It started out simply enough, with a cover of a Hendrix tune. This was the sort of tribute rock bands tossed off without thinking, and barely anyone would bat an eye at finding a version of, say, "Little Wing" tacked onto an album by Pearl Jam or Guns N' Roses.
But when a rendition of "Purple Haze" turned up at the end of a 1986 album by the Kronos Quartet, it was enough to turn the music world on its head. Kronos, after all, is a string quartet, and as almost everyone is aware, string quartets aren't in the habit of covering Hendrix tunes. What they play are the classics, not classic rock.
Yet not only did Kronos include Hendrix in the company of such established modern masters as Philip Glass, Aulis Sallinen and Conlon Nancarrow, but they accorded his music the same respect. And it worked, too. Even though it was initially received as something of a novelty number, the Kronos rendition of "Purple Haze" not only underscored the compositional integrity of the Hendrix piece, but showed that, given the right arrangement, a string quartet could rock as convincingly as any electric guitar group.
This didn't exactly revolutionize the string quartet business, of course; the Guarneri Quartet did not rush to record a Hendrix cycle, nor did the Cleveland Quartet commission a set of Eric Clapton transcriptions. But the Kronos take on "Purple Haze" did manage to open a few minds, and not just within the classical music community.
Take the Balanescu Quartet album "Possessed" (Mute 61421) as an example. At first, it seems just another rock-transcription exercise, with much of the album given over to quartet arrangements of songs by the German synthesizer group Kraftwerk -- a novel enough idea, but hardly a stylistic breakthrough.
Or is it? Listen closely, and despite the seeming simplicity of the Kraftwerk covers, "Possessed" turns out to be an album of surprising depth and insight. Because rather than take the easy way out and offer emotionless, robotic readings of these synth-pop classics, what the Balanescu Quartet turns in is a performance that captures both their mechanistic regularity and the implied romanticism of the originals.
It's not an easy trick to pull off, either. In addition to having to approximate a number of electronic effects, the quartet must pay close attention to phrasing and color, as some phrases call for flat, vibrato-less playing while others require the warmth and shading of a Schubert adagio. But it's only by finding the proper balance between the two that violinist Alexander Balanescu and his cohorts are able to find the soul of "Robots," the pastoral beauty intersected by "Autobahn," or the heart within "Computer Love."
Nor are those the only benefits the quartet reaps. In a sense, what the Balanescu Quartet has managed is the perfect compromise between minimalist asceticism and the expressive opulence of neo-romanticism. And that carries through to the album's other offerings, most of which are composed by Balanescu himself. "Want Me," for instance, sounds much like the music of Philip Glass, with its interlocking ostinatos and closely harmonized vocals, but works enough drama into its repetitious phrases to avoid the icy insistence of Glass's recordings. Likewise, the album's title tune draws enough connections between melody and rhythm to bear a more than passing resemblance to early Steve Reich, yet delivers enough rock-derived drama to keep from seeming totally derivative.
"Possessed" also includes Angel Fernandez's realization of the David Byrne tune "Hanging Upside-Down," but it, though pleasantly tuneful and gently rocking, is hardly as ambitious as Byrne's "High Life for Nine Instruments," one of four pieces on the album "Balanescu Quartet" (Argo 436 565). This isn't an entirely conventional collection of classical music,but it, like the Kronos Quartet's best work, draws no distinction between "serious" and "popular" sources in its performance.
Thus, John Lurie's "Stranger Than Paradise" (which the saxophonist, a member of the "fake jazz" ensemble the Lounge Lizards, composed for the Jim Jarmusch film) is played with the same measured lyricism the quartet lends Robert Moran's more traditionally elegiac "Music from the Towers of the Moon," while the quartet saws just as enthusiastically through the energetic cadences of Michael Torke's vigorously pulsing "Chalk" as it does in the livelier moments of Byrne's "High Life."
Nor is Byrne's piece the only recent attempt to bring African music into the chamber repertoire. "Pieces of Africa" (Nonesuch 79275), the Kronos Quartet's latest, consists entirely of contemporary African compositions, be they as orthodox as Kevin Volans' "White Man Sleeps" or as exotic and adventurous as the group's versions of Hamza El Din's "Escalay" or Dumisani Maraire's "Mai Nozipo."
Given that the Western string quartet isn't a typical ensemble in most African music, the Kronos players do have to make allowances on some pieces. But rather than force these African instrumentalists to comply with Western performance practices, Kronos instead adapts its own approach to create a middle ground between cultures. And it works, with the Kronos' string lines slipping neatly between the oud and percussion of Moroccan composer Hassan Hakmoun's "Saade," and easily meshing with Obo Addy's Ghanaian percussion on "Wawshishinjay."
Still, not every attempt to blur stylistic boundaries is a success. Even though the Greene String Quartet opened its genre-jumping album "The String Machine" (Virgin Variation 91632) with a spirited transcription of the Guns N' Roses rocker "Welcome to the Jungle," this California quartet isn't quite convincing when it rocks.
It ought to be, if only because front man Richard Greene has better bona fides than most violinists. Not only is Greene an alumnus of the country-rock act Seatrain, but he also has recorded with the likes of Rod Stewart, James Taylor and Jerry Garcia, and his cohorts have similar jazz or pop experience. Even so, "The String Machine" is on its surest footing when emphasizing the bluegrass and jazz end of its repertoire. As such, the album shines brightest when the group has its way with Aaron Copland's "Hoedown" or Peter Schickele's "Four Studies."