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Soaring Popularity of Kronos Group Takes on Seemingly Infectious Zeal


David Harrington, the soft-spoken but ever-energetic head of the Kronos Quartet, was looking no worse for wear in his Westwood hotel room one afternoon last month. The ensemble had just flown in from their home base of San Francisco, and were playing a concert in L.A. before going on tour in Japan.

Friday night, the Kronos will present the kick-off concert of the Ojai Festival, where they last performed five years ago.

"It's just a magnificent place to hear music," Harrington effused. "Very special."

In his jacket of many colors, the violinist relaxed on the couch and explained how the group was in a kind of musical vortex, amid a barrage of pieces--some newly written, others being written--for the group.

"I feel like I'm a collector of musical experiences," he said, with persuasive sincerity, eyeing a red shoulder bag on the floor.

"That red bag there is filled with probably a hundred cassettes of pieces that I haven't heard yet. The most amazing experience that has ever reached my ears might be in there. I don't know yet. But I want to be ready for it," he said.

"I feel like that's the way it is with any member of an audience."

The Kronos, which has ardently championed contemporary music since forming 20 years ago, has commissioned and premiered countless new works. And now, they reached an almost unprecedented popularity.

Their albums, the latest of which is the typically eclectic "Short Stories" on the Elektra/Nonesuch label, shoot up the classical charts. Their concerts lure audiences composed of both veteran aficionados and neophytes who might otherwise have no use for string quartet music.

Kronos detractors cry "foul" and marketing savvy, balking at the group's nonconformist ways, avoidance of repertory, and chic wardrobe. But Kronos has worked wonders, expanding the public awareness of quartet music and changing definitions as they go.

This is a group dedicated to the idea of perpetual motion and research.

Since their last Ojai appearance, the Kronos machinery--well established even back then--has only increased its pitch.

The centerpiece of the Kronos program in Ojai will be Steve Reich's propulsive 1988 piece "Different Trains," for quartet and tape. Its glistening, hypnotic quality is underscored by a sober subtext: Reich's contemplation of the trains he rode across the country as a kid in the '40s, in contrast to the European trains that transported Jews to concentration camps at that same time.

"It's a piece that we love to play," Harrington said. "It seemed to us, in thinking about Ojai and that place, outdoors, that it would sound great."

Also on the program is "Cat o' Nine Tales" one of several pieces written for the group by the iconoclastic New York composer John Zorn.

This piece, like much of Zorn's music, is restlessly frenetic and omnivorous, a kind of post-modern crazy-quilt sampling of ideas and genres.

Zorn is a kindred soul of the Kronos Quartet, itself a musical crazy quilt. With a kind of infectious zeal, Harrington spoke about his group's ongoing adventures in music.

What is the size of the Kronos library by now, in terms of works commissioned by the group?

I always think of it more in terms of things going on right at the moment, and right now there are 45 new pieces being written for the group. So between now and the next few months, our music will be entirely refreshed or renewed.

Fortunately, what's happening is that, partly through our travels and partly through good luck and the fact that people send tapes, it seems as though there's this incredible explosion of interesting, exciting, creative thought within the context of quartet music.

Do you ever have the feeling that your schedule and the constant flow of new music is threatening to spin a little out of control?

I like it to be right on the verge of not knowing where it might go next. That's when I like it best, when things are not being controlled.

Maybe it's taken all these years to find a certain stride, but we've begun to find our stride.

I've got a list of 25 recordings I want to make, which will take 15 years, and certain images that I would like to see in our concerts, certain juxtapositions of musical colors and feelings.

It took us 17 years to record (composer George Crumb's) "Black Angels." "Pieces of Africa" (their 1992 recording) started out as one piece in 1984. It didn't start out as a record. In fact, none of the things we have done started out with a preconceived idea of a recording or concert.

By now, extended techniques and world music sonorities are commonplace at Kronos concerts. They don't seem like radical elements. Is that expectation of experimentation part of what the group's all about?

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