The world-renowned Kronos Quartet blew minds April 15 at the West Coast premiere of Henryk Górecki's ... songs are sung at Hertz Hall. More mind-blowing, however, was how much watching Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters just prior to the concert shaped and informed the experience.
Two icons of high and low art mashed up in Press Play's head Sunday, and partisans for both extremes would be surprised to find out how much the acclaimed ensemble and the gory, surrealist cartoon have in common. Prepare to witness, loyal reader, the only compare-and-contrast critique of the Kronos Quartet and Aqua Teen Hunger Force in the world ever, ever.
First off, death dominates the minds of both the 34-year-old Bay Area string quartet and the seven-year-old surrealist cartoon. Kronos began its sold-out show with an unknown Iraqi composer's song, "Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me." Positive title. Then the musicians burrowed deep into Górecki's "[when people die], songs are sung." The fifty-minute piece's entire theme is a foghorn-ish duh-duh-duuuuh. A real upper.
Similarly, almost every Aqua Teen character dies during the 82-minute feature-length debut of the late-night animated TV series. Frylock, the wise, anthropomorphic box of fries, is mauled to death by a poodle. Meatwad, the kind-hearted talking meat product, is shotgunned. And Master Shake, the egomaniacal milkshake, gets his hands sliced off trying to grab a razorblade teddy bear.
Second, both projects obsess over postmodern nonlinearity, or nonsense. Kronos did things to stringed instruments no human should do as the quartet performed John Zorn's thrilling 1990 piece "The Dead Man." According to the program notes, the New York music czar turned a short attention span into a creative asset, and developed a unique approach to composition. "Starting with discrete musical ideas or 'moments' jotted down on file cards whenever inspiration struck, Zorn would create a new work by assembling the cards in a specific order. ... An experience often compared to rapidly pushing the preset buttons on a car radio.'"
Similarly, Aqua Teen's multiple plots and reverses come with a preshow warning called "Cut You Up with a Linoleum Knife" by metal champions Mastodon. Do not explain the plot! Mastodon screams. If you don't understand then you should not be here! ... Did you bring your baby?!/Babies don't watch this!/Take the Seed outside!/Leave it in the streets!/Run over it after the show!
"Aggressively plotless," the Los Angeles Times calls Aqua Teen. "It will baffle everyone," the Chicago Tribune says. "Strictly for cultists," The New York Times sniffs. "A jumble of pop culture references," USA Today says. You could say the same for Zorn, because older critics don't get Aqua Teen the way people didn't get an experimental chamber quartet when Kronos started in '73. Zorn gets it.
"Zorn has long drawn stylistic inspiration from Carl Stalling's soundtracks to the classical Warner Brothers cartoons of the 1940s and 1950s," the concert's program notes state. "When you listen to Stalling's music apart from the animated visuals, Zorn says you 'enter a completely new dimension: you are constantly being thrown off balance, yet there is something strangely familiar about it all.'"
Hearing Kronos fuse 1940s cartoon riffs into postmodern pastiches completely validated the Aqua Teens. Look at vaudeville comedian Groucho Marx, now revered as a primal mover by the likes of Woody Allen: "Groucho Marx was the best comedian this country ever produced," Allen enthused. "He is simply unique in the same way that Picasso or Stravinsky are."
Kronos' high point came during the debut performance of Stephen Prutsman's bizarre, abstract 2006 piece Particle 423. The former rocker for Cerebus turned world-renowned composer says, "Since its beginnings, every popular song has had some kind of moment, an inspiration or 'hook' which emotionally catches a listener. Particle 423 employs over four hundred of such souvenirs, which are bridged or sewn together by acoustic and taped sound design."
Listening to Particle was like standing in the center of a dust devil filled with bits of our culture, all swirling around and catching our attention. The dust devil blows itself out slowly and sadly, and the members of the quartet mirror the feeling by physically exiting through four different doors as they pluck the final notes. It leaves the unmistakable impression that Prutsman is talking about the limited lifespan of cultures, and the idea that long after America is gone, random fragments of what we made will persist.
Like the number zero, or the shape of an Ionic column, a violent, talking happy meal may be all that's left of us. It's our duty, then, to appreciate and respect both the highs and lows of culture. And trust Mastodon when it sings, Don't talk, watch! You came here!/Watch it!/Don't like it?/Walk out!/We still have all your fucking money!
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