After a rough day, how better to relax and unwind than with the rich, soothing sound of a string quartet? What shall it be? The bounding spirit of Haydn? The soaring lyricism of Schubert? The sensual eloquence of Ravel? Well, unless you're up for a serious challenge, it had better not be anything played by Kronos!
Most string quartets coalesce around famous soloists or first-chair orchestra members seeking an intimate yet collegial outlet for their expression. But like everything else about it, the origin of the Kronos Quartet was different.
It was 1973. A young violinist recently returned home to Seattle from dodging the draft in Canada lay in bed one night seeking some meaning in his life. He turned on the radio and was stunned by what he heard - George Crumb's Black Angels. As David Harrington later put it: I wasn't sure if it was windy or rainy outside but it felt like it. ... I had never heard music that grabbed me like that before. ... I just had to play it. He called Ken Benshoof, his high school music teacher and announced: I'm starting a group because I have to play that music.
He did. After five years of personnel shifts, travel and straining to be heard, Kronos jelled into Harrington, fellow violinist John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud. Their alignment persevered until 1998, when Jeanrenaud retired and was replaced by Jennifer Culp.
Image counts for a lot nowadays, and so with Kronos. Rolling Stone dubbed them classical music's Fab Four and indeed they dress like rock stars, hang with the glitterati and travel with a road team for lighting, staging and sound effects. But the significance of Kronos runs far deeper than a flashy surface.
After a final mid-century surge of writing by Bartok, Schoenberg, Webern and Shostokovich, common wisdom was that the string quartet, already the most conservative strand of classical music, had become a calcified relic on the verge of extinction. Harrington begged to differ: I've always wanted the string quartet to be vital and energetic and alive and cool and not afraid to kick ass. Beethoven would have loved this guy. Kronos has remained true to Harrington's quirky but irresistibly vital vision.
Kronos began playing traditional quartet music, skewed modern and spiced with jazz and rock arrangements (a frequent encore was Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze). Its niche, though, was commissioning new works. The first was from Benshoof, who, legend has it, was paid with a bag of doughnuts. Since then, Kronos has amassed a repertoire of over 400 major new works. The sheer number is staggering - it's more than twice the entire string output of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Dvorak combined!
But numbers alone don't tell the story. The Kronos outlook is dazzlingly eclectic, looking beyond the traditional Western sources of the string quartet repertoire. Rather, they seek work from a huge variety of cultures, backgrounds and politics. They're an integral part of the creative process, working closely with the composers and melding their virtuosity to the diverse demands of the music. They play at rock festivals and in opera houses, proselytizing wherever fans or potential converts might be.
Through the years, there have been dissonant rumblings from cultural gatekeepers about pretension, ego and marketing gimmickry. Yet Kronos has made a profoundly significant contribution to revitalizing classical music. They recognize that any art mired in the performance models and creative styles of the past is doomed to desiccation and irrelevance. Rather, theirs is a deeply human vision of a modern world in which cultures blend and people draw strength from their separate roots while celebrating their commonality. In the parlance of the decade before their time, the Kronos members are beautiful people.
If you want just a taste of Kronos, Released (Nonesuch 79394) has 100 minutes of short pieces and excerpts that convey the quartet's range but only hint at its power.
Far more meaningful is 25 Years, a 10-CD box (Nonesuch 79504) graced by superb notes and a fine selection of Kronos achievements. The most startling piece of all remains the oldest - Crumb's 1970 Black Angels. Beyond spawning Kronos, its demonic inventiveness, bizarre techniques, electronic manipulations and sheer brutality are as harrowing today as they must have been to Harrington the fateful night he first heard it. Still evoking the anger and incomprehension of Vietnam, Black Angels shares a disc with Steve Reich's 1988 Different Trains, a haunting artistic response to the Holocaust, the defining moral event of the previous generation.
Other highlights include Arvo Part's conscious throwback to medieval sensibility; Astor Piazzolla's classicizing his native tango much as Chopin did for the mazurka (but followed by a rip-snorting coda that restores the shock of this dance); Morton Feldmann's Piano and String Quartet, which tests the limits of minimalism by alternating a gentle piano chord and sustained string tones for its entire 80 minutes; Philip Glass's leavening of the brooding rhythmic patterns of his four quartets with sweet lyricism; and Osvaldo Golijov's ecstatic klezmer-hued Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. Many pieces are deeply personal - Benshoof's bluesy Traveling Music was the first Kronos commission, Kevin Volans's White Man Sleeps opened their ears to the richness of Africa, Terry Riley's Cadenza on the Night Plain affords each Kronos member a tailor-made solo, John Adams's Book of Alleged Dances provides a showcase for their versatility and Benshoof's Song of Twenty Shadows, at first seeming to be just an abstract elegy, takes on added resonance as a memorial to violist Hank Dutt's late companion.
While some of the individual Kronos albums are conventional in approach if not content (ie: an integral set of quartets, albeit of Alfred Schnittke), the most intriguing are their concept compilations.
- The Kronos Quartet (Nonesuch 79111, released 1986) - This was the first serious Kronos CD, intended to represent a model concert (albeit, at only 49 minutes, a rather short one). Unlike many pieces they would later champion, the four major works, despite their range, are rather mellow; indeed Kronos would remake two a decade later with greater focus and energy. Peter Schulthorpe's Quartet # 8 inserts bursts of dance-like activity within contemplative repose, Aulis Sallinen's Quartet # 3 presents variations on a mournful Finnish fiddle tune, Philip Glass's Company sustains a single motif and his trademark minimalist pulse throughout four unified lyric movements, while Conlon Nancarrow's String Quartet bristles with rhythmic complexity. The program ends fittingly with the famous Kronos encore of Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze arranged by Steve Riffkin, but it, too, is surprising more for its gripping vision than expected firepower. An auspicious start, for sure.
- White Man Sleeps (Nonesuch 79163, 1987) - In a brilliant example of creative programming, the first seven pieces, while written from Beijing to Tennessee over a period of 70 years, flow together into an organic whole, functioning as movements of an implied larger work greater than the sum of the individual parts. Thus, the insistent rhythms of the first and last movements of Kevin Volans's title work (which Kronos would rerecord in its entirety for Pieces of Africa) bracket the dense but brief complexity of Charles Ives's Scherzo: Holding Your Own, which fortends the fretful struggles of Jon Hassell's overlong Pano da Costa, which segues into Thomas Oboe Lee's alluring Morango…Almost a Tango, which prepares the ear for Ornette Coleman's bold and bluesy Lonely Woman, which, in turn, cedes to Ben Johnston's bittersweet variations on the hymn Amazing Grace. As if that were not enough, Kronos caps the program with Bela Bartok's riveting 1927 Quartet # 3 which not only foreshadows the innovative technique and emotional breadth of all the other selections but trumps them with a tight, efficient, confident focus. It's a valiant gesture imbued with taste and integrity, as if, having explored the range of more modern quartet music, Kronos simply had to bow in awe before the magnetic splendor of an earlier visionary masterpiece.
- Winter Was Hard (Nonesuch 79181, 1988) - Here's a wildly eclectic mix, careening among the bleak chorale of the brief title cut, the relentless invention of Terry Riley's Half-Wolf Dances Mad in Moonlight, the medieval feel of Arvo Part's Fratres, the lazy blues of John Lurie's Bella By Barlight, the chiseled precision of Anton Webern's Six Bagatelles, the frenzied pastiche of voice, string quartet and turntables in John Zorn's Forbidden Fruit, the more purposeful blending of styles of Alfred Schnittke's Quartet # 3 and the poignant dignity of Samuel Barber's famous Adagio. The implicit message is clear - it's all music and it's all equally viable.
- Black Angels (Nonesuch 79242, 1990) - As befits the title work, this is the most challenging Kronos collection, mining the fragile seam between art and political reality. The tension and power of the Crumb piece is seemingly defused by a 16th century Tallis motet, yet its peaceful surface and text of religious faith conceal a less benign source - the gory tale of Judith of Bethulia, who seduced and beheaded a tyrant to free her people. The subtext deepens in Istvan Marta's Doom. A Sigh as harrowing music threads among tapes of two poignant Rumanian folk songs, whose recordings by the composer apparently led to severe reprisals to the artists' entire village. Next, an elderly Charles Ives's demented bawling of his war-mongering anthem They Are There implicitly questions the sanity of his message. Finally, there's the grim but distraught Eighth Quartet, dedicated to all victims of Fascism and war, by Dmitri Shostakovich, who walked a tightrope between artistic impulse and cultural repression; the score only hints at the depth of his emotions, but is personalized with themes derived from the letters of his name and references to his prior work.
- Pieces of Africa (Nonesuch 79275, 1992) - This was the first album to top both the Billboard Classical and World Music charts. Other musicians have used exotic elements to flavor their work, but this is the real thing from Zimbabwe, Morocco, Gambia, Uganda, Sudan, Ghana and South Africa. Like Jamaican music, it's fundamentally upbeat but charged with purpose and tinged with regret - a departed mother's joy looking over her children from the world of spirits; the mesmerizing sounds of the waterwheel in an ancestral village flooded for a dam; five portraits of African nature; a pizzicato sunset; a communal song. Much of it sounds contemporary, but its authenticity serves as a reminder of modern music's debt to the rhythms and structures of Africa.
- Short Stories (Nonesuch 79310, 1993) - Pieces of striking contrast highlight the Kronos's amazing versatility and free-ranging taste. In the first, Elliott Sharp's Digital, their role is one of percussive energy while in the last, Pandit Pran Nath's Aba kee tayk hamaree, they merely contribute a lazy drone to an Indian song. In between, Steven Mackey's spiky, nervous arrangement of Spoonful nearly obscures Willie Dixon's tune, while Mackey's own Physical Property boldly riffs on guitar figures. Henry Cowell's 1916 Quartet Euphometric (lasting only two minutes) and John Oswald's Spectre (a massive crescendo) are pure in their conception and eloquent in their focus, yet surround John Zorn's Cat O' Nine Tails (Tex Avery Meets the Marquis de Sade) which sprawls with illogic and bizarre eruptions from hoedowns to Paganini. Sophia Gubaidulina's Quartet # 2 soars with mysticism, while Scott Johnson's Soliloquy disappointingly crashes to earth by miring a sampled heartfelt plea for tolerance from I. F. Stone in cloying and insipid musical commentary, brazenly aping the technique of Reich's magnificent Different Trains without a drop of its impact or power. While you may not like every piece (I don't), there's at least something here for everyone. But isn't that why CD players can be programmed?
- Night Prayers (Nonesuch 79346, 1994) - A far cry from the fluffy peace suggested by the title, this collection seethes with the repressed but restless anxieties of composers from the former Soviet states. It begins by throwing us off balance with the bizarre sounds of native Tuva throat-singing, and then runs a demanding gamut between eerie longing and sweat-drenched nightmares.
- Early Music (Nonesuch 79451, 1997) - Here's another bold departure, this time juxtaposing obscure folk and religious pieces from the 9th Century (Kassis of Constantinople) to 1994 (New York street poet Moondog), culminating in Schnittke's transcendent Collected Songs Where Every Verse is Filled With Grief. As with most of the other Kronos concept albums, there are no notes to explain the connections, as if to say, Just listen - you'll understand.
- Caravan (Nonesuch 79490, 2000) - The most recent Kronos set is instantly accessible and, in a way, a return to their first album of quartet arrangements of Thelonius Monk jazz pieces. All but one of the dozen selections are exotic pop (complete with native guest artists), ranging from a sedate Gloomy Sunday to a vertiginous Turkish gypsy revel. The exception is Californian Terry Riley's raucous New Orleans-tinged Funeral March on Mt. Diablo, a restless farewell to Harrington's late 16-year old son. The album ends fittingly with Misirlou Twist, an obscure Armenian theme popularized by Dick Dale in his 1962 surf-guitar hit and presented here in a wild arrangement fueled by English Mermen drummer Martyn Jones. It's a brilliant touch, mixing Middle-Eastern melody, European sound and American energy into a joyous celebration that transcends time and geography to neatly encapsulate Kronos's bold and wonderful journey.
Copyright 2000 by Peter Gutmann