For better or worse, a time line can be established in the world of string quartets--before and after Kronos Quartet. When they play at UC Santa Barbara's Campbell Hall on Jan. 15, it will be another night in the life of the legendary Kronos, trying to make the world safe for the string quartet.
Now in its 13th year, the Bay Area-based group has made an impact of rare proportions in the music world. Especially in the past few years, Kronos has managed at least a dual feat: They've earned the respect of their peers for lofty musicianship (as well as some scorn for disregarding staid classical conventions).
They have also drawn in a new, young, nonclassically inclined audience that is going to sit-down concerts where it previously feared to tread.
How have they done it? Could it be the outlandish stage garb or the post-New Wave accouterments? The Jimi Hendrix encores? The repertoire ranging from quartet standards to nuevo tango to minimalism to serialism to composer John Zorn's cartoon-inspired antics, all within the space of a single concert? Concerned music marketeers would like to know the secret to their success.
For devotees of the quartet, it boils down to a musical mission. The Kronos is willfully expanding the definitions of what a string quartet is all about, appealing to listeners outside the normal classical world, and commissioning new works for the medium; according to violinist-founder David Harrington, there are about 20 works being written for the Kronos.
The Kronos is one of the few working ensembles with inroads to a crossover audience. Do they try to nurture a diverse crowd? "Well, I've never really worried about that too much," Harrington said recently from his home in San Francisco. "Basically, I'm spending much of my time trying to find the music that feels really exciting and bold and challenging and wonderful. That happens to include a number of different things.
"In fact, a number of those recent pieces you'll be hearing in Santa Barbara. But it really is practically impossible for us to play everything we'd like to play in one evening. No question about that: It's impossible."
What we'll hear at UCSB, then, will be a Kronos sampler. Included on the program will be a new piece by Zimbabwe composer Dumi Maraire, Philip Glass' "Company," the String Quartet No. 4 by Russian composer Alfred Schnittke, and a piece by Sudanese composer Hamza El Din.
Canadian composer John Oswald's "Spectre" is a process piece that began with the composer recording the group and then processing the sound into a thick web of superimposed parts, to which the group then plays. As Harrington described, with glee, "at one amazing moment in the piece, there are as many as 2,000 Kronos Quartets on tape."
Even dearer to the heart of Kronos is New York new music composer John Zorn, whose crazy encyclopedic music is often made up of myriad, tiny parts. Two of Zorn's chief musical heroes are Charles Ives and the cartoon composer Carl Stallings. Zorn's "Cat O' Nine Tails," on the UCSB program, is a piece inspired by cartoon music. A yet newer Zorn quartet, called "The Dead Man," was inspired by thrash metal music.
For the Kronos, good programming comes down to matters of contrast and juxtaposition. At times, the group's sound is anything but pristine. Harrington said, "In 'Cat O' Nine Tails,' in the very opening, you're supposed to make the very ugliest sound you can make. And then on the newer quartet, the way he notates that is by using the term napalm clusters. I've come to think of those sounds as really vital and beautiful, and not really ugly at all."
Even with their busy concert schedule, the Kronos Quartet has produced a lot of music that is available at a music store near you. In the past five years, they have produced albums featuring the music of Thelonius Monk and Bill Veans arranged for string quartet; two albums of music by Terry Riley, and half a dozen albums for the Nonesuch label, up through last year's Black Angels. This month, they'll be releasing three separate CD singles.
The Kronos saga continues, full of left turns, and the expected and unexpected.
As Harrington said, "One thing I've always wanted to do is to make a concert a really exciting place to go to--to bring the world of music, as I know it, into the concert. What's happening for me is that that world is getting more and more varied, and more exciting. Hopefully, that's the way the concerts would be as well, and later on, records."
The Kronos Quartet will perform at Campbell Hall at UC Santa Barbara at 8 p.m. Jan. 15. For tickets and information, call 893-3535.
Also up the coast: the Santa Barbara Symphony strikes up the band for its winter concert at 8 p.m. Jan. 11 and 12 and 3 p.m. Jan. 13 at the Arlington Theater. On the program are Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto 3, with guest pianist Arthur Papazian; William Schuman's "New England Triptych" and Gershwin's "American in Paris." For ticket information, call 963-4408.