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Tucson Weekly Kronos Eclectic

Despite Its 17 Albums, This Legendary Quartet Is Just Getting Started.

By Dave Irwin

JANUARY 25, 1999:  JIMI HENDRIX, IGOR Stravinski, George Gershwin, Bo Diddley, and Hildegard von Bingen all have something in common: the Kronos Quartet. Their works are among the wildly varying repertoire of the world's most innovative string quartet. Looking over the audience at a Kronos concert, you're likely to see everything from spiky punk red to gracious gray upsweeps.

The Kronos Quartet (founder David Harrington and John Sherba, violins; Hank Dutt, viola; and Jennifer Culp on cello, replacing regular Jean Jeanrenaud, who is taking a year's sabbatical) will play not one, but two concerts in Tucson this month. They'll also have an artist-in-residency with the UA Music Department.

"We've got two very different concert programs, and there are relationships and also huge differences," Harrington explains. "I'm really looking forward to trying these out."

Initially, the classical music world did not know how to view the quirky quartet, which mixed James Brown with Hindemith in its persistent redefinition of modern music. Although Harrington claims he's never deliberately set out to assault people's musical tastes, the Kronos repertoire is often challenging, with harsh dissonances or the repeated phrases of minimalism. But it can also be incredibly beautiful, pure otherworldly sounds that question the basic premise of what music is. The quartet's dedication to take risks and incorporate new sounds, such as electronic amplification, reverb and tape loops, brought in excited young listeners to the declining and increasingly aged audience for classical music.

"There are going to be areas of our work that people won't like," Harrington concedes. "Hopefully when you experience one of our concerts or recordings, you'll have a different sense of music than when you arrived. But thinking that everyone is going to approve of what we do or like it...I've never expected that."

"When somebody comes in contact with our music, I want them to say, 'Wow, I didn't know music was that, too,' that we reach someplace that people didn't think a manmade thing could reach. The possibility of creating that kind of an experience is what propels us as musicians."

Since its founding in 1973, Kronos has performed more than 600 works, including more than 400 pieces written or arranged specifically for them. They released their first recording in 1986. They've kept up a prodigious pace since, with 25 albums currently available.

"We rarely play the same program twice," Harrington notes. "It's one of the advantages of having so many pieces."

"The nature of the music that we're playing from the Early Music recording, at certain points you have no idea what time you're in, whether it's the 9th century or the end of the 20th century," he says.

The program will also include the premier of Hyo-Shin Na's "Song of the Beggars," a work influenced by Korean street music.

"There's a kind of vibrato in that piece that's unlike any vibrato you're ever going to learn from your music teacher in the West," Harrington promises.

The Saturday concert will include minimalist Steve Reich's "Different Trains," and the fiendish rhythms of Stravinski's "Rite of Spring," with guest pianist Margaret Kampmeier. The quintet arrangement of the massive orchestral work was commissioned by Kronos from John Geist.

"My hope is that people don't realize how difficult some pieces are," Harrington states. "What we want to provide for our audiences is an experience that they are not going to find anywhere else, and it's OK if the audience doesn't sense all of the inner workings and structure that we have to give to our lives and the rehearsals to make the music possible."

While Harrington has taken the lead in seeking out composers to commission for new works for the quartet, Kronos is clearly a group effort.

"Everyone has different things that they bring to their instrument and their approach to music," he says. "When it comes to our rehearsals and assembling the music, we need the absolute energy, concentration and distinctive viewpoint of each member. That's the only way the music will work. It has to be handmade by each one of us."

Harrington states, "I've deliberately never given our music a label, because I want to be able to go from doing street music of Korea to a 1940s tango from Argentina, to early music to The Rite of Spring. The most important thing in music for me is to find the music that feels right at any point. That changes all the time, not only because of events in one's own life, but also music that you come in contact with, people you've met. You find your sense of hearing changing. Over these 25 years, that's what has led me to want different music: to try and expand my own knowledge and my own frames of reference."

So Kronos continues to open up the world to new sounds as its reputation as the most adventuresome group in modern music continues to grow. And Kronos fans need not worry about Harrington and his cohorts running out of new places to take their audience.

"We're just getting started," he says. "At last count, I had ideas for 17 new albums. I can think of hundreds, if not thousands, of aspects of music and life that have not become part of the string quartet repertoire yet."


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