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The World on Their Strings

As the Kronos Quartet marks its 25th year, it's busy living in the present rather than admiring its laurels.

October 04, 1998|Justin Davidson | Justin Davidson is classical music critic at Newsday

SAN FRANCISCO — The Kronos Quartet is named for the Greek god of time, and the aspect of its namesake deity that has absorbed this string quartet most has been the inexhaustible present. With little interest in the past and less in posterity, the group has been playing new music now for 25 years--an anniversary it is celebrating, appropriately, without much retrospection.

True, the record company Nonesuch has persuaded Kronos to indulge in a 10-CD anthology of its career, which is to be released later this month, and there are works the quartet has been playing since it began. But even as its jubilee tour alights next Sunday at UCLA's Royce Hall and at the Barclay Theater in Irvine the following day, there is always something fresh and forthcoming to add to a repertoire of more than 400 works written for the group. The ur-minimalist Terry Riley has offered Kronos three new pieces (which they are taking on the road); the quartet recently recorded a new soundtrack by Philip Glass (to the 1931 silent film "Dracula"); and Steve Reich is working on his second string quartet for them.

The Kronos Quartet has irritated whole bushels of purists with its use of colored stage lights and its evolving designer wardrobe of late-show-style outfits, but even critics concede that the group deserves a lot of credit for cajoling a generation or two of composers into believing that the venerable string quartet was not a worn-out genre.

"I'm a collector of musical experiences," says David Harrington, the quartet's founder, first violinist and designated visionary. Talking over a midnight pizza and cranberry juice a few blocks from the Kronos office and from Golden Gate Park, the 48-year-old Harrington has the serious, sleep-deprived look and conversational urgency of a late-blooming adolescent. He is dressed in the grunge costume of his native Seattle--T-shirt, open flannel shirt, black jeans and tattered Converse All-Stars--and his hair is a shag of graying bristles. Enthusiasm is the principal tool of his trade, along with his fiddle: "I can't wait to play this piece," is a frequent refrain.

It is the direct contact with the imagination behind the notes on a mute page that energizes Harrington and his colleagues--the way they can translate between the person and personal expression, between a composer's thoughts and physical sound. The quartet's style and fiber, its sound and technical habits, are a sum of all the creative musicians they have ever met, and Harrington describes lovingly the experience of learning about plucking a violin string from composer Morton Feldman, who wrote a string quartet for Kronos that is an uninterrupted, four-hour meditation on shades of quiet: "We had a late-night rehearsal, and he was talking about pizzicato and feeling the string leave the skin of your finger, and the way he was describing it was in such slow motion, but so amazingly sensual and infinitely gentle, that his words have become a part of my playing."

A couple of days after our pizza, I follow Harrington and the rest of the quartet--second violinist John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud--over the Golden Gate Bridge, out of the glum fog of San Francisco into Marin County and up miles of switchbacks to Skywalker Ranch, a sort of entertainment monastery owned by film producer George Lucas. For a couple of weeks nearly every August, the Kronos Quartet retires to this vast estate of sound stages, visual effects studios, stables, baseball diamonds and scrub-covered hills. The four musicians and their producer, Judith Sherman, hole up in a studio as spacious as a church nave to record whatever music they have ready.

On the agenda for this particular morning is "Mario, Dreaming," by the Seattle composer Ken Benshoof, a brief, delicate and melancholy piece that sounds like a sapling growing out of the base of Bach's suites for solo cello. It's a relatively light morning in a grueling week. But the session is freighted with history and emotion. Not only is this piece a memorial for Jeanrenaud's child Mario, who was stillborn in 1994, but Benshoof is, in a sense, Kronos' musical godfather. He was the first composer to write a piece for the quartet--"Traveling Music," which is included on the Nonesuch set--and, years before that, the first living composer whose music Harrington ever played.

"I can't imagine our work without that," Harrington says. "It was amazing to me, going over to his house and looking at the manuscript as it was being written."

"David was 16 when he showed up on my doorstep, which, unbeknownst to me, made me a mentor to him," recalls Benshoof in the control room, while out in the studio the microphones are being positioned. "We had a lot of talks, which often would be on long walks or sitting in the tavern or in my house, and they'd last all night."

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