It is a remarkable coincidence that the two chamber music groups so dominant in contemporary music are marking their 40th anniversaries at the same time. Only weeks after the Arditti Quartet had its celebrations at Milton Court, here was the Kronos Quartet down the road at the Barbican holding its own 40th anniversary evening.
These two groups have been midwives to a vast swathe of new chamber music over the past four decades. But the music they favour is very different: whereas the Arditti’s links are with progressive European composers, the California-based Kronos have visited many and varied frontiers, minimalism in particular, but also crossovers with pop, jazz and world music.
Only the Kronos could start their party with a short film showing them chatting to Big Bird on Sesame Street. That was in 1987, when they made a celebrity appearance to explain to children “What is a string quartet?” – a relevant question to a group that has done so much to expand the art form’s boundaries.
This programme at the Barbican typically featured two premieres and three UK first performances. The first of the premieres was 40 Canons, written for the Kronos’s anniversary by Bryce Dessner. With the composer joining the group on electric guitar, Dessner explores different facets of a stringed instrument’s possibilities (drumming, bowing, chords, and so on) in music that goes back to basics, but is tightly organised. Like him, Jarvis Cocker also appeared as a guest performer for the premiere of his haunting KERF: a dialogue between a saw, an electric organ and a string quartet – a conversation by otherworldly voices, ethereal and evocative.
The three UK first performances included works by a pair of minimalist composers who have long been the Kronos Quartet’s running mates. Terry Riley’s The Serquent Risadome, based on “Jabberwocky”-like wordplay, splendidly spins complex music out of simple ideas. Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 6 tries to do the same, but the faster movements get unpleasantly congested. Finally, Ukrainian composer Mariana Sadovska joined the Kronos as vocalist and harmonium-player in her own Chernobyl: The Harvest, a folk-infused lament that she describes as a “pagan requiem”. Forty years on, and there are still so many paths to the future.