Kronos: still the future after all these years

The legendary new-music quartet opens the Friends of Chamber Music season by redefining classical music once again

Dutt, Harrington, Yang, Sherba. Photo" Jay Blakesberg

Dutt, Harrington, Yang, Sherba. Photo: Jay Blakesberg

It seems fitting that the Kronos Quartet embarked on its latest Portland performance Wednesday night with Ken Banshoof’s “Traveling Music,” because over the last 40 years hardly anyone’s traveled a more varied, vital, and invigorating musical journey than Kronos.

“Traveling Music” – the opening piece in the opening concert of Friends of Chamber Music’s 75th season – was the first composition that Kronos commissioned, in 1973, and the beginning of a truly astounding body of contemporary work. The quartet’s commissioned pieces now number more than 800 new works or arrangements, most of which likely wouldn’t exist if Kronos hadn’t prodded them into being. And while the Kronos repertoire includes certified 20th century masters like Bartók and Schnittke, and grand old names of contemporary music like John Adams, Henryk Górecki and Terry Riley, the company’s also been a free-flowing pipeline of younger voices through its “Under 30” project and other commissions. Even more importantly, it’s thrown the doors wide open to an entire world of musicmakers to reshape what constitutes “acceptable” chamber-music repertoire. The quartet has ventured into the music of rockers like Jimi Hendrix and Sigur Rós, jazz legends like Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk, masters of non-Western traditions like China’s Wu Man and Ghana’s Obo Addy (the late master drummer and bandleader who lived much of his life in Portland), and a host of electronic and experimental musicians. While the classical music world in general has been wringing its hands over the future of the art form, Kronos has been quietly – well, all right, not so quietly – nudging it into the 21st century.

For years people have thought of Kronos as the rock stars of classical music, and there’s a little bit of truth to that. Founder and violinist David Harrington, tall and lean and iconically bristly-haired, invariably shows up on stage in a leather jacket. Violinist John Sherba and violist Hank Dutt prefer no jacket at all; just a striped or printed shirt (and shoes and pants, of course). Not a necktie’s in sight, but evidence of the electronic age abounds. Kronos is comfortable with the microphone, which is still considered an instrument of the devil in some classical circles, and Wednesday night’s program at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium also included a fistload of recorded and sampled sounds in addition to various pluckings and strummings and boppings that would’ve sent Paganini into a nervous meltdown. And that’s not even counting the quartet’s first of two encores Wednesday night, John Oswald’s multiply larcenous, dubbed and overdubbed 1990 piece “Spectre,” which builds to a whooshing, orgiastic sonic boom while the four players, their bows never actually touching their strings, mime frenetic action like insane Lon Chaney clones acting out an electric-acid-test “Phantom of the Opera.”

But Kronos has also always had a serious amount of cool, which over the years has evolved into something approaching elegance. The players’ dress, while unusual for the concert stage, is less flashy than just comfortable, and Harrington’s brief spoken intros and explanations are low-key and disarming. The quartet’s newest member, cellist Sunny Yang, who joined the club only in July of this year, adds to the group’s sense of elegant style and serious but far from sober purpose. She dresses in simple, concert-worthy black and possesses formidable musical skills, among them a driving sense of rhythm and a round, warm tone that shines in solo turns. She and Harrington seem already to be growing comfortable with each other as the two poles of the group’s performance style, and despite her no-nonsense approach to the challenges of the music, she adds a genuine, enthusiastic feeling of pleasure to the group’s stage persona of confident restraint: she obviously likes doing what she does. What’s long impressed me about Kronos, and does so increasingly, is the respect its members bring to the music, whether it’s early Byzantine song or contemporary music from Azerbaijan. Kronos’s curiosity is its greatest asset. Harrington and company, it seems, will listen to anything. What, in the great wide world of sound, can the group incorporate into the grand traditions of the string quartet?

That smart and captivating curiosity was once again in evidence Wednesday night at Kaul Auditorium. In addition to “Traveling Music” – a work in three movements titled “Gentle, easy,” “Moderate,” and “Driving,” which after the piece’s leisurely beginning, it ultimately did – the evening featured a satisfying mix of new, old, and repurposed. On “Last Kind Words” the quartet reinterpreted, through an arrangement by Jacob Garchik, an early 1930s song by the little-known blues singer Geeshie Wiley. We visited Vietnam with an arrangement of Kim Sinh’s folkish “Lúru thury truòng”; dropped in on a lush cantorial song recorded by the Polish cantor Alter Yechiel Karniol in 1913 and rearranged by Judith Berkson; saw red (literally: lighting was an integral part of the concert) with Brazilian composer Amon Tobin’s 2007 “Bloodstone”; witnessed a world premiere (“Hymnals,” by Nicole Lizée); listened to an astringent recent arrangement of Wagner’s ground-breaking Prelude from “Tristan und Isolde”; and finished the regular program with a thoughtful, emotionally complex performance (Greg Dubinsky’s program notes refer to the opening movement’s “blocks of drifting, atonal chords whose outlines are illuminated by twinkling, quicksilver arpeggios”) of Valentin Silvestrov’s 2012 String Quartet No. 3. The entire program was either written or arranged for Kronos.

The ensemble’s eagerness to embrace new ideas about what serious composed music means runs counter to what’s happening in our beleaguered symphonic orchestras, which are built to pay homage to the masterworks of the Classical, Baroque, Romantic, and early 20th century repertoire but seem largely lost in their bid to move the music forward. What they do is crucial. The music of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Stravinsky and Bartók is our birthright, and must be carried robustly into our future. But maintaining these large orchestras financially is becoming a losing proposition, and even when significant new large-scale works are created, most orchestras fear they can’t perform them for fear of taking a fiscal bath. It could be that the future of serious music lies not with these large orchestras, but with small ensembles that can keep their costs low enough to thrive.

Wednesday evening’s premiere, “Hymnals,” by 40-year-old Nicole Lizée, is a vigorous and pleasing mix of influences that range from MTV videos and rave culture to Atari video games. It’s fun to read, in the program notes, Lizée’s own thoughts on the composition:

 “ ‘Hymnals’ re-imagines psychedelic folk in the form of a 16-minute odyssey for string quartet. It’s Side A of a never-made record filled with manic sing-alongs, chanting, incantations and freaked-out humming. It’s chiming acoustic guitars and autoharps, phasing swirling layers and backwards tape. … The hope for existential salvation through hallucinogens gives way to LSD-infused religiosity and Timothy Leary’s exhortations to turn on, tune in and drop out. … Like Russian nesting dolls, a disorienting sequence of layers playfully toys with our perception of scale, while the listener is dosed with ecstatic strings that cascade and interweave into endless spires.”

It’s fun to read, but not necessary. For a composer born in 1973, Leary is a history lesson, and while all of those influences are real and significant, the music is ultimately about itself. The four performers of Kronos take it into the stuff of string-quartet tradition, another link in a long and endlessly fascinating chain.

I’ve heard people with much deeper understanding of the structure and subtleties of music than mine remark that Kronos isn’t a top-rank quartet technically – that its players lack the tightness and technical skills of, say, the Emerson or Takács. That may or may not be true. But I think the question also misses the point. The musicians of Kronos excel at adaptability. Because their repertoire is varied, they need to be able to shift at any given moment into suggestions of swing, folk, Indian, Chinese, gypsy, medieval, electronica, sufi, all sorts of musical traditions, and deftly translate them into the string-quartet idiom. That’s a skill that more traditional ensembles simply can’t match.

Then again, what Kronos does isn’t new, although it’s often forgotten or disregarded: classical composers have long ransacked folk and popular music for inspiration. “If you take away their genius, Bartók and Stravinsky were really anthropology studies,” my son said as we were leaving Kaul Auditorium.

I nodded. “That encore piece, ‘Spectre,’ was kind of the opposite of ‘4’33”,’” I commented.

“How so?”

“Well, ‘4’33”’ is the absolute minimum. ‘Spectre’ is pretty much the max.”

He laughed, and told me about a cartoon he’d seen the other day. A soloist was sitting on a piano bench, fingers over the keyboard, and a crestfallen look on his face, obviously distraught. “Damn!” he said. The caption read, “The first time anyone’s ever screwed up John Cage’s ‘4’33”.”

Ancient, new, familiar, out of left field, it’s all part of the same stream. I don’t expect to like everything Kronos presents me, but I love that the quartet’s out there for me, collecting fresh sounds old and new. Mistakes and dead ends are necessary to the advancement of a living art form, and are not just part of the conversation, but part of the excitement. Kronos is an explorer of the musical wilds, and I’m an armchair adventurer. The world’s filled with sound. Some of it’s noise. Some of it’s music. And some of the noise, Kronos keeps reminding me, is the inspiration for the next wave of music.


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One Response.

  1. Pat Zagelow says:

    Very well said!You have captured many of the reasons why Friends of Chamber Music has felt it important to bring the Kronos Quartet to Portland over the years. Thanks for your articulate review.

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