For the better part of the past 25 years, the Kronos Quartet have been role models for anyone who appreciates—or wants to learn to appreciate—new music of quality. Their contemporary repertoire, composed of over 400 pieces commissioned for top-notch living composers, always felt edgy and cool—the opposite of the genteel salon fluff people often mistakenly think of as "chamber music." Moreover, the Kronos thumbed their noses at classical stigmas with their hip style of dress and raucous play. They've recorded on Nonesuch, the trend-setting crossover label of Wilco, Laurie Anderson, and Bill Frisell. And they never completely sold out to the point that their integrity could be doubted. That is, until now.
With the recently released Nuevo, a collection of mainly Mexican and Latin American tunes, the Kronos Quartet is no longer the same group of pioneers who warranted attention for their commitment to contemporary music and for their on-stage fire. They're a group of sonic clowns. And a hapless one at that.
The problems with Nuevo stem from both its approach to programming and the music itself. Granted, Kronos has every right to try something new and fun. It's just impossible to ignore this disc's pervading mediocrity and weak world-music shtick, when the music press seems to be looking the other way, just because they're Kronos. (From the Hartford Courant: "Like so many of the ideas that the bold, genre-bending, multi-eclectic quartet experiments with," Nuevo's"Perfidia," a "concerto for ivy leaf, actually works. Sure … it sounds like a primitive synthesizer running low on electronic juice. But enveloped in lush Kronos overdubs, [the leaf player's] heart cries out … in a teary but entertainingly effective way.")
Now, since when did truly fun and interesting sounds need Hollywood-style embellishment or a dramatic subtext? Take the aforementioned "Perfidia"(1939), a standard by Alberto Dominguez that's already been recorded by Nat King Cole, Glenn Miller, and Jimmy Dorsey. In Nuevo's arrangement by pianist-composer Steven Prutsman, the song is interpreted by soloist Carlos Garcia, a one-armed street performer who sings its tunes by blowing on the end of an ivy leaf. And to make the rendition more "authentic," more marketably world music, the Kronos even include a recording of Mexican street chatter to accompany the John-Williams-y string writing that introduces Garcia's strange melodic voice. Of course, it's eye-opening to hear this instrumental plant squeal, which sounds something like a cartoon mouse trying to sing opera and probably isn't solely indigenous to Mexico or Latin America for that matter, but it's surely not something you'd want to listen to more than once.
Nuevo's also terribly annoying. On Severiano Briseno's "El Sinaloense" ("The Man From Sinaloa") (1943) as arranged by Osvaldo Golijov, the group employs the technique of overdubbing to make four string instruments sound like cheap brass horns (they end up sounding more like kazoos). This sound is annoying enough without being applied to the charming and boisterous melodies of this famed Mexican drinking song. There's a fine line between beautiful, natural bawdiness and mimetic, manufactured mumbo jumbo. And on the wrong side of that line, if I'm not mistaken, lives offensive cultural caricaturing.
And what of the music itself? Nuevo is meant to evoke a cross-section of Mexican sounds, pop and serious—the mix violinist David Harrington apparently heard on a recent trip to Mexico City. But if that's the case, why doesn't the group record more of the substantive present-day compositions that exhibit this trend? The bulk of the music on Nuevo consists of old street songs, many of which people already know and many of which don't exhibit the true gifts of good Mexican music: its risk-taking and simple lyric beauty. Instead we get "Mini Skirt," the funny but overplayed and so-five-minutes-ago space-age pop of the late Juan Garcia Esquivel; "Chavosuite"a collection of exhaustingly base themes (including an abominable arrangement of a Beethoven Turkish march) from three hit Mexican TV shows; and a God-awful remix of "El Sinaloense" by Mexican house DJ Plankton Man.
Nuevo does have a few probing and worthy (read: listenable) tracks—Prutsman's arrangement of Silvestre Revueltas' driving "Sensemaya"; Golijov's contemplative "K'in Sventa Ch'ul Me'tik Kwadulupe" ("Festival for the Holy Mother Guadalupe"), a work that makes much better use of streets-speak than Perfidia; and Margarita Lecuona's "Tabu," a fun and experimental popular song (from the first Cuban woman to break into this realm) that features Afro-Cuban instruments, including a quijada, a mule's jawbone that rattles when hit.
But three or four decent pieces does not an album make, and I wonder why the Kronos didn't exploit their connection with Golijov more completely. He's a delightful composer and arranger; why not let him write the group an album's worth of material and not simply arrange others' inferior ditties? There's nothing wrong with having a little fun, but if you're going to provide the public an image of an underrated culture's music, don't just focus on the weak crowd-pleasers and then re-imagine them so cheaply.
Let's be honest: It's not as if screaming teen-agers are buying Kronos records. By releasing an album like this the Kronos are simply biting the hands of the serious listeners who've been feeding them. What music needs from the Kronos is not this half-assed kitsch but rather a record of smart, new sounds. In the end, if I want traditional Mexican brass-band music or other lighthearted fun stuff from that part of the world, I'll get it from the people who know how to do it right: Mexican band musicians, not anglicized wannabes with conservatory degrees, computers, and the bankrolling of a hip record company.