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Serrated strings of ear-bleed intensity saw through the silence like air raid sirens. Then a sharp decrescendo reduces the din to a faint, tormented echo. The music's dynamic rocks back and forth like this, escalating to an epic tension in the 90-second inaugural movement of George Crumb's harrowing 13-part masterwork "Black Angels." Originally composed in 1970 as a meditation on the Judeo-Christian mythology of the angels who fell from heavenly grace, the piece soon came to represent much more: the cultural tumult surrounding the Vietnam War; the forward-pushing, no-limits defiance of contemporary composers in the face of a backward-looking Western classical-music industry; and, unexpectedly, the seed that spawned San Francisco's Kronos Quartet.
"When I heard 'Black Angels' in August of 1973," recalls Kronos founder and first violinist David Harrington, "all of a sudden I felt like the world of music made sense. Given what had been going on in the country and in my own personal life, it just felt like there was something out there in the world of music that felt like my music. And I just happened to hear it on the radio by accident one night. So my initial impulse was to perform it. But after getting a score to that piece it became clear that it's not something you can just throw together. In order to do it there had to be a group that was going to rehearse and really dedicate itself to playing together." Thus Kronos was born.
Looking back on a quarter-century of the group's adventurous musicmaking successes -- celebrated with a four-show stint this Halloween weekend and on the extraordinary 10-disc retrospective 25 Years, just released on Nonesuch Records -- it's hard to imagine the audacity of Harrington's decision within the context of the times. A decade or so prior to the violinist's chance encounter with Crumb's strange new music, the classical milieu had erupted with unprecedented ideas analogous to the jazz and rock worlds of the same period. "At that time things were really breaking out," recalls Crumb. "The composer's vocabulary was expanded in every way possible and that included high levels of dissonance, exploration of timbre or tone color, rhythmic experimentation, just everything. There were no assumptions that were fixed." But a few years later, despite (or perhaps because of) the daring advances of Crumb and other innovators of his generation -- Morton Feldman, Terry Riley, Henryk Górecki, Krzysztof Penderecki, Alfred Schnittke -- many of the day's higher-profile concert promoters, critics, academics, commercial record companies, and, inevitably, audiences were backlashing against works by contemporary composers. Old-school maestros like Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert were in; recently deceased new-school gurus like Bartók, Ives, and Schoenberg were out; and living composers were largely disregarded out of hand. But Harrington wanted to play modern music, so he resolved to form a string quartet to explore the full range of chamber-music possibilities, which meant both commissioning new works and developing a listenership for those works.
The original Kronos combo -- which started in Seattle, moved to San Francisco in '77, and changed personnel often in its first five years before crystallizing in '78 into its present lineup of Harrington, second violinist John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud -- mixed present-day avant-garde compositions with classics (by Beethoven, Hadyn, Mozart) and major 20th-century pieces (by Webern, Bartok, Ives, Elliot Carter). But securing regular showcases for such an eclectic repertoire was a challenge. "It was just about impossible," remembers Harrington. "There wasn't an audience for what we were doing." And when it came to elaborate, unconventional pieces like "Black Angels" (which will be presented on Halloween night in a double bill with one-of-a-kind singer, pianist, and composer Diamanda Galas), the violinist stresses, "It was hard to convince anybody that these ideas were something that would work onstage."
Crumb's infamous magnum opus -- which he says is "really the strangest piece I've ever written, and in the context of string quartets, kind of a monster" -- requires the performers to stretch out in remarkable ways. Without distracting the audience or disrupting the flow of the music, players must shift from amplified string sections that call for a number of extended techniques, including the use of metal rods and thimbles, to scripted vocal and percussion movements that involve beating or bowing precisely pitched gongs and crystal glasses. "It's not the most practical string quartet in the world," admits Crumb. But after years of trial and error, Kronos came up with shrewd stage designs to deal with the composition's unwieldy character, like suspending their primary axes from beams in the ceiling so they could nimbly maneuver to the other instruments.
The group's willingness to push their performances above and beyond the norm as a matter of course has earned them a somewhat theatrical reputation, which in turn has prompted composers like Tan Dun ("Ghost Opera") and Gabriela Ortiz ("Altar de Muertos"; slated for the Nov. 1 concert) to pen similarly demanding, multidimensional works specifically for them. Also, the quartet's commitment to playing noncanonical compositions like "Black Angels" explains, in part, their appeal across broad demographic lines.
"It's a scary piece," insists longtime proponent Diamanda Galas. "I think a lot of people in 'alternative' music should hear that if they want to hear some real shit, instead of the fucking bullshit lazy crap they're doing."
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