Mint-condition musical experiences
Kronos Quartet celebrates their 50th Anniversary this year. One of the world’s most unique string quartets, the group plays music from every genre—classical, electronic, rock, jazz, film soundtracks, modern classical and world music.
Kronos leader David Harrington grew up playing violin. He first decided to put together a string quartet at age 12, after hearing Beethoven’s String Quartet Number 12, in Eb major. “Then, when I was 23, I heard ‘Black Angels,’ by George Crumb,” he said. “It changed my life. I knew I had to get a serious group together. ‘Black Angels’ was unlike any other music for string quartet that I had ever heard. It used electric instruments and all sorts of percussion effects. It merged the worlds of Hendrix, Schubert, Bartok and early music. It made an impression that no other piece of music had ever made on me. I needed a group that would be serious about rehearsing and making musical events.”
When most string quartets promote their music, they say they’re performing a concert. Harrington often says Kronos puts on a show. “We play music being made on the spot. It gets back to ‘Black Angels.’ When you play a piece like that, you’re bowing crystal glasses and striking tam-tams [Chinese gongs],” he said. “It is a show, and we think of it as creating an experience of music to share. If you do that every day, for 50 years, you have some tools to work with. Our shows can take many different forms and, during our many years, that’s what we set out to do—create mint-condition musical experiences. No two will be the same.”
Kronos will kick off their 50th Anniversary year with a free concert at the Golden Gate Bandshell in Golden Gate Park this Saturday.
“When I’m thinking about the bandshell concert, I’m thinking of the years it took to get to this point,” Harrington said. “Looking at the set list, you’ll see some of the musical ground we’ve covered. We’ll start with music by Briseño, a Mexican composer from our Nuevo album, include selections from our Requiem for a Dream soundtrack, music by Bob Dylan taken into another realm by Jimi Hendrix and other explorations we’ve participated in over the years. Playing for families and friends in Golden Gate Park is the perfect way to start out this 50th-year celebration. I’m lucky so much different music has magnetized me and Kronos over the years. Sharing it with audiences is something we love to do.”
The quartet’s website also showcases another aspect of the celebration—Kronos Fifty for the Future. The group’s organization commissioned 50 new works for string quartet by composers from all over the world, designed as training tools for students and young professionals.
This September, Kronos will release Songs And Symphonies: The Music Of Moondog, a collaboration with the Ghost Train Orchestra, another band that shares their ethos of blurring boundaries. Moondog, born Louis Hardin, was an eccentric composer and multi-instrumentalist. Blinded by an accident at age 16, he spent many years in New York City wandering the streets, dressed in self-designed leather garments that suggested a Viking warrior. Unable to read or write traditional musical notation, he created his own system, inventing unique ways to play rhythm and melody. He made two albums for Columbia, Moondog (1969) and Moondog 2 (1971), before moving to Germany for the last years of his life.
Songs And Symphonies opens with “Theme,” a collage of street sounds, percussion and melody played by Kronos with short bursts of repeated notes. “Caribea” is a dark instrumental, featuring an interplay of dark tones from viola and cello against a background of subtle Latin rhythms played on cajon. Jazz pianist Karen Mantler sings lead on “Enough About Human Rights.” The mantra-like rhythm is supplied by Kronos and acoustic bass, as Mantle chants a long list of animals: “What about whale rights, What about snail rights …” The arrangement of “I’m This, I’m That” suggests Leonard Cohen, with a hint of the Beatles. Jarvis Cocker intones the lyric against a string arrangement that amps up the tension of the contradictory lyric.
“On this album, and all our projects, we like to create new listening experiences,” Harrington said. “We guide the listener through different parameters, working with pacing, volume, musical collaborators, addition of instruments and voices. There’s so much to work with in music. It’s endless. Our shows and albums try to celebrate that endless sense of possibility.”
Kronos Quartet plays a free concert Saturday, Aug. 26, at the Golden Gate Bandshell in Golden Gate Park. Songs And Symphonies: The Music Of Moondog, their collaboration with the Ghost Train Orchestra, will be released on Friday, Sept. 29, on Cantaloupe Music. Information about the album can be found on the Ghost Train Orchestra Bandcamp page: ghosttrainorchestra.bandcamp.com/album/songs-and-symphoniques-the-music-of-moondog.