One would think that music and spoken word are two of the most complimentary art forms. They seem like they should be a perfect match; next to music, spoken word is the medium most reliant on pitch and rhythm, not to mention abstract concepts like cadence, consonance and dissonance. But the combination is a risky endeavor. One often hears music/spoken word collaborations that serve to diminish both components, with each distracting from the other, interfering with each other as opposed to providing contrast or counterpoint. But if there is a musical entity that could successfully marry the two, it’s Kronos Quartet, whose experience working in unusual musical settings is as wide as anyone’s. Working with authors Rula Jebreal, Marjane Satrapi, and Tony Kushner, they brought their experimental energies to the Metropolitan Museum for an evening-length work titled “Exit Strategies”.
While no theme was explicitly mentioned in the program, the authors’ works would suggest a general theme of politics and the Middle East, but the evening’s topics proved freewheeling and wide-ranging. Each writer read a prepared (or, in Satrapi’s case, loosely improvised) piece while Kronos played selections from a variety of works, from Hamza al-Din to Morton Feldman, as well as folk songs from Iran, Lebanon and Sweden. After a short introduction by Salman Rushdie, the three authors took their seats, stage left of Kronos. Jebreal, a journalist, novelist and screenwriter of mixed Italian and Palestinian heritage, immediately launched into an incisive and muscular critique of modern American culture, specifically our odd unwillingness to ask difficult social questions in today’s climate, wheras that used to be a staple of our society. Kronos stayed underneath her, active and constant but never quite overpowering, providing a bustle for her verbal momentum. Her second piece, a story told from the perspective of a prostitute caught in vicious urban warfare, received gentler backing, dark smears building thick layers of somber sadness, which served as the foundation for her harrowing tale. The violins put down their traditional instruments, reaching instead for a tanbura and harmonium to better weave static bleakness.
As Kronos switched into a mellow, brighter mood, Satrapi began her piece, an improvised musing in contrast to Jebreal and Kushner’s composed narratives. More than the other two, Satrapi displayed a playful self-awareness, commenting often on the difficulty of keeping her thoughts in order while simultaneously listening to Kronos. Her monologue focused on a theme often found in her work: the unfortunate tendency for humans to make broad generalizations about other humans, turning them into abstractions undeserving of empathy. It’s a trait shared by much of humanity, which is worrisome enough; Satrapi’s concern is that sometimes those people get into positions of power.
Kushner brought the first part of the show to a close with a long-form poem about losing a loved one, whose vivid heartache Kronos couched in close, weeping clusters of heartbroken harmony. References to walls and deserts implied vaguely where Kushner was talking about, but his grasp of the universals of emotional suffering uprooted the piece into timelessness, placelessness, using simple but beautiful language to address a deeply complex form of suffering. Kushner seemed to be the most aware of the relationship between the words and music, often waiting for cues or speeding up slightly to allow the poem and Kronos to synchronize properly. Things generally felt a bit more rehearsed, and the impact was palpable, with most of the audience (or at least myself and a few people around me) crying softly by the end.
Next, Kronos played a few unaccompanied pieces, including Scott Johnson’s It Raged, featuring samples of iconoclastic journalist I.F. Stone. Jammed full of nuclear paranoia and eerie, ambient electronics, the piece made Stone into an active contributor on the panel, his incisive admonishments of accepted wisdom particularly well matched with Jebreal’s fiery criticisms of a passive public. The quartet stepping out in front after playing a supporting role throughout the evening was a drastic, but powerful, change. I don’t think the intention was for Kronos to seem like they were in a supporting role, but that’s part of what’s tricky in music-with-spoken-word: momentary distraction from the music isn’t as disruptive as missing a few words, so one must ultimately focus more on the words during a piece (especially in live performance, where the environment seemingly conspires to obscure the human voice as much as possible).
After Kronos finished It Raged, there seemed to be a little confusion. The quartet kept playing, going back to mellower and more background-y music, while Kushner joked about how they were supposed to keep talking until a particular signal was received (a lamp onstage would apparently turn on to mark the music’s end). Jebreal, Kushner and Satrapi began a lively political discussion that, while certainly humorous, felt a little unsteady and perhaps not well-planned. Recitation of prepared pieces, or semi-improvised monologues, with musical accompaniment, is one thing; attempting a serious discussion between three people while a string quartet plays is another. While I appreciated what they were trying to do, this part of the evening fell rather flat in comparison to the powerful, moving sections earlier. The topic wandered back to the depressing state of modern American politics, which, while certainly a valid subject for discussion, didn’t exactly work with a musical component. The appeal of combining music and spoken word is to illustrate the complementary nature of the two art forms, emphasizing mood and the nature of storytelling. Conversation, while also an art form, has much less to do with music, and despite the brilliance of all involved, the last third of the show demonstrated the dangers of this particular blend of mediums. Still, the earlier sections were wonderful, and more importantly, Kronos remains a force committed to experimentation; the nature of experimentation is such that not all experiments will be successful. Although I must say, however difficult it was to focus on the conversation while Kronos played, it certainly improved on what is usually a brutal and depressing experience (hearing people talk about politics). Perhaps if all political discussions were underscored by string quartets, we’d have a much better time in election years.
Evan Burke is a bassist and composer living in Brooklyn.