THE STAGE IS SET, the instruments are tuned, and the crowd is anxious. The small theatre is dotted with more than its share of sophisticated snobbery, sporting the latest in diamondware and tuxedo fashion. The remainder of the audience, however, seems quite content in its eclectic combination of Faith No More t-shirts, paisely dresses and Birkenstocks. The curtain is raised, revealing a woman and three men, stringed insruments in hand, wearing jeans, spandex and shirts that would make even Picasso blush. A tense air fills the theatre as the sounds of sampled percussion and bass rattle out of two-story amplifiers. The two violinist scrape their insruments with their bows as the violist and cellist slap the strings to a funky beat. A loud voice, not unlike James Brown, shreaks "Pizzicato! Pizzicato! Beethoven get down! Hep!"
Within minutes, tuxedoes stream up the aisles while the others tap their Birkenstocks and smile with satisfaction. Something is not kosher in Denmark.
The Kronos Quartet has patiently accepted this combination of scorn and salutation for almost twenty years. Their audatious style and sophistication have attracted a devout following of fans and critics around the world, despite a small school of classical purists who label them as pretentious garbage.
"No matter what you're doing, there's always gonna be somebody telling you 'you shouldn't do it' or 'you can't do it,'" explains first violinist David Harrington, who founded Kronos in 1973. "So what? Why should that deter us from doing our own thing?"
To date, their critics have yet to deter Kronos. Their tenth and latest album, Pieces of Africa, was the first ever to top both the Billboard Classical and World Music charts. In the early stages of another world tour, Kronos returned to Chicago for a performance at the Vic Theatre on January 23, 1993.
The Quartet is named after the mythological Titan Kronos, a behemoth Oedipus who castrates his father, marries his sister, and eats his children to avoid an Olympian coup-d'etat. Not exactly a typical namesake for a stringed ensemble.
"I never wanted to be a string quartert, per se," says Harrington. "I supposed we've never actually been one." To not choose a more conservative name was the first foot in the door for Kronos, which first began performing in the Pacific Northwest. Harrington, violist Hank Dutt and two others lived a spartan existence until 1977, when violinist John Sherba and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud joined the quartet. Based out of Mills College, in Oakland, California, Kronos expanded its audience with a rigorous performance schedule and numerous independent-label albums.
As their following grew in the classical world, many of today's greatest avant-garde composers approached Kronos with new works. They were swarmed with specially-commissioned pieces by artists such Philip Glass, John Zorn, Ornette Coleman and Witold Lutoslawski. The stream of new music metamorphed into a deluge. Now, Kronos receives hundreds of works a year.
"There are 35 pieces being written for Kronos at this moment," explains Harrington, as he sits in an airport terminal with a pile of new scores. "In the last four days alone we've received ten or twelve new pieces. I'm continually behind, but eventually, when it comes our way, we deal with it. I mean, I feel fortunate that so many people want to share their music with us, so it's important to be as receptive as possible."
Needless to say, the constant bombardment of new work, coupled by over one hundred shows a year, prevents Kronos from ever developing a regular practice regimen.
"You'd be surprised where some of these new pieces are first rehearsed," laughs Harrington. "Hotel rooms and airport lounges. It's not advisable, of course. If I had to tell someone how to put a new piece together, I'd tell them to do it nowhere near a Kronos tour."
Kronos' seemingly endless choices of music have allowed them to sample styles from all over the world. Pieces of Africa, for instance, is an assemblage of some of today's most talented African composers.
"Pieces of Africa was never meant to be a record," says Harrington. "It started as a piece -- White Man Sleeps, by Kevin Volans, in 1984. Slowly, over the years since then, we met various composers from all over Africa, like Hamsa el-Din, Dumisani Maraire and Obo Addy. We enjoyed their music, getting inspired by it. By 1990, it occured to us that we had a body of music that just belonged together on one record."
Kronos' enormous repetoire allows them the luxury of rarely ever playing the same show twice. The Chicago performance, billed as the Black Angels Concert, began with George Crumb's 20-minute anti-Vietnam allegory of the same name.
"[In the early '70s] I heard Black Angels for the first time in the middle of the night," remembers Harrington. "I'm not sure if it was actually windy or rainy outside, but it felt like it; I was laying in bed and all of the sudden it came on the radio. Black Angels was just so alarming -- I had never heard music that grabbed me like that before. You also have to remember at that time, Vietnam was still fresh in the air, and the feeling that it gave me -- I just had to play it. There was a sort of magnetic connection. I've felt that way about that piece ever since.
The Chicago performance also featured the premiere of Osvaldo Golijov's Yiddishbbuk:
"Yiddishbbuk was inspired by some of the apocryphal psalms. As it turns out, Franz Kafka had copied some of these psalms into his notebooks. Years later, the originals were destroyed in the Holocaust. The words in his notebooks are all that remain of these writings. Osvaldo was really moved after reading some of them, and he wrote the manuscript soon after.
It's wonderful piece by an incredible composer. We just learned about him last summer. He's Argentinian, but lives in Boston now. He's working on some new pieces for us, including one with a Cantor."
Also premiering that night was Michael Daugherty's Sing Sing J. Edgar Hoover. "I was reading a biography about Hoover by Kurt Gentry," says Harrington. "He documented the incredible power that this one man had over the entire country, even the world, as he led us into the paranoia of the cold war. I thought our audience ought to hear his voice, in his own words -- to put him on the stand, to see what he's got to say. I talked to Michael about writing something around this, so he actually went down to the National Archives and got some of the recently declassified recording of Hoover. So, when we get to Chicago, you're gonna hear some things that no one else has ever heard before."
The Chicago performance was rounded out by Scott Johnson's latest, How It Happens: The Voice of I.F. Stone, and Hamsa el-Din's Escalay, which appears on the Pieces of Africa album. Holding to the Kronos tradition of extra surprises, the scheduled program was followed by something special. The Chicago appearance featured encores of a Willie Dixon tune and their infamous adaptation of "Purple Haze." The possibilities were endless -- they have even adopted a new song by Mr. Bungle, the San Fransisco rock outfit lead by Faith No More frontman Mike Patton. To see the Kronos Quartet is to see the unexpected.
Now that Kronos has reached the top of the modern classical pyramid, one begins to wonder if they will ever need a break, leave the group or perform solo.
"We've got a lot of years ahead of us," notes Harrington, who recently reached forty. "We have our solo moments in the pieces we play, so we get our individual satisfactions out of that. Anything other than Kronos would be a drastic step down for all of us. I just can't imagine playing with anyone else. I mean, I feel like we're just getting started right now. We've been laying out the groundwork for the kind of things we want to do for some time, and besides, it's an exciting time in music. Who has time to think about slowing down?"
The Kronos Quartet, we may all hope, will have little time to do just that.
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