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Kronos Quartet shows it specializes in just about everything

In today's world, writes composer Scott Johnson, ``the appearance of a twelve-tone row over a Chuck Berry riff makes more sense to me than either of them alone.'' It's a credo that many composers seem to share. At a time when communication and recording technologies make virtually all the music of the globe available to listeners everywhere, aesthetic borders and boundaries have blurred and faded.

Individual musicians still have preferences, of course, and battle lines are still drawn between camps of, say, atonalists and neo-romantics. But the phrase ``contemporary music'' can mean just about anything right now.

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The Kronos Quartet specializes in contemporary music, which means it specializes in just about everything. Showing off its virtuosity in three weekend recitals at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as part of the current ``Next Wave'' festival there, the foursome moved with ease and confidence from the Korean microtones of Jin Hi Kim and the African dance-rhythms of Kevin Volans to the minimalism of Philip Glass and the golden-oldies rock of Steve Rifkin - touching bases with Thelonious Monk and Frank Zappa along the way.

The centerpiece of the series was ``Salome Dances for Peace, Parts One and Two,'' composed by Terry Riley specifically for the quartet.

Riley is a pioneer of minimalism who has stayed closer to his roots in non-Western music than have Philip Glass and Steve Reich, his most celebrated colleagues.

``Salome Dances for Peace'' is a long and varied work, lasting more than 100 minutes even with one movement omitted, as in the BAM performance.

It's high-spirited and dramatic, too, taking its tone from a wacky scenario dreamed up and written down by the composer.

This begins with the ``Great Spirit'' becoming disappointed with the inhabitants of the ``Blue Planet,'' who have harnessed great energy but lost the power of love and joy. So he springs Salome from ``Dancer's Limbo,'' where she has spent the past two millennia, and sends her to inspire a new sense of happiness and unselfishness in humanity's leaders - who end up rocketing all their nuclear weapons into the sun, ``where they came from in the first place,'' and declaring that they love each other.

Riley's music is as freewheeling as his storytelling. It's also less sentimental and naive. Although the sections of the piece have whimsical titles like ``The Oldtimers Turn Up at the Races'' and ``Conquest of the War Demons,'' their contents have a toughness and tightness that rarely sag.

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It's also noteworthy that Part Two, composed this year, is more radically stripped down and openly minimalistic than Part One, which dates from 1985. So much for any idea that leading minimalist composers are running out of ways to vary their style, and hence moving away from it.

Just as Reich followed the density of ``The Desert Music'' with his spare Sextet, the unpredictable Riley returns to the heart of minimalism in the most recent part of ``Salome.''

The Kronos Quartet moved through all the work's phases as if this were territory they trod every day. If so, they must tread very much indeed, since a similar assuredness marked nearly everything else they played in their BAM appearances.

Standout performances included their elegant handling of the ``Mishima Quartet'' by Philip Glass, not at his most inventive; the relentless delicacy of ``Five Small Pieces for String Quartet, on Remembering a Naiad'' by La Monte Young; and the moody last movements of ``Streepjes'' by Dutch composer Guus Janssen.

The players also know how to please a crowd. Although each of their programs included a good deal of music that's rigorous and demanding by any standard, they tended to lighten up after the intermissions - so much that you expected them to float away at times, especially when pop and jazz idioms poked their way into the repertoire.

Not that there was anything undignified about the ``Monk Suite,'' which featured guest bassist Ron Carter in a pastiche of ``Well, You Needn't'' and ``Straight, No Chaser,'' among other fine tunes.

But some listeners might suggest that even a large-tent definition of ``contemporary music'' doesn't stretch to a medley that includes Elvis Presley's superb ``Heartbreak Hotel'' and the Monotones' sublimely silly ``Book of Love,'' not to mention a Doug Adams piece called ``Call to Rock,'' which sounds like a 45 played at 78.

These divertissements were great fun, though. And they were played with as much skill and commitment as anything else on the Kronos bill of fare. This was reason enough, if reason were needed, to prick up one's ears and pay fresh attention to the rock fan's riff as well as the technician's tone row.

The foursome's latest record, simply titled ``Kronos Quartet,'' is available on the Nonesuch Digital label (79111). It, too, moves from the complexities of Peter Sculthorpe to the psychedelic pop of Jimi Hendrix.

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