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This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 21,

1999. All rights reserved.

Time for a Kick-Ass Quartet: Kronos

The calling card of the 26-year-old Kronos Quartet

is new music — lots of it. From Argentina and Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe

come more than 400 works written expressly for the ensemble. Those

pieces make up about two-thirds of the quartet’s ample repertoire.

Of the total of more than 600 works that the quartet has performed,

few go back beyond Bartok, who died in 1945. Because of the exceptionally

varied music it plays, Kronos has been variously described as purveying

modern, avant-garde, classical, pop, jazz, new age, and world music.

Founder and violinist David Harrington is reluctant to label the musical

genre within which this progressive quartet operates. "I do my

best not to describe the music we play," says Harrington in a

telephone interview from the Kronos’s San Francisco base. "I avoid

labels — I run away from them. I’m probably the only person in

the world who doesn’t know what postmodern means.

"For me our music is an instinctive thing. We follow our ears,

As the talent scout for this group for 26 years, I spend all my free

time talking to musicians and composers, imagining what can be done

in the future."

Kronos plays at Rutgers SummerFest on Friday, July 23, at 8 p.m.,

at the Nicholas Music Center on the Douglass College campus in New

Brunswick. Next year the quartet reappears as part of McCarter Theater’s

Sonic Edge series next May.

Members of the quartet, which has retained the same personnel since

1978, are David Harrington and John Sherba, violins, and Hank Dutt,

viola. Cellist Joan Jeanrenaud has been on sabbatical since January.

Her current replacement is Jennifer Culp. Harrington says: "Having

a different viewpoint after 20 years is something exciting. We’re

working intensely together, and what you’re going to hear is the group."

A long-term decision about the cellist for the ensemble will come

in the next few months, he says.

The quartet, which lately gives about 100 concerts a year, has logged

more than 3,000 concert performances, has won seven first-prize ASCAP/Chamber

Music America awards for adventurous musical programming, and collected

five Grammy nominations. It has kept 30 recordings on the Nonesuch

label in circulation. Its 1992 recording "Pieces of Africa"

simultaneously occupied the number one spot on Billboard’s charts

for both classical and world music.

Harrington explains how the group came to be christened Kronos. "It

was 26 years ago," he says, "and we needed a name for a group

that was basically just an idea at that point. What I wanted was something

that reached back into time and history, but would propel things into

the future. I had previously studied Greek and Roman mythology in

college, and thought that maybe there would be something valuable

in my dictionary of Greek gods. I was thinking of timeliness and time.

Time is such an essential part of music, the way it passes and is

perceived. I found Chronos, the god of time, but thought that spelling

it with a `K’ would be more dramatic. I didn’t know that changing

the spelling would change the name of the god. So we ended up with

Kronos, the father of the gods, who killed all his children except


Harrington was born in 1949 in Portland, Oregon, and moved to Seattle

when he was five. His father worked at the port of Seattle as a traffic

manager, and his mother worked in a bank. "Nobody else in the

family is a musician," he says. "In the public elementary

school, every third grader had a musical aptitude test, and I guess

it was clear that I was interested in music. I started violin in fourth

grade. My younger sister played the oboe. My parents were very supportive."

"I was very lucky," Harrington says. "When I was growing

up there was the Seattle Youth Symphony — it’s still there. By

the age of 12 I was playing string quartets. Beethoven’s Opus 127

was the first quartet I ever heard and the first one I ever played."

(This is roughly equivalent to starting a career as a figure skater

with a triple axle.) "I heard those wonderful opening chords,

and, basically, I just wanted to make that kind of sound. I played

quartet music as often as possible. By the time I was in high school,

I was playing quartets almost every day."

Harrington believes that his formative musical training took place

at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School. "I had a fantastically supportive

music teacher, Ronald Taylor, who allowed me to do music almost all

the time. At one point I had four music classes. We got a chamber

orchestra started that I got to conduct it.

"There was a great record store about two blocks from the school,

and that’s where I first heard Ives, Stravinsky, Bartok, and Varese.

Mr. Taylor wrote out a cut slip so I could get out of English class

to go there. He could see that for me the normal structure of things

was not going to work very well. Sometimes bending the rules is more

important than keeping them in place. Quite a few members of the musical

community in Seattle came from that same crop of kids. I think every

kid needs a Ronald Taylor in their life."

"For me high school was a very difficult time," says Harrington,

"trying to figure out what to do with my energy and my life, and

adjusting to things in the late ’60s." He stops short of blaming

his difficulties on the war in Vietnam. "Every time is a hard

time to be a young person," he says. "There are a lot of things

you can do, and a lot of trial and error in being member of our society."

Still, Harrington left Seattle for a year, and played

violin in a Canadian orchestra to avoid the draft. After he returned,

George Crumb’s "Black Angels," a musical comment on the Vietnam

war, impelled the young Harrington to start Kronos.

"It was coming in contact with that amazing piece of music at

that moment that changed my life," he says. "The war in Vietnam

was on the evening news every night and a lot of us didn’t know how

to express ourselves and what we were going to do. I heard this music

late one night on the radio." Harrington advises how best to simulate

his original experience with the Crumb piece. "It’s on our album

called `Black Angels,’" he says. "When you listen to it turn

off all the lights, and turn it up loud.

"Previously," he continues, "I had not found the right

music. I had grown up wanting to be a musician, and nothing was right

for me. Crumb’s piece was so compelling I knew I had to play it. To

play it I had to get a group together. It took one month to assemble

the group. My wife and I chose the name Kronos during that period."

His wife, Regan, was at that time studying Russian language and literature.

Now she volunteers at the arboretum of Golden Gate Park.

After obtaining the score for Crumb’s music, says Harrington, "it

became clear how complex the music was, and that performing it would

take lot of work. It took several months before we worked ourselves

up to playing the piece.

Having decided to form Kronos, Harrington turned to Ken Benshoof,

with whom he had studied composition as a teenager. Benshoof played

a decisive role in the evolution of the quartet by writing "Traveling

Music" for it. Barely in existence, Kronos was already commissioning

a piece. The impoverished Harrington paid Benshoof for the first Kronos

commission with a bag of doughnuts. Kronos began its career in 1973

playing Benshoof, Crumb, Bartok, and Webern at North Seattle Community

College for an audience of friends and family.

From 1975 to ’77, Kronos was in residence at the State University

of New York, Geneseo. Then, seeking an environment of freedom and

experimentation that would encourage exploration into new work, they

moved to San Francisco. Almost immediately they forged a relationship

with Mills College, where, beginning in 1978, they concertized regularly,

learning four new pieces every month. By this time the personnel of

the quartet had settled into the roster that would remain unchanged

for the next 20 years.

The next stop in Harrington’s narrative is Kronos’ original encounter

with Terry Riley. (Kronos recently premiered Riley’s 12th quartet,

written for Kronos.) "Riley’s music influenced the way we play,

the way we rehearse, and the way we think about music," says Harrington.

"Much of our work is done in rehearsal with the composer, but

we do a lot before we play the music for the composer. What we learned

from Riley is that you can’t believe what you read in the written

score. He doesn’t write much into the score except pitches and rhythms.

The articulation, dynamics, and pacing have to be figured out. In

putting together his music, each member of Kronos has to become a

composer. Riley has given each of us a sense not only of our own part,

but a sense of the way in which each person contributes to the group.

By the time we go out on stage the music totally belongs to us. It’s

not as if the music we play belongs to somebody else and we’re just

showing up. It’s not a casual relationship. It’s intense and personal."

Harrington names the next landmark for Kronos as the quartet’s performance

of Steve Reich’s "Different Trains," which won a Grammy in

1990. "After Reich heard us play Riley," Harrington says,

"he decided to write for Kronos. `Different Trains’ was a musical,

emotional, and technological breakthrough for Kronos. Most people

who know Reich’s music think of it as one of his greatest pieces.

At the same time, it’s autobiographical and universal. It deals with

train rides he took as a young child in the United States, and it

also deals with trains that took people to death camps during the

Holocaust. It’s one of the rare times in the history of the string

quartet as an art form when events in the world outside, as opposed

to interior events, found their way into a string quartet."

My own hearing of the work confirms Harrington’s account. The piece

defies classification. It is a confluence of railroad sounds, string

quartet music, and oral history. The sounds of the string quartet

mingle with the authentic sounds of American and European trains of

the 1930s and 1940s, and with the spoken memories, sometimes verbally

fractured, of riders of American trains and Holocaust survivors. The

string quartet imitates the melodies of speech patterns. With its

repetitive patterns, the haunting piece has a relentless, dream-like


"All of a sudden," Harrington says, "for `Different Trains’

Kronos needed its own sound engineer. Since 1988 Kronos has been quintet

because we have our own sound man. But shortly after, we started doing

theatrical pieces and staged musical events, and then we needed a

lighting person. So since about 1990 we’ve been a sextet."

Harrington, who acts as artistic director for Kronos, admits to no

fixed guideposts for selecting music for the group. "I’m very

hard to please," he says. "I want something that will re-imagine

quartet music and re-imagine what might be possible in concert. I

think of a concert or a recording as an opportunity to connect in

new ways with our listeners, our instruments, and each other. For

me it takes very special approach to music to allow that to happen,

I’m very selective about whom we feel should write for us."

"We seem to attract a lot of manuscripts and recordings,"

says Harrington. "I’m looking, as we’re talking, at boxes of scores

submitted to us. I make it part of my regular sphere of activities

to look at all of it, and listen to all the tapes and CDs. I’m several

hundred behind, but I’ll catch up one day," says the inveterate


In addition to the unsolicited music, there are the commissions to

keep track of. "It’s not unusual for there to be 20 or 30 composers

all over world writing for Kronos," Harrington says. "At the

moment Guo Wen Jing in Beijing and Gabriela Ortiz in Mexico City are

writing for us."

Invited to pinpoint places where the music of Kronos is best understood,

Harrington replies, "One of our high points was a concert in Teatro

Colon, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1997. The audience was very

enthusiastic. There are about seven balconies. When there’s applause

it feels like God herself is applauding. On that stage it feels like

the heavens are appreciating you. There’s no other hall like that.

There’s a very special culture for music and for our music there."

Then he cites Japan. "We’ve played in Japan numerous times. Audiences

there are very polite at first. They get more appreciative, and express

it more as the concert goes on."

At all places in the world the Kronos follows its own

star. It uses amplification on the stage of the staid Concertgebouw

in Amsterdam, a hall where string quartets are not normally scheduled,

let alone assisted by electronics.

With concert dress Kronos also strikes out on its own. Members of

the quartet may wear jeans, spandex, short sleeves, or jackets. "We’ve

worn a lot of different things in 26 years," Harrington says.

"We like to be comfortable, and feel that the occasion is special.

I have no patience with the fact that some people think that for string

quartet music you should dress like Fred Astaire dressed. He looked

great doing what he was doing. But the music we play relates to many

kinds of things. I want to be free and, at the same time, respectful

of the music." Still, what the quartet wears may throw off audiences,

leading them to believe that the group is more interested in upheaval

than in culture.

Similarly, Harrington’s statement at the top of Kronos’ website (

contains unexpected language. "I’ve always wanted the string quartet

to be vital, and energetic, and alive, and cool, and not afraid to

kick ass and be absolutely beautiful and ugly if it has to be."

However, Harrington goes on to show the humanity of the quartet, as

he changes direction electronically, "But it has to be expressive

of life, to tell the story with grace and humor and depth, and to

tell the whole story, if possible."

The David Harrington who makes his presence felt in a telephone interview

is a gentle person, quietly passionate, visionary, and resourceful.

He seems thoughtful as he carefully chooses his words. He emits an

aura of dedication and sensitivity, and a palpable integrity. Above

all he seems open, capable both of creating surprises and being surprised.

"Some of the music we play has shocked people, and some of the

approaches we’ve worked with have been shocking," he says. "We

don’t intentionally shock or pick fights, but people take exception

to what we’ve done. Some people don’t think that a string quartet

concert could be a situation where the audience or players could have

fun. I remember the first time in our career that we did something

that caused a belly laugh in the audience — I never experienced

that at a string quartet concert before. There was a singing robot

in the James Brown tunes we were doing. The robot was controlled electronically,

and we figured out beforehand what he was going to do. But nobody

could guess that it was going to be that funny."

— Elaine Strauss

Kronos Quartet, Rutgers SummerFest ’99, Nicholas

Music Center, New Brunswick, 732-932-7511. Works by Harry Partch,

John Cage, Philip Glass, Schnittke. $24. Friday, July 23, 8 p.m.

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