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Back in the U.S.S.R. : The 21-year-old Kronos Quartet continues on its unconventional track. Its 17th album is a lyrical journey to the former Soviet Union.

November 13, 1994|Josef Woodard | Josef Woodard is a frequent contributor to Calendar

A kind of multicultural convergence is under way in the name of music. Seated around the table in a Thai restaurant in Palms: a bearded composer from Uzbekistan and his interpreter, an Argentine composer by way of Boston, a record company representative in from New York and, at the center of this confab, a mild-mannered violinist and iconoclast from San Francisco whose ensemble has taken the music world by storm.

The scene might strike some as unusual, but all is well in the world according to the Kronos Quartet and its chief architect, first violinist and founder David Harrington. The specific agenda of this gathering is to talk about "Night Prayers," the quartet's 17th release on Elektra/Nonesuch and one of its strongest yet. This year's model consists of music mostly from what once was the Soviet Union, including works by Uzbekistani Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky and Argentine Osvaldo Golijov, whose "K'Vakarat" features Russian cantor Misha Alexandrovich. They spoke over lunch and Thai iced coffee.

At the ripened age of 21, the Kronos Quartet has made its name synonymous with unconventional approaches to the conventional medium of string quartet music. Harrington, violinist John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud have focused on 20th-Century works and, girded by an increasing financial stability and a feverish will to commission, built up a by-now massive library of new pieces written for the Kronos.

In recent years, the search for the new has led them evermore into far corners of the world, beyond the traditional stamping ground of Western classical enterprise.

Said the increasingly itinerant Harrington: "What it takes in order to do the music that we play now frequently includes at least one translator and perhaps an ethnomusicologist. There are all kinds of things that are involved in being a musician in 1994 that I could not have even conceived of several years ago.

"For me, it simply has to do with where your ear goes. As a musician, that's what you have. One experience somehow leads to another, and it's maybe only later that you find the connections. Sometimes, it's making recordings that allow you to explore those connections. I think that's something that this album is about."

The new album makes connections between the rough-hewn folkish strains of Tuvan "throat singers" to the Quartet No. 4 by respected composer Sofia Gubaidulina. Along the way, extra-string quartet guests include soprano Dawn Upshaw and recently celebrated Armenian duduk player Djivan Gasparian.

By sheer numbers and cachet, the Kronos Quartet can be called superstars of the classical world. "Pieces of Africa" (1992), with music by composers from African nations, is the group's best-selling album to date.

Despite any resemblance to pop music marketing in the Kronos camp, music is still the thing; don't expect them to "tour with the album" by focusing on material from the new release. This week, the group is coming to Southern California to present three different programs, including an evening devoted to the string quartets of Russian composer Alfred Schnittke at UCLA on Thursday. On Saturday, the group will give the world premiere of a new 10-movement quartet piece by John Adams at the Center for the Arts in Escondido. Staying in one place is against the Kronos ethos.

'N ight Prayers" might well be considered a logical exten sion of the "Pieces of Africa" concept--call it "Pieces of the Former USSR." One clear distinction with the new collection of music, and a factor that will no doubt limit its commercial potential, is its generally somber, meditative surface.

"For me, there are moments of incredible exhilaration on this album," Harrington allowed, "but no, it's not dance music. It's not the kind of music by which to kick back and have a beer. There is almost a sense of timelessness to much of the music on 'Night Prayers.' You can actually lose track of the beating of time.

"I feel that it's a celebration of sound and of voices, the way voices can be united with strings, especially bowed strings."

Sometimes the process of commissioning new works for Harrington involves creative collaborations and resourceful match-making.

"I found out that Djivan Gasparian actually lived in Los Angeles for a while," he said. "His sound is so exquisite, I just wanted to be in the same room with him as he played. We met a young composer from Armenia, Tigran Tahmizyan, who also lives in Los Angeles. The idea of bringing them together came up."

In addition to working on commissions for ensembles mostly outside of his homeland, Yanov-Yanovsky scores experimental films in Uzbekistan. Despite influences and opportunities in the West, he feels compelled to remain in his native country.

There, he often communicates or collaborates with other artists and musicians.

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