Corrections or additions?
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 (http://www.kronosquartet.org)
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
Music Center, New Brunswick, 732-932-7511. Works by Harry Partch,
John Cage, Philip Glass, Schnittke. $24. Friday, July 23, 8 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.