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Worlds in a Quartet

The Kronos Quartet has long occupied space on my record shelves. The first piece I heard performed by them, Steve Reich’s Different Trains on the group’s Released compilation, introduced me to the world of new music. It wasn’t traditional avant-garde, though I’d later find out they could pull that off, too, and it wasn’t traditional […]

The Kronos Quartet has long occupied space on my record shelves. The first piece I heard performed by them, Steve Reich’s Different Trains on the group’s Released compilation, introduced me to the world of new music. It wasn’t traditional avant-garde, though I’d later find out they could pull that off, too, and it wasn’t traditional classical music either. It was in the wonderful grey area along this continuum, a space that the Kronos Quartet have made a career exploring, premiering an incredible 703 works over nearly 40 years.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEzP6u5uCwU[/youtube]

Tonight’s conversation between Kronos’ founder, David Harrington, J.G. Everest, and a surprisingly small audience meandered through biography, music, collaboration, and demonstration. Through it all, it’s clear that Harrington is simply a fan of music, playing it, learning about it, stretching what constitutes it, and, above all else, sharing it with audiences, from the initial life-changing shock of Beethoven’s Op. 127 string quartet to the birth of Kronos after Harrington heard Crumb’s Black Angels to the absolutely astonishing Music for 4 Fences. This more recent piece consists of the musicians’ bowing and plucking barbed wire fences, and whose stunning imagery in performance is matched only by the cascade of sounds Kronos can free from these pieces of metal designed to either keep things in or out.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7dQRaEIhic[/youtube]

The night ended with a 7-minute documentary of Kronos’ collaboration with Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq. Harrington spoke eloquently about Kronos’ intimate collaborations with composers like Terry Riley, Clint Mansell, Ken Benshoof (Harrington’s own composition teacher), and many more, and it was wonderful to see this in action, as the 5 musicians worked their way through a piece structured around colors rather than chords.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YTtUolJa9E[/youtube]

There was a brief hint of the controversy that Kronos’ explorations in “global music” or “world music” have often brought, as Harrington seemed to re-hash the tired stereotype of non-Euro-American musicians and artists being more “instinctive” and “connected to the earth.” (Given that tomorrow’s program is called “Music Without Borders” and features pieces from 8 different countries, I’m sure it’ll give me plenty to think about along these lines.) Harrington’s enthusiasm for music and musical humanity in all its forms, however, makes it hard to judge him in too harsh a light.

I’ll write more about tonight’s conversation as I discuss this weekend’s performances, which I’m incredibly excited to see and hear.