July 7, 2005
When David Harrington made the fairly antiquated decision, back in 1973, to form a string quartet, he gave it the name Kronos. Harrington, then living in his native Seattle, wasn’t thinking of the king of the titans, Kronos, who as Greek mythology has it, ate each of his children, save for Zeus. Rather, he was indicating the idea of time: “Chrono,” from the Greek word chronika, for “annals,” is the root for such timely words as chronograph and chronology. (In a visionary moment of creative spelling, Harrington also chose the cooler “Kronos,” anticipating hip-hop practice by a good decade or more.)”I liked the idea of time – and chronicling, chronometer, timeliness,” said Harrington, founding violinist for the Kronos Quartet, which performs an Aspen Music Festival special event tonight at 8 p.m. at the Benedict Music Tent.Thirty-two years after its founding, Kronos has a remarkable history to reflect upon, a legacy seen best in this statistical nugget: The quartet has commissioned more than 500 works. (Harrington offers another way to view that raw number: Kronos has premiered, on average, a new piece every three weeks for over three decades.) Since 1973, when Harrington traded a bag of donuts to his composition teacher Ken Benshoof, in exchange for his “Traveling Music,” the quartet has commissioned music from Elliott Carter and Philip Glass, John Cage, John Zorn and John Adams, Astor Piazzolla and Steve Reich – and perhaps 200 others. If there is an aspect of time, though, that seems most important to Kronos – which includes violinist John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Jennifer Culp (although Culp is on leave for the summer, replaced by Jeffrey Zeigler) – it is not the past, but the future. Going into each relationship with a composer, Harrington is focused not necessarily on the immediate work about to be conceived, but what may lie ahead. “If we get into a relationship with a composer, it’s for the long haul,” said Harrington by phone from his home in San Francisco. “It’s the feeling that something beautiful and wonderful is at the end of the road. People who have written quartets – Schubert – just got better. And we find that’s so with Steve Reich, Terry Riley. It’s an interesting dynamic that gets created between a composer and Kronos.”
Never more interesting than Kronos’ association with Terry Riley. Riley, often referred to as the “father of minimalism,” wasn’t even composing music, much less quartets, when Harrington first encountered him. The head of the composition department at Oakland’s Mills College, where Kronos started a key residency in 1978, Riley “wasn’t writing music at the time, he was into improvising,” said Harrington. “It took a lot of convincing.”After much pleading, Riley wrote “G Song” for the quartet, kicking off a uniquely fruitful collaboration. Riley has since written some 15 more works for Kronos, including 2001’s “Sun Rings,” a 90-minute piece commissioned by NASA and based on the sounds of space, and “Requiem for Adam,” another 2001 piece written for Harrington’s son, who had died in 1995 at the age of 16.Two years ago, with that same eye for the future, Kronos instituted its Under 30 Project, which awards a commission each year to a composer under 30. Already the project is paying the hoped-for benefits; Alexandra du Bois, the first recipient, is working on a second piece for the quartet.Kronos’ most recent recording, “Mugam Sayagi,” reflects another committed relationship. The album features recordings of music by Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, including three works commissioned by Kronos, spanning from 1993’s “Mugam Sayagi” to 2001’s piano quintet “Apsheron Quintet.” The third piece on “Mugam Sayagi” commissioned by Kronos, 1998’s “Oasis,” is part of tonight’s program. The typically eclectic concert also includes works by Icelandic pop band Sigur Rós, New York jazz avant-gardist John Zorn, Ethiopian Gétatchèw Mèkurya, Turkey’s Tanburî Cemil Bey, and Dev Burman, a renowned Indian Bollywood film scorer. The concert concludes with Steve Reich’s “Different Trains,” a Holocaust-inspired work, employing taped parts and vocal samples, that earned the composer a Grammy Award in 1988.
While Kronos maintains an extensive performance schedule – nearly 70 concerts in the 2004-05 season – Harrington spends even more time hunting down composers and music. He is in a fortunate position of prominence, meaning that people are often handing him recordings, or mentioning names of little-known composers.”When I go on tour,” he said, “there’s always an extra suitcase of scores and recordings with me. That’s just trying to catch up.”Harrington first came into contact with Franghiz Ali-Zadeh 15 years ago, when an interviewer told him about some very interesting music he had just heard. A few days later, Harrington was having a conversation with the composer, with a friend translating from Turkey, the only common language they could find. A few years ago, Harrington was walking the streets of Mexico City when he was captivated by a sound. He tracked it down to a street musician, Carlos Garcia, playing Mexican folk tunes by blowing on an ivy leaf. Garcia found himself playing with Kronos on their 2002 Mexican-inspired album, “Nuevo.”John Zorn was introduced to Kronos by the president of Nonesuch, the label for which the quartet records, when Zorn wanted Kronos to participate in his 1987 studio project, “Forbidden Fruit.” Harrington, naturally, was thrilled by the opportunity: “I thought, I’m going to get to meet him and hear his music; this is going to be great. And we wanted to get a piece from him that we could play in concert.” Zorn wrote “Cat o’ Nines Tail” for the quartet, the first of several collaborations between the two.Four years ago, Harrington got a copy of a Sigur Rós album, “and I couldn’t stop listening to it,” he said. When Kronos toured through Iceland soon after, they performed a Sigur Rós tune and met the band. “There are so many possibilities for the future. Wouldn’t it be great if Sigur Rós wrote a piece for us? And that could happen.
“It works almost every conceivable way you can imagine,” said Harrington of finding and convincing composers. “It’s a daily process of exploring the world of music and its hugeness. It’s amazing what is possible to learn these days.”Almost every day there’s someone I’m meeting or talking to. And I’ve been doing that since 1973. After a while, a vocabulary – almost an alphabet – starts to happen.”1973 was hardly the time to form a string quartet. From childhood, Harrington had been enamored of the form, though it seemed to him that he was perhaps the only one.”In my late teens, early 20s, I noticed a lot of composers weren’t focusing on the quartet form, like Terry Riley,” said Harrington, who had started playing violin at 9. “It seemed like the form had been largely passed over, in favor of a lot of other multi-instrumental forms. A lot of people thought the quartet as an art form had come and gone.”If Harrington had any doubts, they were obliterated by his hearing, on radio, George Crumb’s “Black Angels,” a musical anti-war protest that he didn’t even recognize as a string quartet. “That’s when I realized I was going to get a group going and play that piece and have that kind of impact, if possible,” he said.
In the still relatively small – but noticeably revived – realm of the string quartet, Kronos has made itself known. In addition to numerous Grammy nominations – and a win for 2003’s “Lyric Suite,” written by Alben Berg and recorded with soprano Dawn Upshaw – the quartet earned the 2003 Musicians of the Year honor from Musical America and the Association of Performing Arts Presenters’ Award of Merit the same year. In addition to the many composers they have worked with, they have recorded with the Dave Matthews Band, Mexican rock band Cafe Tacuba, the David Grisman Quintet, and Nelly Furtado. They have played the music of jazz pianists Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk, and recorded soundtracks for “21 Grams” and “Requiem for a Dream.”That level of activity makes the present a good time to be in a string quartet. Harrington – again, almost a solitary voice – says the world of concert music is an a fascinating, enlivening era.”There’s never been a time when we’ve been able to have the kinds of choices of music, and of influences, we have now,” he said. “I find it to be an amazingly incredible period of music. There are a lot of musicians interested in a lot of music.”And sometimes, Harrington has to take another approach to time, and exercise patience. Polish composer Henryk Górecki, for instance, wrote his first quartet for Kronos in 1989 and a second the following year. Immediately, they commissioned a third … which showed up two weeks ago, 15 years later.”It was worth the wait,” said Harrington.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org