Kronos Quartet: Responding to life as it happens

by Elizabeth Kerr / 21 February, 2013
The Kronos Quartet are “looking for human musical expressions that can teach us more about ourselves”.
The Kronos Quartet
The Kronos Quartet

Late one night in 1973, violinist David Harrington heard on the radio George Crumb’s Black Angels for electric string quartet. In this extraordinary work, composed during and about the Vietnam War, insects explode into anguished sound, melodies tear at our ears, ghostly voices whisper and chant and the electric sounds of the future vie with ancient strings and gongs. “It was a difficult time for many people my age, for many musicians,” says Harrington. “All of a sudden, there was the recognition of the power of a musical experience to give a sense of relevance, an expression of where things are in the world and in life.”

Inspired, Harrington formed the Kronos Quartet. The Black Angels experience became “something I needed as often as possible in all other music and in our explorations ever since”. In the ensuing four decades, Kronos have become legendary not only for their exciting performances but also for a commitment to music-making that addresses current social and geopolitical issues. “I’m looking,” says Harrington, “for human musical expressions that can teach us more about ourselves. We’re responding to life as it happens; through our work we want to contribute to the discussion of what’s happening in the world, what’s hard to talk about.”

First violinist Harrington is often acknowledged as leader of the band. The tall man with big glasses, lots of hair and the hint of a wry smile stares into the camera with effortless coolness from group photos. Chinese musician Wu Man, who has collaborated with Kronos for 20 years, laughs affectionately when asked about working with him. “David Harrington is a crazy person. He’s non-stop, and interesting ideas always come out.”

A major work from their collaboration is A Chinese Home, scheduled in the Auckland Arts Festival alongside Tan Dun’s remarkable Ghost Opera. “It might not feel like any string quartet concert you’ve ever been to,” says Harrington. “There’s staging, lighting, sonic effects, acting, singing, chanting, Chinese instruments, toys …”

A Chinese Home was born when Wu visited Yin Yu Tang, a reassembled 18th-century Chinese house at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts. “It reminded me of my grandma’s home and my childhood life,” she wrote afterwards. “I didn’t want to leave until the staff came to get me!” When Harrington suggested a theatrical piece about Chinese culture, Wu thought at once of the house.

“We started from scratch,” she says. “Do we need a composer, a stage director? After five years and hundreds of phone calls and emails, we met in San Francisco for 10 days. Chen Shi-Zheng [the stage director] joined us and we decided lots of the details and chose all the songs.

“It’s about Chinese modern history, first from ancient times, then the 1920s and 30s, the Cultural Revolution and, in the fourth part, China today. The director and I were born the same year and we sang the same revolutionary songs during the Cultural Revolution.”

A  short Kronos Quartet tour for Chamber Music New Zealand follows the Auckland concert. The programme for CMNZ is as colourful and multi-ethnic as we’ve come to expect from earlier Kronos visits, with new music from a Ukrainian composer, an Indian raga and New Zealand composer Jack Body’s Arum Manis, based on field recordings of an Indonesian street-seller. A 2008 work by Aleksandra Vrebalov, a Serbian composer based in New York, called … hold me, neighbor, in this storm …, suggests music is, in her words, “a way to piece together our [Balkan] identities fractured by centuries of intolerance”.

The biggest punch in the programme may come from Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11, premiered 10 years after the events in New York on September 11, 2001. Harrington had requested a work to “book-end” Reich’s searing Holocaust-themed Different Trains, and WTC 9/11 again uses “speech-melody” and recorded voices from air traffic controllers, the New York City Fire Department and interview fragments. The work, says Harrington, “takes the listener to those moments and beyond. You feel you’ve been there at the moment of the attack and then that you’ve been dealing with the effects of it. It’s both personal and universal.”

Harrington speaks with passion about the perfection of the group of instruments that makes up a string quartet. “We have Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert to thank for an incredible foundation of really intimate music. A composer who writes for string quartet is aware of that but also what followed – Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, Ives, Bartok, Shostakovich, Lutoslawski, Riley, Feldman, Reich, Glass and others who wrote some of their finest works for the ensemble.”

A strong commitment to commissioning has resulted in a staggering 750-plus new works for Kronos. Harrington talks to a composer somewhere in the world almost every day. “I challenge every composer who writes for us to go for it; let’s not be satisfied by something easy. There are 30 or 40 people writing for us right now. What I want is their best work – they know that!”

I mention that Harrington was quoted a few years ago as saying his artistic goals are always changing. “Did I say that?” he asks, surprised. “I think I’ve been pretty consistent for at least 39 years.” I have to agree. We know what to expect from Kronos – through their programmes, Harrington’s Black Angels experience of contemporary relevance is available to us all.

KRONOS QUARTET AND WU MAN, Civic, Auckland, March 9, as part of the Auckland Arts Festival; KRONOS QUARTET, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, March 11; Regent Theatre, Dunedin, March 13; Aurora Centre, Christchurch, March 14.
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