Cool venue – cool ensemble – cool concert! The Kronos quartet are successful where so many fail in bringing the often-too-distinct worlds of pop/rock and classical together. This concert highlighted their commitment to forging their own performance aesthetic by only programming music that has been written specifically for them. The only exception was the piece that inspired first violinist David Harrington to form the group in the first place – George Crumb’s Black Angels.

Beginning with Aheym (Homeward) by Bryce Dessner (of the band The National), Kronos immediately set out a hard edged, disembodied (amplified) sound. Microphones and speaker-cones further emphasised attacks that were already performed with what seemed to approach contempt for their instruments. This was a striking piece that, through belligerent repetition, had a powerful effect – but didn’t develop enough to really hit the mark. While electronics can compromise the intimacy of a chamber ensemble, they can, when used well, enhance new and otherwise-ignored dimensions; here they simply amplified the sound, which gave a visceral edge to the playing and made the extended techniques sound yet more extreme. This created a hyper-real string quartet sound fitting the slightly grotesque high-Victorian decor and decayed classic ambience of the Hackney Empire.

Electronics were used in brilliant sympathy by Tyondai Braxton (a former member of the electronic group Battles), and the concert really took off here – the tape part joined the ensemble in perfect balance (praise to the oft-overlooked sound engineer) and made for a disturbing and moving experience.

To close the first half Kronos were joined by the Trinity Laban Chamber Choir. On they came, entering the stage in dribs and drabs, howling and screeching, to perform Another Secret eQuation – Terry Riley’s twenty-sixth Kronos commission. This piece was not convincing; getting past the repeated juvenile words (such as ‘they never listen to us’ and ‘we are lost and cannot find our way’) was difficult and made Riley’s music, which normally has a concerted veneer of simplicity (but creates an amazing, deep effect), sound facile. However, Exalted by Michael Gordon (another Kronos devotee) was a real treat. In a very good way, it was ritualistic – even bordering on barbaric. The aggressive quartet opening, when joined by descending canonic phrases in the choir, was hypnotizing. The performers managed to maintain the intensity over innumerable repeats – a physical and musical feat not to go unnoticed by a delighted crowd.

The piece that contributed to the formation of the Kronos quartet in 1973 took up all of the second half. Black Angels is the kind of piece that is repeatedly referred to as seminal, despite very few concert-goers ever having the chance to hear it. It’s a sad fact that the 60s avant-garde draws derision more often than most other art movements. Faced with this, performers tend to take this music on with a kind of ultra-seriousness. So here, after entertaining the audience before the interval wearing occasional smiles and the kind of Sunday-wear associated more with Sainsbury’s-going than concert performance, Kronos returned in a shabby version of ‘new music black’ concert dress, and grimaces.

The piece itself is an incredibly ambitious and impressive workout of the string quartet medium. Expanding the pallet to include percussion, gongs, pitched glasses, and vocal sounds and speech makes for an effective and powerful soundscape. But it does take away from some of what makes the hallowed ‘String Quartet’ such an important and delightful genre: things like the intimacy and immediacy of the close-knit players and the homogeneous sound. The staging of the piece (as created by the ensemble in 2008) helps out: it emphasises the semi-programmatic role of the cello as the voice of God – surrounded by the celestial effect of the bowed wine glasses. Ending in dead silence with all four instruments relinquished by their players and suspended on ropes brought forth a mightily warm reception from a thoroughly entertained audience.

This was a concert I’ll remember for a long time... seminal piece? Probably, yes!

Awakenings: A Kronos Quartet Residency, at Hackney EmpireArthur Keegan-Bole reviews the Kronos Quartet at the Hackey Empire.3