THE LAST TIME the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet played Utah, it was as part of the Utah Arts Festival. This time it is on the regular subscription series of the Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake City, and, as far as anyone can remember, it is the first time anyone performing on that series has requested special lighting. Colored lighting, moreover.
The concert takes place Tuesday at 8 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts on the University of Utah campus, and will be followed by appearances in St. George (April 14) and Logan (April 16). And you can bet that whatever else happens each will be marked by as much emphasis on the visual as the musical."We've never been a conventional string quartet," says the group's founder, violinist David Harrington. "One of the first things we rejected was the idea that quartet music was something that should exist on Sunday afternoons for polite people to hear with gloves on. That's probably one of the central traditions of western music, and one I had reacted against all my life. I wasn't interested in our music existing in a chamber for just a few people. I wanted to take it out to the streets, to where the action was, and have it meet the world head on."
As a result, when not onstage most quartets have had their publicity pictures taken in parks or in front of concert halls. The Kronos, by contrast, can be seen in black leather, often behind dark glasses (I've yet to encounter any picture of Harrington without them), adorning an urban skyline or a backdrop that one might associate more readily with a punk group.
Their music is no less distinctive, consisting almost entirely of non-mainstream contemporary pieces, many of them commissioned by Kronos. Thus their Salt Lake program consists of Kevin Volans' "White Man Sleeps No. 1" and Astor Piazolla's "Four, for Tango," both written for the Kronos, along with arrangements of Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk, Ben Johnston's "Amazing Grace," Philip Glass' "Company" and their one bow to tradition the Quartet No. 4 of 20th century composer Bela Bartok.
In fact, Harrington acknowledges, other than some early Charles Ives there is nothing in the quartet's repertoire from any other century. "On the other hand a lot of the music we play is very much influenced by music older than European classical music." He cites the so-called primitive rhythms of African and other enthic music, or the Estonian composer Arvo Paert "whose music reaches back maybe five or six hundred years."
The response to all this has been nothing short of phenomenal. From relative obscurity the group has in the last decade built up an international touring schedule of 150 concerts a year ("the most we'll ever do," Harrington vows). Their recordings sometimes figure as prominently on the pop charts as they do the classical, both audiences having been drawn to their work. And they probably have more composers writing for them, often on an exclusive basis, than any other chamber group in the world.
Born in Seattle in 1949, Harrington heard his first string quartet when he was around 13. "That was on records," he says. "Then I formed a group of my own. But it wasn't until I was 16 that I got a chance to work with a composer, Ken Benshoof, a fine composer at the University of Washington who wrote a piece for us, a piano quintet. We worked on it for several months before performing it and it was probably the most pivotal experience I had had up to that time, learning a piece with the composer right there, changing what needed to be changed and in essence getting into it in a very physical way. Later he wrote the first piece ever written for the Kronos."
That was in 1973. The name Kronos was adopted because of its associations with both the father of the Greek gods, who devoured his own children, and, in an altered spelling, time.
"It seemed that in order to propel things into the future you ought to be able to look into the past," Harrington says. "And as I got looking into Greek culture, one of the prime movers of western culture, it occurred to me that in certain ways Kronos was my kinda guy. I mean, he was a very complicated god, a bad dude, and there was a lot of original energy there. As I say, there had been a certain politeness about things in this field for so long, and it's not that we are not polite. It's just that we don't feel our music or the way we play should be careful or take a back seat to anything."
The quartet's current membership dates from 1978. Violist Hank Dutt came aboard in 1977, to be followed by violinist John Sherba and, within a few days, cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, whom Dutt had known at the University of Indiana. At the time she was in Switzerland studying with the great French cellist Pierre Fournier.
"There was no problem fitting in," Jeanrenaud says. "We're all around the same age and sort of had the same outlook to begin with. I guess you could say we've kind of grown old together."
That outlook she characterizes as an open-mindeness to new music and a desire to make it accessible to the public. "We'll use anything available in this day and age to enhance that, to make it more exciting," she says, "so that when they come they'll be as excited as we are. But the bottom line is the music, to make it come across as well as it can."
To that end, Harrington says, the group has employed not only special costuming and lighting but at various times special stage sets for each piece, "even a singing robot. We've done a lot of things over the years. Because not only is a concert partly a visual experience; it's also partly an illusion, an illusion that at that moment these particular performers and the audience `own' the music that is happening right then _ it belongs to those of us who are there at that moment. Whereas in reality it's something we share with each other. None of us really owns it at all."
Maybe not in an aesthetic sense. But given its exclusive arrangements with the composers who write for it, Kronos does in fact own some of the music it plays. Nor is its dress any more haphazard, much of it having been likewise commissioned from leading European and Japanese designers.
"In the beginning we all wore suits," Jeanrenaud recalls, "then it was uniform jackets. Then we decided we didn't all dress the same offstage, so we began to dress individually on."
Her function, she says, is more that of a stylist, working with the group's various designers. Sherba, for his part, looks after their collection of concert tapes while Dutt is in charge of the music library.
The week I talked with them they had just completed what sounded like a grueling six-week tour of Australian, New Zealand, England, Ireland and Germany before settling into an at-home schedule of six-hour rehearsals and, last Monday, a daylong photo session. In addition time was spent auditioning tapes for an upcoming album of Terry Riley, Arvo Paert, John Zorn, Alfred Schnittke, Anton Webern, even Bernard Herrmann (music from "Psycho") and the Samuel Barber Adagio for Strings.
"We didn't set out to emulate a rock group," Harrington says. "In fact what we find is that some of them are beginning to take a look at us. But I think that's true of our whole society today. There's a more free-flowing exchange of ideas and disciplines."
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