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Melding Pot 

Kronos Quartet blends history, cultures, and classical music

Wednesday, Oct 28 1998
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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."

Judging from the youthful contingent among Kronos' Bay Area audiences in recent years, the alternaheads have heard Galas' virulent message, which is true: In many ways, Kronos Quartet is far more so-called alternative and hard-rocking with cello, viola, and violins than most mondo-grunge guitar bands. "When they play," says Galas, "they really get down with the music."

And it's that intense energy, combined with novel arrangements and an unmatched scope of material -- from over-the-top rockers (Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Mr. Bungle) or soulful funk and blues men (James Brown, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon) to postmodern jazz cats (Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor) and anyone remotely tagged a contemporary "classical" composer -- that has lured such a motley fan base to their music.

Defying the stereotype of the prim, tuxedoed chamber ensemble who only play crusty classics for stuffed shirts at hoity-toity soirees, the band has long sought to bring its music to the masses. Of course, in the beginning, this concept likely grew out of necessity; in order to survive, they had to cultivate an audience -- any audience. But over the years their gigs have become more than a simple outreach survival plan, including an early tour of the California prison system, regular stints at elementary schools and college campuses, appearances at international jazz festivals (Montreaux, Vienna, North Sea), and guest spots on some far-flung recordings (Dave Matthews, Joan Armatrading, Faith No More, Don Walser). The deeper meaning here says a lot about the essential role of live music in a society. "A concert is kind of a setting where music can be explored as an extension of the human experience," suggests violinist Harrington. "I would like our audience to be able to experience the spectrum of emotions, from joyous laughter to the most amazingly awful tragedy, in the same concert. That's what a concert really is."

Of course, not everyone out on the town for an evening of aural entertainment wants to confront hard-core tragedy. But that's precisely the violinist's point: Kronos' music is not frivolous amusement; it's deeply serious, vitally human, and, at times, self-consciously not entertainment at all, which means the group has encountered its share of audience antipathy. "You haven't lived if you haven't been booed," cracks Harrington.

All told the group has overwhelmingly flourished in its years together. They've recorded nearly 30 albums to rabid popular and critical acclaim, performed in the world's finest concert halls, and shared stages with some of the world's great artists, from poet Allen Ginsberg to Sufi mystic Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Dean Stein, president of Chamber Music America -- a 20-year-old, nearly 6,000-member advocacy organization and one of Kronos Quartet's earliest funders -- explains the band's success: "I think Kronos is a model of sorts. They have dedicated themselves to a very specific mission and have been very clear about it."

Though David Harrington debunks the oft-cited report that Kronos only plays the music of "living composers" -- an erroneous mission statement originally misquoted years ago in a London newspaper -- the group has dedicated itself to expanding the performance options for contemporary string quartets by personally commissioning hundreds of new works from, well, living composers. "They've commissioned so many composers, and gotten money for these people who write new music and who don't have any money, so it's extraordinary what Kronos has done," raves Galas, who has also been approached by the group to pen a piece, which will likely be developed from Greek and Arabic vocal and string-ensemble traditions.

All the members of Kronos acknowledge the importance of intimate composer-performer relationships. "The many composers we've worked with," says violist Dutt, "have shared their ideas, stories, philosophies, or talents, which have enriched my own life and my musicmaking." And this interaction extends far beyond the Western classical sphere. In fact, 25 Years features broad-minded works by artists from all over the planet, including Argentina's Astor Piazzolla, Azerbaijan's Franghiz All-Zadeh, Vietnam's P.Q. Phan, and South Africa's Kevin Volans. "Composers have always been at the forefront of melding cultures through music," suggests Stein. "And chamber musicians have probably been right behind them in picking that up because composers tend to write the most interesting music for chamber music ensembles." While Kronos Quartet is not the only chamber group currently rallying behind this global ideal, their far-reaching popularity has contributed crucially to greater stateside acceptance and the continued development of this aesthetic.

For Harrington it's simply how music happens. "You hear something that you like, that intrigues you," he says, "and you try to do more of it, or try to make something exciting from an experience that you've had. That's what musicians are best at -- sharing music with each other, and with their audiences."

Kronos Quartet performs Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 29-Nov. 1, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater.

About The Author

Sam Prestianni

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