Icon: The Kronos Quartet

Justin Davidson

By Justin Davidson

on 12.12.11 in Icons

“Music is a huge place,” violinist David Harrington once said, and no ensemble has explored vaster territories, or returned with more trophies, than the Kronos Quartet. Harrington founded the polymorphous string quartet in 1973 and nearly 40 years later, it is still going strong, even if its members have evolved from revolutionary upstarts to elders of the field. Harrington calls himself “a collector of musical experiences,” and by now his ample storerooms contain Medieval polyphony, landmark works and quickly forgotten tidbits, collaborations with a Gypsy band, minimalist composers, a Chinese pi’pa player, the guitarist Pat Metheny, the Icelandic band Sigur Rós, and even the voice of the late FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

Before the Kronos coalesced, the string quartet was among the purest forms of chamber music. It had evolved in the stuccoed rooms of European capitals and developed an audience of specialized aficionados. Composers from Haydn to Shostakovich used the combination of intimacy and variety to express their most private and complex ideas, and those works remained in the hands of few enduring ensembles like the Borodin and the Juilliard.

At first, the Kronos Quartet irritated the classical music establishment but wowed new fans with colored stage lights, an evolving designer wardrobe, its liberal use of amplification, and a repertoire that kept squirming out of every conceivable category. Even its critics admired the group for cajoling hundreds of composers into writing for them, and for proving that the venerable string quartet was not a worn-out genre. By now, the Kronos Quartet is the establishment: Without them, it’s impossible to imagine the Bang-on-a-Can All-Stars, Ethel, Eighth Blackbird, the Turtle Island String Quartet, Alarm Will Sound, Brooklyn Rider, or any number of other of similarly eclectic, electric and dramatic ensembles focused on new music and idiosyncratic combinations.

Eclectic Origins

Black Angels

Kronos Quartet

In 1973, David Harrington was still an aimless artist-type with a vague sense of having something important to express — until late one night, when an epiphany arrived by radio. "You have to remember Vietnam and the feeling of hopelessness," he says. "Suddenly on the radio there was this music that didn't sound like anything I had grown up with, and it felt so right."

The piece was George Crumb's 1970 "Black Angels," for electric string quartet: a gloomy, gritty, even nihilistic work full of furious sounds: Microphones attached to each instrument magnify every note and scrape, tremolos scurry everywhere, bows are drawn across gongs and the rims of crystal wine glasses filled with water. Crumb's music is hallucinatory and pessimistic, but it is also gripping, theatrical and emotionally transparent, and Harrington immediately formed the Kronos Quartet to play it.

White Man Sleeps

Kronos Quartet

From the beginning, the members of Kronos Quartet were listening to music from all over the world and finding common DNA in the most disparate and far-flung forms. Charles Ives was a New England insurance man, Kevin Volans a South African avant-gardist, and Bela Bartók a Hungarian ethnomusicologist. But on this disc, their interests in various folk traditions vibrate in sympathy. The Kronos worldview is an idealistically reductive one: Historical periods, geographic distances and racial animosities collapse into a soundtrack of intricate rhythms, shared harmonies and fluid scales. Ben Johnston's arrangement of the ubiquitous hymn "Amazing Grace" goes slipping into microtonal territory, as if the intonations of some other, ancient continent had infiltrated a tune central to the history of Africans in America. The title track, by Volans, is based on a choreographed moment of quiet in music of the South African townships, but it also alludes to the sense of discovery that this collection embodies: This is the music that thrums across the globe while the white man sleeps.

Kronos Quartet

Kronos Quartet

The Kronos Quartet had already been in existence for more than a dozen years when it began recording for Nonesuch, and it celebrated the new relationship with a portrait album that captured the exploratory feeling of their concerts. In their vast embrace, the amiable trancelike murmurs of Philip Glass snuggle comfortably against the manic rhythmic intricacies of Conlon Nancarrow, a composer of music so complex that he assumed only a machine — a player piano — could perform it adequately. But the group's real calling card was an arrangement of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze." What might have been nothing but a kitschy gimmick, a chamber music version of "orchestral rock," instead managed to smuggle Hendrix's noisy, insurrectionist spirit into a medium associated with tuxedoes and cherub-bedecked concert halls.

Short Stories

Kronos Quartet

John Zorn's "Cat o' Nine Tails" buzzes with a manic, practically psychotic energy, which whips through spastic tremolos, hushed pluckings, saloon dances, cartoon whiz-bang music and crushed-glass dissonances. Its fever-dream narrative inflects the spirit of the whole recording. This is an album of differences and disjunctions, not of easy trances, and the music in it bristles with extreme gestures and spurts of expressive energy. That doesn't mean it shuns beauty: Scott Johnson's "Soliloquy" verges on the endearing and Sofia Gubaidulina's String Quartet No. 2 thrums with a bleak loveliness. This disc was released in 1993, during a volcanic burst of productivity that captured the group's sense of urgency and mission. Twenty years after its founding as a rebellious upstart, the Kronos Quartet had reinvented the genre, commissioned hundreds of new pieces and infused the once-parochial new music world with a global spirit. But Short Stories also reflects some ambivalence about those developments. Upending tradition can be fun; leading is scary.


Different Trains / Electric Counterpoint

Steve Reich w/ Pat Metheny

If there is one achievement that distills the Kronos Quartet's quarter-century of experiments, it is Different Trains. The group had to coax the piece out of a reluctant Steve Reich, who prefers inventing his own genres to adopting stale ones, but the result is a landmark mixture of oral history, musical theater, electronics and expressive minimalism. The work is actually written for a quartet of quartets - three on tape, the fourth live and amplified - and snippets of recorded speech fuse with the counterpoint of strings. Reich spent the years between 1939 and 1942 being shuttled across America from one divorced parent to another, and the piece is the product of the thought that had he, a Jewish boy, been living in Europe at that time, he would have been riding very different trains. Sawed-off reminiscences, clipped from their contexts but still loaded with history bob in and out of the texture: "one of the fastest trains," "lots of cattle wagons there," "they tattooed a number on our arm." They are like ripped corners of grainy old snapshots with just enough detail to suggest a date and place. The score specifies that the crudely recorded speech should always be clearly understood, but in performance, the hissing, crackling lines seem to fade into the music, as if the memories they represented were dissolving. Reich parses the phrases for their natural melodic inflexion - the oscillating minor thirds of Reich's governess saying "from Chicago to New York," the rising broken chords of an ancient Pullman porter describing "the crack train from New York" - and each motive is heard in one of the strings before it is spoken. The speech shapes the contours of the piece, and with each new line, the piece flickers, flares and reforms like a fire. The imagery is subtle and the treatment sparing, but the effect is unmistakably tragic.

Morton Feldman: Piano and String Quartet

Kronos Quartet

Harrington describes lovingly the experience of learning about plucking a violin string from the composer Morton Feldman, who wrote a string quartet for Kronos that is an uninterrupted, four-hour meditation on shades of quiet. "We had a late-night rehearsal and he was talking about pizzicato and feeling the string leave the skin of your finger, and the way he was describing it was in such slow motion, but so amazingly sensual and infinitely gentle, that his words have become a part of my playing." In bowing technique, too, Feldman left his mark. Instead of the juicy, throbbing vibrato most string players are raised on, Feldman asked for paler shades of sound, different brushstrokes made by using less (or no) vibrato in the left hand and varying the speed and pressure with which the bow slips across the string.


Osvaldo Golijov: The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind

Kronos Quartet

The composer Osvaldo Golijov, an Argentina-born son of Russian Jews and longtime resident of the Boston suburbs, has a lot of different traditions packed in his musical luggage. He spent years making string-quartet arrangements of Latin pop tunes and folk songs for Kronos, packing as much of his own technique and personality into the three-minute numbers as he could. (It's his handiwork that gives the album Caravan its exotic elegance, and on Nuevo he translates the unkempt sounds of raucous brass into four-part counterpoint without losing the street-band energy. That experience of tinkering with Latin rhythms and classical ensembles eventually produced his magnum opus, La Pasión según San Marcos, an oratorio laid out in a dizzying sequence of rhythms and melodic styles.

Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind comes from a different world, one of shtetl stories and village bands that evoke the Jewish Europe that Hitler effectively extinguished. Klezmer, with its alternately plaintive and giddy flights of clarinet music, was already a hybrid of jazz, Slavic folk music, and ancient Semitic inflections. Golijov hybridizes it further, writing ornate and mournful perorations for the clarinetist David Krakauer.

Harry Partch: U.S. Highball

Kronos Quartet

The history of American music is replete with ornery composers who objected to one European convention or another and just decided to hammer out a new one. Harry Partch, a missionary's son raised in an assortment of small southwestern towns, developed his own tuning system, musical structures, text-setting technique and "instrumentarium" — his word for the menagerie of music-making contraptions that he developed over the course of his lifetime. During the Depression, he took a journalistic approach to composition, and joined the country's nomadic tribe of freight-train hoppers. The result — well one of them, anyway — was U.S Highball, a meandering chronicle of a hobo's travels, which he originally performed on a microtonal guitar and later expanded.

For the Kronos Quartet's version — drawled, acted, and semi-sung by vocalist David Barron — the Partch protégé Ben Johnston arranged the score for string quartet, which might either have ruffled the composer's anti-traditionalist feathers or gratified his taste for adaptability.

European Modern

Alban Berg: Lyric Suite

Kronos Quartet

Alban Berg was the most outwardly impassioned member of Vienna's modernist triumvirate. His teacher, Arnold Schönberg, developed the 12-tone technique that Berg adopted and that Anton Webern used to distill terse whispers of music — pieces that sometimes lasted no longer than 30 seconds. Berg had song and opera coursing through his veins, though. For 50 years, the world knew the 1925-6 Lyric Suite as a six-movement string quartet, pulsing with high-minded romance and bruised, tender harmonies. Then, in 1977, the composer and Berg scholar George Perle not only discovered that the piece commemorated an adulterous love affair with one Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, but unearthed the last movement's hidden vein of vocal melody, setting a poem by Baudelaire ("Have pity, my one love and sole delight!"). This recording is the fruit of that research: Dawn Upshaw sings the soprano part that Perle reconstructed and the Kronos quartet plays as if they understand Berg's struggle simultaneously to conceal and express the passion that infused his days.

Alfred Schnittke: The Complete String Quartets

Kronos Quartet

Long confined within the Soviet Union by a cantankerous musical bureaucracy, Alfred Schnittke was a celebrity in Russia by the early '70s; abroad, his reputation grew slowly at first, and then spectacularly in the last decade of his life. In the West, he seemed an insubstantial figure who somehow produced works that were as weighty and palpable as iron and brick. We know little about the man, but it's impossible to ignore the music. The Kronos Quartet's recordings of Schnittke's string quartets reveal him to have been an architect of pain, someone who understood how to marshal primal emotions into complex structures. Take the Second String Quartet, from 1980, in which the desolate, frozen prayers of the first movement explode in the second into a frenzied ecstasy of tremolos and then buzzing, stinging scales. There is no transition, just one of Schnittke's sudden, terrifying about-faces. The second movement is marked "agitato" — not just a tempo marking, but a clinical description of the music.

There is an ironclad logic to his non-sequiturs. The Third String Quartet (1983) begins with a lilting, Renaissance cadence — a little closing formula written by Orlando di Lasso — followed by a just-recognizable fragment from the opening of one of the most original pieces of music ever written: Beethoven's "Grosse Fuge" for string quartet. Perhaps it is only in Schnittke that Lasso, one of the late custodians of the High Renaissance, and Beethoven, the progenitor of Romanticism, could meet so convincingly. Like the "Grosse Fuge" itself, the Third String Quartet is a collision of the radical and the academic, of history and private torment. Schnittke makes suffering beautiful.

At the Grave of Richard Wagner

Kronos Quartet

No composer left a broader, deeper, more inescapable, or more troubling legacy than Richard Wagner. His infinite ambitions and aesthetic radicalism left their mark even on musicians who resented or ignored his influence, from Debussy to Thelonious Monk to John Adams. This album gathers a few of his immediate apostles. The title comes from a brief memorial bouquet by Franz Liszt, scored for string quartet and harp, but the core of the program is music by Anton Webern and Alban Berg, who in the early years of the 20th century followed the trail of Wagner's roving, restless harmonies and expressive dissonances into utterly new atonal territory. Wagner's scores had implied that the tonal system would soon flame out spectacularly like Valhalla at the end of Der Ring des Nibelungen. In the event, its demise was unapocalyptic and temporary, but around 1910 its apparent finality produced a clutch of modernist masterworks. Berg's sole string quartet has wormed its way into the heart of the repertoire, and Webern's Op. 5 (later re-scored for orchestra) distilled the spirit of the avant-garde into five tense and compressed exhalations.

Wijtold Lutoslawski: String Quartet

Kronos Quartet

From time to time, the Kronos Quartet has released a one-piece recording, which allows the group to retreat to the sylvan tranquility of Skywalker Studios in the hills near San Francisco and immerse itself in one composer's expressive world. Wijtold Lutoslawski's only string quartet dates from 1964, when the Polish composer was exploring ways for a creative artist to relinquish control over the products of his imagination and turn it over to the performers. That, it turns out, is not an easy thing to do. Classical musicians are trained to interpret instructions, and the clearer and more detailed a score is, the more comfortable they are. "Play it your way" is a difficult order to follow. Accordingly, composers have resorted to various tricks to get players to take over part of the responsibility for a how a piece sounds. Lutoslawski initially wrote out the four parts of the quartet separately and refused to provide a complete score so that the musicians wouldn't be tempted to slide into synch. Later, he relented and came up with an elaborate system of notation intended to coax reluctant musicians into a limited degree of improvisation. The result, paradoxically, is a piece that sounds tightly wound and supremely controlled, a dark, sepulchral work buzzing with dissonance and bristling with choreographed expressions of Atomic-Age angst.


Kronos Caravan

Kronos Quartet

The Kronos Quartet's trajectory is a reproach to musical purists everywhere. "Authentic" traditions have always mingled, splintered and overlapped; nowhere with more promiscuous zeal than in the countries encircling the Mediterranean. Caravan celebrates that legacy of hybrids with a series of cross-cultural collaborations curated by the one-man-melting pot Osvaldo Golijov. Among the most startling tracks is "Turceasca," a collaboration with the Romanian gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks, who are a high-intensity improvisational ensemble that changes directions in miraculous sync like a flight of starlings. Kayhan Kalhor, the globetrotting master of the Iranian kamancheh (a Persian string instrument) contributes "Gallop of a Thousand Horses," which really does evoke a fleet and graceful herd. The album's smorgasbord of scales and tunings and rhythmic structures is a vivid reminder that the technology of the string quartet originated in the Middle East and that musicians and instruments plied the highways and trade winds along with spices, warriors and religions.

Tan Dun: Ghost Opera

Kronos Quartet

It was inevitable that the Kronos Quartet, with its aesthetic of global eclecticism, would one day work with Tan Dun. Born in Hunan in 1957, Tan spent his formative years during the Cultural Revolution that wracked China for a decade. Separated from his parents at 11 and left to fend for himself in the city of Changsha, he became part of a ragtag gang of kids who formed themselves into a musical troupe. They taught themselves to sing, played and built their own fiddles and flutes and performed in schools, meeting halls and public squares. At 17, Tan was shipped off to the countryside to pick rice, and there, too, he organized the locals into an opera troupe. Later, Tan attended the Beijing Conservatory and Columbia University, and wrote for the Metropolitan Opera, but at heart he remains what he calls "a little shaman." His 1994 Ghost Opera, written for the Kronos Quartet plus pipa (a Chinese lute) and an elaborate installation of noisemakers, opens with the sound of plashing water, a snatch of Bach, the antique growl of a ghostly monk, a Chinese folk tune sung as if in a quiet reverie and the eerie, piercing whistles of a violin bow being drawn across a gong.

Night Prayers

Kronos Quartet

To a Cold War generation reared to believe that only official arts could flourish in the harsh cultural climate of the Soviet Union, the discovery of a vast and fantastically varied world of music came as not just one surprise, but many. Even during the dark Brezhnev years, the part-Tatar, part Russian Sofia Gubaidulina was improvising with a group of unapproved folk musicians and developing a musical language for her even more strenuously unauthorized Russian Orthodox faith. In Georgia, Giya Kancheli was producing music of quiet theatricality, and explosive reverence. In Azerbaijan, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh was charging down two simultaneously un-Soviet paths: Viennese modernism in the spirit of Arnold Schönberg, and mugham, the classical folk music of her homeland. In the 1990s, after the Soviet empire collapsed, the Kronos Quartet was quick to capitalize on the newly popular rubric of Eastern European mysticism, which included, somewhat awkwardly, composers who had little more in common than a spirit of non-materialistic transcendence. Night Prayers is not so much a collection of religious music as a mood album, a document of a time when composers found refuge from their historical era in an elaborately constructed sense of timelessness.

Astor Piazzolla: Five Tango Sensations

Kronos Quartet

Everyone knows what a tango is: a stiff-backed, bent-knee glide, a dance of oily elegance and formalized seduction. But it was never just that. Like the blues, the tango was something raw and randy, a form of shantytown lament that worked its way up to concert hall chic. Of uncertain birth but bred in Argentina, it was refined, perverted, diluted, reconstituted, exported and reclaimed. The form's modern hero, the man who did for the tango what Chopin did for the mazurka and the polonaise — distill it into concert music — is the Argentinian composer, bandleader and bandoneón virtuoso Astor Piazzolla. An enthusiastic and promiscuous collaborator with musicians of all different stripes, Piazzolla wrote Five Tango Sensations for himself to play with the Kronos Quartet, and they offer a tour both of universal emotional responses ("Sleep," "Love," "Anxiety," "Wakefulness" and "Fear") and of the wistful sophistication of his style.

Travels in Time

Early Music

Kronos Quartet

The Kronos Quartet is named for the Greek god of time, and Early Music leapfrogs over the centuries, touching down in the 14th for a brief Kyrie by Guillaume de Machaut, in the 9th for a little Byzantine hymn, in the 20th for a smidgen of latter-day antiquity by Arvo Pärt and a quick "Quodlibet" by John Cage. Kronos time moves in all directions without seeming to move at all, and what constitutes early music depends on where you start.

The present is represented by Alfred Schnittke's 1985 Concerto for Choir, which violinist David Harrington excerpted, reduced to string quartet format and placed near the end of this recording as a beacon to everything that comes before it. The single, eight-minute movement is a magnificent piece of contrapuntal writing, full of mystery. Even without words, this is deeply religious music that both renders worldly pain and provides its own consoling balm. It is a rare, gorgeous glimmer of redemption in Schnittke's pessimistic world.

The multiple pasts that come before the Schnittke are there not to establish his lineage, but to bring out relationships buried in randomness. Throat singers from Tuva follow an ecstatic chant by the 12th-century German abbess Hildegard of Bingen, and the quartet is supplemented by an eclectic coterie of friends: a nychelharpist, a zhong ruan player. Strange kinships are bared and history conflated.