Twenty-five years ago this winter, I drove my nearly new VW Beetle out to a Northend home to visit a quartet of young Seattleites preparing themselves to conquer the world—the world of contemporary chamber music, at least. I remember admiring their nerve, but didn't nurse high hopes for them. The shelf life of such enterprises is about the same as the average garage band's.
Kronos Quartet/25 Years (Nonesuch)
Well, the nearly new VW is now a rusted hulk, and this month Nonesuch Records is issuing Kronos Quartet/25 Years, a boxed set of 10 CDs chronicling that campaign, by any standard one of the most successful in the history of American music. Many musical ensembles leave a heritage of recorded performances, but the Kronos String Quartet, still vigorously touring and recording, has already created something more precious: a heritage of music specifically created for the group by more than 100 composers.
For 200-odd years after Josef Haydn more or less created the line-up to showcase his most adventurous imaginings, the string quartet—two violins, one viola, one violincello—was the medium many composers chose for their most personal musical explorations. Kronos founder and first violinist David Harrington exaggerates when he says that when his ensemble first came together, the string quartet "had lived its life as an art form and was going quietly off to die." But it's quite true that by 1973 most composers, particularly younger ones, weren't writing for string quartet. The staid tradition built by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bart�Schoenberg, and Shostakovich was perceived as something to overcome, not emulate. The very tone of the ensemble—dry, quiet, cool, homogeneous—was a turn-off in an era when the sounds made possible by amplification and electronic synthesis seemed the wave of the future.
Still, a few composers tried to teach the old team some new tricks. To one such experiment the Kronos owes its existence. "One night I turned on the radio and heard something wild, something scary," recalls Harrington. "It was Black Angels, by George Crumb, his musical response to Vietnam. I didn't even know it was quartet music at first"—not surprising, considering that Crumb called for the performers to wire the bridges of their instruments with contact mikes and saw their bows along the rims of amplified gongs—"but it was a magnetic experience. All of a sudden it felt like this was absolutely the right music to listen to."
And play. Black Angels was one of the pieces the Kronos was rehearsing in that cramped, chilly living room back in 1973; Black Angels and a new work badgered out of Harrington's old college composition prof Kenneth Benshoof for the price of a bag of doughnuts. Both works are included in the 25th-anniversary Nonesuch set: the Crumb, in the Kronos' award-winning 1990 recording no longer seeming quite the breakthrough masterwork it did 25 years ago but scary as ever; Benshoof's Traveling Music just as apparently aimless and ambling as ever. The two works are like bookends for the Kronos repertory: everything from harsh, challenging, state-of-the-art experiment to the most lulling and gentle of minimalist drones.
The most astonishing thing about the Kronos is that today it embodies the vision Harrington had for it a quarter-century ago, not only in its dedication to new music and more new music but to new ways of presenting said music and finding new audiences to listen to it. There aren't any gigs at rock clubs or performance-art venues on the quartet's current tour schedule as there sometimes were in past years, but the group's penchant for specially commissioned avant-garde designer outfits (and even avant-garde designer furniture to sit on) continues. There are thousands of people around the nation and around the world who turn out regularly for Kronos concerts (in Seattle the group has played Bumbershoot as often as more traditional chamber-music venues) but who wouldn't think of buying tickets for another string quartet.
The Kronos' penchant for weird threads and dangerous hairstyles makes it an easy mark for the sneers of those who consider it a 25-year-old flash in the pan, pandering to trendies with its "crossover" arrangements of Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington, avoiding comparison with the quartet competition by concentrating on its own endless self-commissioned sequence of disposable novelties.
Yet none of these stock criticisms really apply. The Monk and Moondog material plays a larger role in the Kronos' recorded output than it does in concert, where such pieces usually function as openers and encores, with a fair number of 20th-century "standards"—quartets by Bart�Shostakovich, and their ilk—sharing the bill with Kronos commissions. As for the "novelties"—well, any ensemble that can take credit for having brought into existence such works as Steve Reich's terrifying, moving Different Trains, Morton Feldman's Piano and String Quartet, Astor Piazzola's Five Tango Sensations, the two quartets of Henryk G�ki, John Adams' Suite of Alleged Dances, not to mention the entire quartet output of California original Terry Riley (all represented in the anniversary collection) can be comfortably confident of having done its part to keep classical music's single most demanding and rewarding tradition alive and kicking into the new millennium.