self-titled – Fiddlers 4
Compass Records 7 4334-2
The string quartet has an inherently agile quality. Each instrument can meld
and mold into various tonal regions in an effort to synthesize other, more
modern, instrumental compositions, such as "Purple Haze" or Lee Morgan's
"Sidewinder". Simultaneously, the same quartet can revel in nostalgia
through the congruent elegance of Mozart's various rondos or Bach's
well-respected Contrapunctuses. Over the last ten years, the musical genres
pertinent to the string quartet have expanded to include Americana and other
ethnic music styles.
With the Kronos Quartet's 1988 arrangement of Steve Reich's "America – Before The War" (complete with field recordings of passing trains and
muffled train conductors decrees), the philosophies the string quartet began
to gestate. As a group, the Kronos Quartet transformed generic American
compositions, including "Amazing Grace", with striking lucidity, adding an
avant-garde sophistication to pieces which, at times, are maudlin.
As a devolution, Yo Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer's Appalachian Waltz managed
to avoid the Kronos Quartet's ostensible disapproval for a pleasing,
popular-culture album. The music swayed, and constructed a classical music
aura for material previously viewed as "inbred bacchalarian hymns". As
successful as the album became, the release did little to expand the already
open string quartet context.It existed merely as a rough painting rather
than the three-dimensional, Warholian architecture the Kronos Quartet
Therefore, what can the listener expect from the Fiddlers 4 release,
which groups three popular violinists with a dreary (though highly touted)
celloist? Not as much as might be anticipated given the inclusion of Darol
Anger and Rushad Eggleston, two respected improvisers. From afar, the music
contains more dissonance and polyphony than the relevantly benign works of
Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Mark O'Connor. With some finite inspection,
though, the music fails to examine the intrepid domains of the Kronos
For most music fans, Fiddlers 4 will be satisfying given the track
selection's affable goal. From the Cajun of "Chez Seychelles" and "Accadian
Two-Step" to the traditional fiddle tunes "Pickin' the Devil's Eye" and the
ubiquitous "Man of Constant Sorrow," the compositions are wood-grained
Americana straight from Alan Lomax's field recordings. Certainly, the music
has a truth not present in contemporary culture. Nevertheless, the
repetition of precedents appears self-defeating, despite the group's
rearrangements. With Anger, Bruce Molsky, Michael Doucet and wunderkid
Rushad Eggleston, the representation of previous works with no further
extension remains a complacent pleasure.
When the foursome avoid the conventions and examine original compositions,
such as "African Solstice", the results – while not paradigmatically
original – do venture into some more adventurous territories. "African
Solstice" does not become intriguing in the chosen melodic approach, but in
the torrid performing, incessant tempo changes and antiphonal arrangement.
When the group begins to work with dynamics as an ensemble, rather than
simply performing musical relics, an ineffable chemistry arises. On "African
Solstice", "Hidirassirifo", and Duke Ellington's "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,"
they bulwark the string quartet's possibilities, which have been hinted at
over the last thirty years.
Eventually, Fiddlers 4 reaches a logical zenith. However, the
performers do not appear as though they are Sisyphus, pushing against the
overbearing incline of past musical concepts, such as Appalachia
Waltz. Instead, the album resides somewhere in-between, with enough
fervent passages to attract bluegrass listeners, but weak enough to interest
the majority of the traditional string quartet audience.