Music

Brave new strings

ELISSA POOLE March 9 1998
Music

Brave new strings

ELISSA POOLE March 9 1998

Brave new strings

Music

A raunchy, high-decibel arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze is its standard encore. The four members of the Kronos Quartet—three men and one very blond woman—stare out from promotional photos sullen as rock stars, and they travel with a sound man and a lighting designer. A string quartet, yes, but one that inspires pop-group idolatry among its fans and regularly sells out concerts in 3,000-seat halls. The Kronos Quartet sports no formal wear and plays no Beethoven. It does play contemporary classical music.

Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, the San Francisco-based quartet maintains a daunting schedule of more than 100 concerts a year, which keeps them almost constantly on the road or in rehearsal. They recently appeared at Toronto’s Ford Centre for the Performing Arts, and will be back in Canada on April 20 for a concert at Vancouver’s Chan Centre. A discography of about 30 titles ranges from the string quartets of such contemporary minimalists as Philip Glass and Steve Reich to new voices from the former Soviet Union, South America, the Middle East and Asia.

Its search for ways to recast the listening experience has led Kronos into crossover territory with world music, jazz (with recordings of greats Thelonius Monk and Bill Evans), and even the tango. Four Grammy nominations for best chamber music performance, as well as four citations from Billboard magazine’s nonclassical writers for the group’s latest CD, Early Music, attest to the scope of its appeal. “We’re working on seven or eight albums right now,” says first violinist David Harrington, who founded Kronos in 1973 (second violinist John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud all joined later). “After 25 years, we’re just getting started.” Amazingly, Kronos has managed to create a thriving industry around the very repertoire that usually bears the kiss of death in the marketplace. Efforts to explain its phenomenal commercial success, especially with younger audiences, have focused on the quartet’s hip image and up-to-date concert presentations. But the formula is not easily duplicated: so far Kronos has

imitators but no serious competition. And if Harrington, 48, who is the driving force behind the group as well as its spokesman, downplays the marketing savvy that catapulted Kronos into the public eye, that is because it accounts for neither the group’s continuing success nor the overwhelming respect it has earned from its peers. That is where vision, commitment and musician-

ship deserve the credit. “They’ve been extremely influential,” says John Oswald, a Toronto composer whose piece Spectre was written for Kronos and has been performed by them several hundred times. “They are also more commission-active than any group I know.”

Constantly on the lookout for new sounds and new composers, Kronos has premièred more than 300 new pieces, and its library holds thousands of scores—many of them unsolicited. Harrington recently stumbled upon what may be the group’s next direction in a record store in the Czech Republic—he

declined to spell out the details. “Kronos has had the privilege of being involved in breakthrough pieces by some of today’s most interesting composers,” says Harrington. “Those writing for us now—Henryk Górecki, Steve Reich, John Adams, Terry Riley—are composing some of their best music ever. And we’ve always wanted to be there when that’s happening for a person.”

Though much of today’s new music—with its return to more euphonious sounds—is arguably more palatable to the average listener than it has been for a long time, Kronos has developed audiences who welcome the unfamiliar. Praise is not unqualified, however. Playing everything amplified, for instance, favors impact over intimacy, a compromise few quartets would be prepared to make. Some critics also complain that Kronos waters down its product for the mass market. The accessible and best-selling Pieces of Africa (1992), which lacks the rhythmic complexity associated with African music, is one target. Early Music, with its subtle juxtapositions of medieval and Renaissance music with contemporary repertoire, is another.

In the case of Early Music (which has sold 45,000 copies since its fall release and is expected to be the group’s secondbest-selling CD), cynics accuse Kronos of exploiting the vogue for spiritual easy listening. But Harrington is quick to point out that “these really are new composers for us.” In fact, Early Music elaborates upon a theme that Kronos (and many of the composers it plays) has explored elsewhere—the threads that link music across geographical, cultural and chronological divides. Kronos enjoys blurring those distinctions. What Harrington has to say about the music of the ninth-century Byzantine nun Kassia—a composer featured on Early Music—might as easily be applied to the CD as a whole: “The listener doesn’t know if it is 1,000 years old or from yesterday, or what part of the world it is coming from. I love those moments when the audience doesn't know where it is, or how fast the clock is moving.”

He himself is surprised at how fast the clock has moved: “It feels like only a few weeks ago that Kronos had its first rehearsal!” And his enthusiasm is still fresh. “The world of music is one of the most astonishing things that human beings have created,” says Harrington. “To be able to have access to this part of human nature keeps me on the edge of my chair.”

ELISSA POOLE