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Kronos Quartet Takes a Spin Into a Far Past

September 29, 1997|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

The Kronos Quartet has just begun celebrating its 25th anniversary. That puts it in an elite category of survivors in a very tough business. But it is absolutely alone in being a quartet that has survived by reinventing its repertory, and to some extent itself, with every new recording and practically every concert.

And so to stay as young and fit as the players still appear, Kronos is inaugurating this celebratory season by doing about the only novel thing left for a quartet that has explored more corners of postmodern and world music than any other performers in any field. It has turned to early music. Really early, including Hildegard von Bingen, who has her own birthday this season--900!

But "early music" to Kronos does not mean exactly what it normally does in classical music.

The substantial set of 13 short works that Kronos played as the second half of its concert Friday night at the Carpenter Center at Cal State Long Beach--and also found on its new and startling Nonesuch album, "Early Music"--may have contained musicologically respectable transcriptions for string quartet of Hildegard chant, as well as the medieval polyphony of Perotin and Machaut and some early English Baroque of Purcell. But the set also embraced transcriptions of traditional Chinese music, Tuvan throat singing and Harry Partch's California-style studies of ancient Greek scales.

There was new music written under the spell of the ancient Eastern Europe from Arvo Part and Alfred Schnittke. Kassia (a female composer even earlier than Hildegard who wrote 9th century Byzantine chant) and John Cage (a string quartet transcription of an early prepared piano piece) also are roommates in this historical and universal dorm.

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The message is one we've heard time and again. What is old is new; the world is a global village; and music speaks across boundaries and centuries. But that doesn't make it any less mysterious or moving. I don't know whether we can yet say why these musics belong together. It's a profound question, and one of the most exciting areas in modern music theory right now happens to be the investigation of just what kind of language music is.

Kronos, however, doesn't need theory. It makes it up as it goes, operating on the level of intuition and enthusiasm that comes from having lived with the new for a quarter-century and having adapted the string quartet into the music of just about every corner of the globe.

Still, what seemed to tie such disparate musics together Friday was an atmosphere that is maybe more Kronos than anything else. There is the look of the players, who are famous for their wearing of flashy new outfits each season. This year it is a bit less floral, with an elegant use of silvers, grays and browns that seemed right for earlier music. More restrained too was the light show. For the early-music set, a pool of light focused in the center of the stage--leaving violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud in shadows--gradually expanded and then contracted. The circle, of course, is an image common to all humankind.

A slightly somber tone also ties the program together. That has something to do with musics intended for the divergent accents of wildly different timbres all transformed into the string quartet sound. One is struck by how comfortable this music is together, music that attends more to intricate melody than to harmony, music that moves slowly (although the time frames are all short), without development or climax. Music so far removed from the Western musical thinking of the 18th and 19th centuries that it makes the core string quartet repertory seem just one tributary of a much vaster mainstream.

The first half of the program--a more vintage collection of Kronos enthusiasms--also helped set the postmodern stage for the early music. A hard-edged new piece, "nada Brahma" by a young American, Ken Valitsky, sought a cosmic sound with the help of some techno-pop electronics. An overly serious String Quartet No. 2 by Aleksandra Vrebalov, who was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, in 1970, had the subtitle "sketches on pendulums, autism, loss, nine places," and turned to some fairly common expressionist devices.

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As a blast from the past, Kronos also turned to two composers associated with the quartet from its earliest days. Both Ken Benshoof's recent "St. Francis Climbs Mt. Diablo (on His Way to Heaven)" and Terry Riley's "G Song" from 1981 remind us that the Kronos has consistently tempered its spiritual quests with a little bit of relaxed jazz, as both of these composers do in marvelously natural fashion.

From there to melding Tuvan throat singers with the Western Middle Ages becomes only the next step toward wherever it is that Kronos is next headed.

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