Kronos Quartet: Vaya Con Brio

How does Mexican music and culture reflect the country’s political history?

October 5, 2002

How does Mexican music and culture reflect the country's political history?

The Kronos Quartet is one of the most eclectic groups in contemporary music. As a string quartet, they have skirted the boundaries of classical and pop music — and incorporated many of the world’s musical varieties into their repertoire.

They have worked with brilliant contemporary composers such as Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, recorded with jazz musicians like Pat Metheny — and played with rock musicians, including the Dave Matthews Band.

The latest hat that Kronos Quartet has chosen to wear is the Mexican sombrero. Their newest work, Nuevo, is a colorfully woven fabric of traditional Mexican music, hip modern tunes and electronic sampling with four new compositions.

It is a celebration of high and low cultures — and it is evident in the crackle and hiss of the penultimate song, Cafe Tacuba’s “12/12.”

Bringing together such diverse elements might suggest that their album resembles a collage more than a unified cloth. However, the Kronos Quartet manage to bridge these different divides by framing each of the songs with elegance — and a touch of vibrancy.

Many of the selections on Nuevo are played with such verve and gusto that they end up colliding and spilling into each other. It is music that strolls through crowded marketplaces and bustling pedestrian thoroughfares, then settles on a bench to rest and watch the world go by.

Kronos Quartet violinist and artistic director David Harrington said that the busy streets of Mexico’s capital, Mexico City, actually provided the inspiration for Nuevo.

Harrington noted that while walking through the world’s second largest city — a city of 18.4 million inhabitants: “I became fascinated with this sense of the layering of things there — of time, of music, of culture, of art… You’d walk down the street and never know what you’re going to hear next.”

The Kronos Quartet manage to imbue that vibrant uncertainty and energy into the songs of Nuevo.

For example, near the end of the record, the group switches rapidly from one musical genre to the next, in a dizzingly experimental composition.

The group uses Ariel Guzik’s plasmaht (a wildly inventive electromagnetic instrument that responds to energy around it), then switches to a variation of the “corrido” ballads written in honor of famous outlaws.

The piece ends with a five-part view of Mexican street life on December 12, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Aside from this dazzling ability to switch pace and genre, the Kronos Quartet also bridge the gap between high and low culture in the album. The third song — “Miniskirt” — was written by 1960s artist Juan Garcia Esquivel.

His compositions were used to demonstrate the range of “stereo” sound. Esquivel’s light and breezy music has been revisited in recent years and revived into a “hip” artifact for a new generation of listeners.

The Kronos Quartet also give a nod to the wacky world of Mexican television by performing a selection of comedy show theme songs written by Roberto Gomez Bolanos. The comedy of Bolanos was simple, unaffected and un-ironic. It perfectly mirrored the jaunty bounce of Beethoven’s “Turkish March” and other works composed by Bolanos himself.

If such moments of cleverness — these winks and asides to the audience — were left to stand alone, Nuevo would turn into a disconnected frenzy of low jokes and bald seriousness. However, the Kronos Quartet link all these moments with soaring artistic and intellectual passion — and also weave in a keen sense of history.

Nuevo digs into the past and rescues the music of 1930s leftist composer Silvestre Revueltas (a friend of famous painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo) and Margarita Lecuona — a prominent performer whose music helped break down gender barriers in Latin music.

Nuevo also intermingles the past and the present. “K’in Sventa Ch’ul Me’tik Kwadulupe” — a new composition by Osvaldo Golijov — mixes a field recording of a religious ceremony in the embattled Mexican province of Chiapas with a spare music that is as haunting — and as beautiful as the ritual itself.

In listening to Nuevo, it is clear that many of the songs are celebrations of Mexican ritual and ceremony.

They can be complicated and colorful like the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebrated on songs “K’in Sventa Ch’ul Me’tik Kwadulupe” and “12/12,” or they can be simple — as simple as turning on the television every night to watch the comedy shows of Roberto Gomez Balanos.

On Nuevo, the Kronos Quartet capture the complexity and simplicity of Mexico’s vibrant life – and bring it to the listener.