By Melissa Fossum
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David Harrington remembers the exact moment he decided to change the face of classical music.
It was Seattle, 1973. Harrington was 23 years old. He was home, listening to the radio, when his speakers suddenly jumped with the anxious squawks of stringed instruments. It sounded like a plague of insects on attack. The "song" went on to include chants, shouts, gongs and a variety of other apocalyptic fringe.
"It changed my whole life," Harrington says. "Every once in a while, you connect with something in a very unexpected way. This was right at the end of the Vietnam War. A lot of us were trying to find music or other ways of expressing our own feelings. And all of a sudden, for me, there it was."
Harrington had been a classically trained musician. He could, as a kid, identify the Hungarian, Budapest, Juilliard or most any other string quartet by sound alone. But "Black Angels" altered Harrington's passion. He started his own string quartet. The plan was to play challenging new music like the epiphany he'd just heard on the radio.
But the plan took time to develop. Four years passed before Harrington settled on viola player Hank Dutt. It took another couple of years for second violinist John Sherba and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud to join up. Along the way, Harrington's budding string quartet had come and gone from residencies at colleges in upstate New York and Oakland, California. But by the mid-1980s, the Kronos Quartet, now settled in the Bay Area, was on its own and fulfilling Harrington's original intent.
Kronos is now the hottest string quartet this side of catgut. The group's made its sales and reputation by championing relatively unknown and challenging works; Kronos has recorded compositions by artists as disparate as Argentinean accordion player Astor Piazzolla and Sudan-born drummer Hamza El Din, to proto-minimalist Terry Riley and, yes, George Crumb. (Harrington blessed "Black Angels" with an appropriately harrowing treatment on a stunning 1990 disc).
And years before Polish composer Henryk G¢recki's Symphony No. 3 began topping the classical charts, Kronos was regularly performing G¢recki's more strident first and second string quartets. Those G¢recki quartets, like much of what Harrington agrees to record and perform, were written especially for Kronos. Harrington often commissions such works himself, paying composers with portions of Kronos grant money.
"It's flattering to be the focus of so many creative musicians," Harrington says. "That's something we've always wanted. And the fact that there are 40 or 50 pieces being written for us right now, as we're talking, gives me lots of, uh, energy."
Harrington laughs. He is, indeed, a busy guy. He's speaking from the Kronos home office in San Francisco, where he says the morning mail included ten unsolicited tapes from eager composers. Some of the tapes were postmarked from China; some were from Mexico and still others from England.
"When you're interested in the kinds of things that I am, people tend to send you a lot of things," Harrington says, his slow, steady words bordering on weariness. "I'm perpetually behind."
@body:One of Harrington's mail calls a few years ago included a newspaper clipping sent from his mother, who lives in a Mesa trailer park. She thought her son might be interested in a Valley-based Native American composer profiled in the story. The musician's name was Brent Michael Davids. Harrington read the story. Turns out Mom was right.
"I thought, 'Wow, this is cool,'" Harrington recalls. "I'd heard about this guy from somebody else and I didn't know where he lived or how to reach him."
Harrington's next visit to the Valley included a stop at Davids' Tempe home. Davids remembers that initial meeting very well; it lasted more than four hours.
"We kind of hit it off," Davids says. "He wanted to hear everything I've done. I've been writing for 17 years now, so there was a lot to go through. He sat and listened and actually went along with the scores for pieces that ran 17 or 18 minutes each."
Harrington, again, was hooked. He kept in touch with Davids and the two of them sent many tapes and CDs back and forth. Harrington eventually commissioned Davids to write a piece for Kronos.
That piece will premiäre this week during the Kronos concert at Scottsdale Center for the Arts.
Davids' composition is titled "Mtukwekok Naxkomao" (The Singing Woods"). It's a four-part sound collage representing the change of seasons as heard in a forest. To achieve the sounds of wind, rain and scorching summer sun, Davids requires performers to use exotic, handmade instruments. Thus, Kronos players will be implementing bells, rawhide shakers, and bows made of velvet and leather. They'll also be playing Apache violins--bowed instruments made from the hollow stalks of agave plants.
Davids personally constructed all the instruments. He didn't get them shipped to Harrington until the day before the current Kronos tour. So Davids had to be flown to Texas during a lull in the tour to help guide the Kronos players with their new tools. And you can be sure he'll be in attendance when his composition premiäres in Scottsdale.
@body:Other selections on the Scottsdale program include the sparse Quartet No. 2 by Sofia Gubaidulina, and John Oswald's ominously chaotic "Spectre." Oswald is the father of "Plunderphonics," a method of fusing together various found noises. Harrington describes "Spectre" as "Kronos and metal meeting somewhere in between."
Both "Spectre" and the Gubaidulina piece are on Short Stories, a full-length CD released last year. Kronos also just recently released a remarkable recording of Morton Feldman's Piano and String Quartet. Feldman, who died in 1987, was an American composer fascinated with time and the space between different noises. As such, the Piano and String Quartet lingers with more than 80 minutes of infrequent, seemingly random splashes of notes. Kronos collaborated on the piece with Aki Takahashi, a longtime Feldman interpreter. The result is one of the most intoxicating Kronos efforts on record.
"Morton Feldman was unlike any other composer we've ever worked with," says Harrington. "He wrote pieces that have a sense of time and a kind of realm that is very particular to his music. And I think Piano and String Quartet is one of his great, great pieces. It's almost like feeling these incredible, warm, slow, beautiful drops of water over a long period of time. Not like a water torture, but--for me--a kind of sensual experience. You begin hearing the passage of time differently after listening to Morton's music."
@body:People are beginning to hear classical music differently after listening to the Kronos Quartet. But not everyone's convinced. Kronos is often sniffed at by classical purists. And elements of the avant-garde chastise Kronos for being too trendy--a point well taken considering the group's clever but emotionless covers of things like Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" and Willie Dixon's "Spoonfull." Even 1992's mostly excellent Pieces of Africa CD sounded at times like a fashionable follow-up to Paul Simon's Graceland.
But hits and misses are to be expected with Kronos. Classical music is currently in a critical transition. Performances are no longer strictly suit-and-tie sessions with musicians propped on wooden chairs; stage design and theatrics are now the norm. (Kronos years ago used to perform James Brown songs onstage with an eight-foot "robot" dubbed "Elvik." Such is the stuff of legend.)
And album bins, once the domain of familiar, centuries-old reportoire, are now being bombarded by obscure works and performers; the new is all the rage these days for classical audiences and ensembles.
Credit Kronos with the revolution.
"We've had a lot of help from a lot of great people," says Harrington. "Each of the composers, for example, who've written for us put some of their greatest thoughts into our music. And that's what we're looking for--those people who can give our music dimensions and textures and ways of thinking that simply haven't been part of our world."
Kronos Quartet will perform on Friday, March 18, at Scottsdale Center for the Arts. Showtime is 8 p.m.