unusual voice and expressive life to many written pieces of music. They've stretched the imagination to contriving new ways to speak with sound - vocal clicks and clucks, amplified exhaled breaths, dipped cymbals in water, bowstrings across crystal and sudden shouts and cries. Their genius knows no bounds, as they continually expand the borders of their machinations for expression.

This short (under an hour) showcase of two stunning symphonies, the unfathomable Black Angels by George Crumb (an innovative use of music to tell a story of the Vietnam War experience that is given astonishing life by the expertise of the quartet) and Ghost Opera (by Tan Dun of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame).

With Black Angels, although extremely short and frustrating by its abrupt end, you are gifted with such (hey, I'm using up all my favorite adjectives and adverbs here) depth that it induces a coma like concentration. The players simulate the creaking of a bridge by the drawing of their tightly pressed bowstrings against the violin strings and glass tubes are run over the fret boards of the violins, much like a blues man would use a steel slide to play his guitar and make the eerie sounds of stretched tones that rise and fall. This gives you an idea, a mere hint of the magnitude of their stylized work. Occasionally, the screen is splashed with notated sheets of music to give you a look at their creative processes. Their breathing of life into the Adamic opus of Black Angels is nothing short of amazing.

Longer, but equally breathtaking, is Tan Dun's Ghost Opera. Correlated plays exude the sound of spiritual oneness that underscores the successful marriage of this quartet. Again, usage of unusual sound sources communicates the harmony of the musicians. Water bowls with hands dipping and spilling, tapping of the amplified instruments to create a hollow resonance and the incorporation of additional musicians - it all enhances the effectiveness of the sound-story. Wu Man, a female player of the instrument known as a pipa, is enchanting as she adds her inimitable styles to the mix. Her at-once vocalizations are lingering. They extract elements of the story and bring them to the foreground by their uttering. But it's the skill which Kronos infuses in the composition that makes the music alive. We become transfixed and this sound play leaves us with a sense of having risen to a fresher height of musical awareness - one that imbues us with an overwhelming sense of having participated in a mystery.

The video on this disc is amazing in its anamorphic display. The colors are vibrant and rich, with no artifacting to distract the viewer from the experience that is Kronos. The sound is as full and rich as can be possible. The 5.1 soundstaging is exquisite and praiseworthy, while the Dolby Digital Stereo is also very impressive.

This DVD, by nature of the rating process, must receive an F for the lack of extras. However, make no mistake - this is not an indictment of the disc at all. The content is spiritual and etches deeply into your soul, producing peace while generating awe in the wake of such an aural masterpiece. We have all heard and used the term soundscape before, but Kronos Quartet has truly given birth to that term, as you'll realize once you acquire this DVD.

Clearly, on every angle, this disc is a winner for the untraditional classical music lover. But it's even more so for the discriminating music lover of all styles - one that embraces sound as the universal food for uplifting the human spirit. Conventional classical music lovers should proceed with caution, as the stylistic approach of Kronos is usually looked upon as an effacing element to the structured approach of that which is revered. But I think that most of you, upon giving it a chance, will love what Kronos creates.

Matt Rowe
Visit Matt Rowe's MusicTAP ------ Music Flows There!

Track Listing:

Black Angels (1990)

I. Departure
II. Absence
III. Return

Ghost Opera

Act I. Bach, Monks and Shakespeare Meet in Water
Act II. Earth Dance
Act III. Dialogue with "Little Cabbage"
Act IV. Metal and Stone
Act V. Song of Paper

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