Melding Pot

Kronos Quartet blends history, cultures, and classical music

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.

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