Kronos Quartet – Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Tue 19 Aug (3 stars)

Kronos Quartet – Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Tue 19 Aug

Contemporary classical group cover vast array of music and styles to mixed results

This event, probably the most accessible in the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival programme and with an affordable ticket price to match, is billed under the cinephile-friendly names of Philip Glass and Clint Mansell, but in reality is a programme of works reflecting the increasingly varied territory occupied by Kronos Quartet in their 40th year. In fact, it's in exactly those off-piste moments, where they explore areas of middle eastern music, klezmer and jazz, that things get interesting.

Opening piece, 'Death to Kosmische' by Montreal-based Nicole Lizee and featuring interventions from the retro-futurist instruments the omnichord and stylophone, aims to explore ideas of musical hauntology, which it would, were it not for the fact the these instruments have been used to signify exactly this for several decades now, to the point where they now border on kitsch. Laboured instrument choice aside, in this particular piece they also just sound really, really bad.

An early highlight comes in the form of some Omar Souleyman, the Syrian party music legend whose career made a bizarre crossover to western ears recently, remixing Bjork and now regularly playing electronic music festivals throughout Europe. Live strings attack the distinctive Middle Eastern scales over a booming drumtrack, and it's encouraging in itself to see contemporary classical groups such as Kronos and Bang on a Can normalise the practise of playing to a backing track in a territory where that might be considered blasphemous.

Although there are several departures from the New York art scene and 60s minimalism areas from which Kronos emerged, there are also pieces from long-term collaborator Terry Riley and, in another programme high point, Laurie Anderson's 'Flow', with a spacious arrangement so gentle it almost isn't there. There are further echoes of their own past in Mary Kouyoumdjian's 'Bombs of Beirut' (2013), commissioned as part of the Kronos: Under 30 Project and which shares subject matter, use of spoken word and structure (Before the War, The War, After the War) with their landmark recording of Steve Reich's Different Trains.

In 'Lux Auterna', Clint Mansell (that's Mansell now he's a composer, not Mansell – as I'm pretty sure he was when he was in Pop Will Eat Itself) has created a modern day 'Carmina Burana', and it's now difficult to listen untainted by the thousands of YouTube clips slapping it on for instant surly gravitas. That said, it's interesting reminder of how subtle the original Requiem for a Dream version is in comparison to the re-orchestrated version in the second Lord of the Rings film. The other main title, Philip Glass' 'String Quartet No 6', commissioned by Kronos and premiered in 2013, sounds very much like ... late-period Philip Glass, very different from 1991 Kronos-commissioned Quartet No 5 and worlds away from his ambitious early 1970s work.

Much as the music establishment would like to use their crossover appeal and popularity as a stick to beat them with, it's easy to forget how significant the Kronos Quartet are. Their 800+ commissions of new work to date have helped support a generation of composers. Their recordings of Alfred Schnittke Complete String Quartets and Steve Reich's Different Trains remain landmark pieces and, 25 years on from these, they still strive to innovate. At the previous night's EIF event, they performed Aleksandra Vrebalov's newly-commissioned live score to filmmaker Bill Morrison's WWI-inspired 'Beyond Zero: 1914-1918', consisting of vintage footage further manipulated using chemicals on the film stock - a technique used on his best-known work Decasia. While the highlights of this evenings programme were inspired, and a reminder of just how great a noise they make together, it's a mixed bag of an evening which made the previous night's performance feel like a far more substantial, significant and cohesive event than this one.

Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Tue 19 Aug.

The Kronos Quartet: Bombs of Beirut by Mary Kouyoumdjian

Kronos Quartet

A special recital to complement its film project Beyond Zero: 1914–1918, the quartet plays Philip Glass' String Quartet No 6 and Mansell's music from The Fountain and Requiem for a Dream.

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