Classical Notes

Kronos, A Quartet With Attitude

treble clef graphic

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)Kronos Quartet Box Set - 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.

Contents Introduction 
Columns Features Reviews
Home Contact Info Links

copper rule

Classical Notes
copyright © 1999-2000 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.

Music Images Linkware by SKDesigns