On hearing the words "string quartet" and "tribute" in close proximity, the average fan of music would have to be excused for a sudden inexplicable and irresistible Pavlovian urge to destroy their surroundings with fire, such has been the proliferation of crap in this area recently.
Apparently, the responsibility for lumpen note-for-note elevator-muzak string arrangements of such musical genii as Simple Plan, James Blunt, Natasha Bedingfield and Puddle of Mudd lies at the door of one Todd Mark Rubenstein (i hate him already), who can't even muster any better justification for the series beyond "they sold well, so we kept doing them". (i'm reminded of a quote from Malcolm Williamson, late Master of the Queen's Music, regarding Andrew Lloyd-Webber: "[his] music may be everywhere, but so is AIDS.")
But before the string quartet tribute just became shorthand for a way to sell formulaic musical pabulum to dumbass emos while letting them believe they're being in some way cultured, there came Possessed, Romanian violinist and composer Alexander Bălănescu's tribute to Krautrock Übermenschen Kraftwerk.
The quartet, comprising Bălănescu himself, fellow violinist and arranger Clare Connors, violist Bill Hawkes and cellist Caroline Dale, run through five numbers, "The Robots", "The Model" (respectively "Robots" and "Model" here, for some reason), "Autobahn", "Computer Love" and "Pocket Calculator", as well as three of Bălănescu's own compositions and a David Byrne track, "Hanging Upside Down".
The Kraftwerk versions that begin proceedings are masterful: precisely executed, maintaining both the playfulness and wistfulness of the originals and bringing the kind of grandeur you would expect from a world-class string quartet on peak form.
Allmusic's Jason Ankeny's comment that "[g]iven that the precision of the German electronic band's songs bear[sic] no small resemblance to Baroque classicism, the Bălănescu Quartet needs to do little to make their covers work than to play them straight" is something of a red herring. After all, it's not like Kraftwerk's drum and synthesizer programming, for example, owed a lot to Baroque classicism. Not to mention that Kraftwerk were concerned with ideas of man/machine interdynamics in an industrial age which, clearly, the composers of the Baroque period could hardly have foreseen. (Also, i don't really think i've ever heard any Baroque classical piece with the sheer funky drive of any of these, though i'm obviously quite willing to be corrected if Mr. Ankeny's reading this.)
Rather, the Quartet play out their own version of Kraftwerk's human/machine tension in figuring out how to interpret the German group's technological opuses for organic performance. You can hear it in the squeaks and crunches or four-square percussion on "Robots", the cheerful intonation of "I'm the operator with my pocket calculator!" and the subsequent scraping and pinging on "Pocket Calculator", or the simulated engine-revving on "Autobahn" (i wish this could have been the 21-minute version, but i guess there were probably stamina/sanity issues).
After the Kraftwerk set, Bălănescu's own pieces, "Possessed", "Want Me" and "No Time Before Time", take the floor, building up from fragmented lines into irregularly-timed monoliths underpinned variously by producer/drummer Steve Arguelles' percussion and, on "Want Me", topped by the vocals of weirdly-named madrigalistas Miranda Sex Garden. While this triumvirate (especially the stirring "No Time Before Time"), and the filmic and rather jolly David Byrne interpretation that closes the album are engaging, it's the Kraftwerk versions most people will want this for, and for good reason.
— Hear "Computer Love" as part of "February mixtape"
Tomasz is (still) trying to review every new (to him) record he hears this year (or until he regrets this decision or is overwhelmed by circumstance).
Previous reviews: Magic Lantern, Philip Jeck.