Captain Kronos

Kronos Quartet

The vain but very contemporary act of searching for oneself online paid dividends today when I found a piece of writing I thought was forever lost to me. It’s not that what I wrote a decade ago for the Daily Illini, my college newspaper, was exciting, incisive, or even very good, but that over the years I’ve been curious who I was back then and how I wrote.

And voilà, there was an interview with the Kronos Quartet’s David Harrington from February 1993, before a performance by the ensemble at the University of Illinois. It follows, along with a CD review of Kronos’ Short Stories from a month later. I put them here to give a sense of the Culture Snob when he was a college student, as a tool to judge my development (or lack thereof), and as an easily accessible record for myself.

In addition, these are interesting pieces to read in the context of Kronos, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and just released a trio of single-work discs to mark the occasion. Since I wrote these a decade ago, the quartet has shed one member (replacing cellist Joan Jeanrenaud with Jennifer Culp in 1999) and shown a more pronounced interest in world music (particularly on the globe-trotting Caravan and Nuevo discs).

It’s probably only a slight overstatement that Kronos has done more than anybody else to bring “classical” music to the rock world, by playing the music of Jimi Hendrix and Mr. Bungle but also by taking it seriously, and without sniggering. Kronos has led me to dozens of pieces and composers that would otherwise be unknown to me.

An Interview with David Harrington

While listening to the radio one night in 1973, David Harrington was plunged into a terror that will trap him for the rest of his life.

That night, the Vietnam War assaulted him in the form of George Crumb’s “Black Angels” — the harrowing and sometimes violent string quartet that inspired Harrington to form Kronos Quartet. “It’s the kind of experience that makes your eyes bug out,” Harrington said. “I’ve tried to be true to that experience.”

For 20 years, Harrington has made Kronos his passion — an unending search for the world’s most vital and affecting music and the composers who write it. Tonight at 8, the San Francisco-based quartet (violinists Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud) will bring that passion to Krannert’s Foellinger Great Hall.

The concert hall, Harrington said, “is a gathering point. ... It’s where our music feels very alive.”

Kronos relies heavily on its audience, and the results are often unpredictable. “There’s a collective energy that an audience contributes to a performance,” Harrington said. “The audience tends to pull the sound from the instruments.”

Kronos performs more than 100 concerts each year, and each crowd lends its own inspiration. “I’m concerned with the quality of listening. It’s that depth of involvement that inspires us,” he said. “It creates challenges. What is the next adventure we’re going to dump on our audience?”

Kronos’ influence on the world of chamber music ranges from energizing the string-quartet form to destroying traditional musical boundaries. “The world of string quartets in 1993 is much more interesting than it was 10 years ago,” Harrington said. “The string quartet as an art form has never been more highly regarded by composers.”

Ten years ago, none of the composers Kronos worked with had written for string quartets. That has changed, Harrington said, joking that Kronos is “at least 100 percent” responsible. “We’ve been doing what we’re doing for more than 15 years. People are hearing about it.”

Harrington’s eyes rarely look back or venture outside his musical world; his vision is firmly fixed on the future.

“We’re just getting started,” Harrington told a group of University [of Illinois] students Wednesday at the first public showing of a documentary about the quartet. “Everything is leading up to Friday night.”

Previous musical forays have included the work of Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, John Zorn, and jazz great Thelonious Monk. Tonight’s program includes works from four countries — the United States, Poland, Russia, and Argentina — and two pieces incorporate recorded speech. One features former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, while the other uses the voice of journalist I.F. Stone.

Sampled voice is just one tool Kronos has used to carve its musical landscapes, and Harrington said that the quartet will never limit itself. “It depends where the great composers are,” he said. “The categories you see in a record store don’t mean much to me.”

More than 30 artists are currently commissioned to compose for Kronos. In addition, unsolicited pieces arrive every day.

And although “Kronos is in this for life,” time is a concern, Harrington said. “I have 19 ideas for new records,” he said, adding that 30 more years might pass before they are all finished. “I need all the time I can get.”

Harrington is the only original Kronos member, and finding the current lineup — which hasn’t changed since 1978 — was part of the quartet’s natural evolution, he said. “Nothing springs spontaneously out of air,” he said. “There couldn’t have been a 1978 without a 1973.”

It was also a time of growth and evolution for Harrington, “learning to do a lot of things I needed to do.”

It took Harrington 18 years to release a Kronos version of “Black Angels” because “I didn’t think we were ready” to record the most effective statement the piece could make.

Kronos continues to strive to create experiences that might bring change. One piece attacks violence and hatred toward lesbians, gays, and bisexuals. Harrington called the piece “assaulting” and “cleansing.” “Anything you’re doing is making a political statement,” Harrington said.

But the search continues for the one composition that will command the world’s attention and stop the horrors. When a student asked if Harrington had found that piece, Harrington shook his head and, with a slight smile, said: “No.”

Short Stories

It sometimes seems like the music of Kronos Quartet begins to play itself. The four players are still at their instruments, attacking a piece with meticulous energy, but the music starts to surpass its score, transformed into a living being whose future still lies ahead uncertain.

And perhaps more than any other recorded work by Kronos, Short Stories showcases that most valuable talent: the ability to make a piece resonate and burn with emotion.

Short Stories features nine pieces, and unlike past Kronos efforts, the album doesn’t revolve around a single work. The pieces are all brief, ranging from less than two minutes to about 15. The works are also more internally uniform, usually building on a single passage.

But the album’s strength stems from the individual power of each piece. The entirely percussive “Digital” appropriately opens the album with Kronos imitating the clacking of an ancient typewriter, and the quartet goes on to churn out an odd array of music, never staying on one page too long.

The quartet has patched together an uneasy mix of dread and hope, aggression and calm, and the diverse sound worlds work well together.

The broad range of styles breeds interesting relationships between pieces like John Zorn’s frenetic collection of cartoon music and Pandit Pran Nath’s remarkably consistent “It is my turn, Oh Lord,” with the composer’s rich, deep voice backed softly by a pulsating drone from Kronos.

That intensity sleeps with the laid-back “Soliloquy,” which features Kronos playing off the relaxed and soothing voice of journalist and media critic I.F. Stone.

But Kronos’s interpretation of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” is probably Short Stories’ most encouraging testament to the continuing maturity of the quartet. While Kronos has used Jimi Hendrix standards as vehicles for rollicking chaos, the group creates a brooding and dark version of the blues classic.

And when John Oswald’s “Spectre” follows with the opening strains of a gentle melody degenerating into a screaming swarm of angry bees, the results are frightening and disconcerting.

Kronos was brave to follow the commercial and critical success of last year’s largely joyous Pieces of Africa with a collection so concerned with darkness. But that bravery turned into Kronos’s most emotionally engaging work to date.

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