The Kronos Quartet’s 1996 Nonesuch release “Howl, U.S.A.” (with its distinctive Robert Mapplethorpe cover) has been deemed “a real masterpiece in “modern” music” – “The rendering of (Allen Ginsberg’s) “Howl” is spectacular, but to have three other impressive pieces that tie-in thematically, while presenting varied musical approaches…” (The other three pieces are “Sing Sing” (a “setting” of the FBI’s J.Edgar Hoover – “We are as close to you as your telephone”! )),”Barstow” – Eight Hitchhikers Inscriptions” (a short selection from a longer Harry Partch piece), and “Cold War Suite from How It Happens..” (featuring the voice of the legendary pioneering journalist, I.F.Stone).
“Kronos has made many great albums of widely ranging styles”, the writer declares, “but “Howl USA” stands out as a particularly brilliant concept and presentation.”
Accompanied by the group, Allen reads “Howl” here in its entirety .
The recording was made in May 1995 at Looking Glass Studios in New York.
[2014 update – Unfortunately this recording is no longer available on You Tube – but some sections can be listened to here]
Prior to that Allen had appeared live on stage with them. Here’s Edward Rothstein’s review (from January 1994) in the New York Times :
“…the entire second half of Thursday’s program was given to the world premiere of Lee Hyla [Kronos Quartet]’s “Howl” in which the quartet accompanied Allen Ginsberg reading his classic poem, an ancestral proclamation from the 1950’s avant-garde [sic]. With an exuberant sing-song manner, Mr Ginsberg presented an allegro cascade of images and seemed reluctant to pause for breath. The poem is intoxicated with provocations, enthusiasms, outrages and celebrations of homosexuality.
Mr Hyla says in the program notes that his accompaniment was to be an equal partner with the poem. But the music was the least important aspect of the package. Its quirky exclamations, ostinato patterns and strenuous labors only undercut the text, distracting from the poem’s angry tipsy whirl, as much as did the changing mood lights”
Er..perhaps that is meant to be a put-down, but it is the Kronos Quartet’s respect (and restraint, and, on fitting occasions, full-out enthusiasm) that makes for a sustaining and pleasing, true collaboration.