Visual Music

Saw Kronos Quartet’s performance of Visual Music last night. My opinion: Mixed. Some of the music was more, well, musical, and some was experimental in a way that had some novelty value but became trite or positively grating pretty quickly.

The show opened with exactly such a piece. Four very tall, spidery sculptural things lined up on stage, with upward-facing speakers at the base and mics hanging like pendulums (with slightly varying lengths) from the tops. My initial assessment was that these were feedback generators, and I was right. The four members of the group came out, pulled back the cords, and let them swing. As the mics passed over the speakers, the speakers squawked; the closer the mic, the higher the pitch. Slowly they moved out of sync with each other (being different lengths) and would occasionally move briefly back into sync. So this was fun, in a way, but before long I was clenching my ears. When the piece ended and something more traditional began, I could barely hear it for the first minute or so.

The subsequent piece was played on violins, and was technically impressive, but only intermittently what I would call “musical.” There were several other pieces I would categorize the same way, including one where they projected their musical score on a giant screen behind them (which they faced), scrolling by as they worked their instruments in a way that seemed more like violin abuse than playing, including bowing above the nut, below the bridge, above their fingering hands, on the body of the violin directly, pressing the strings flat against the fingerboard and playing that way, and mostly beating the bow on the strings rather than sliding it across them.

Other pieces also involved video projection, and some had recorded spoken-word tracks (usually consisting of chopped-up didactic commentary) and recorded music tracks behind them. Gwen’s comment on these was that they were “painfully early-80s Laurie Anderson.”

The set (which was surprisingly short, with no encore) ended with something that I did enjoy, that I think was composed by Sigur Rös.