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The Collectors: The Kronos Quartet continue to collect and share their musical experience.

Saturn's Feast

'The Fab Four of classical music' reach 30

By Greg Cahill

We're collectors of music experience," says violinist David Harrington, the lanky leader of the Kronos Quartet. "When we find something we want to add to that collection, then we want to share it with the audience. As it turns out, there are just so many wonderful, exciting things to do right now," he adds with a chuckle. "The world is getting larger and smaller, all at the same time. We face a broad musical horizon."

For 30 years now, the Kronos Quartet--Harrington, violinist John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Jennifer Culp (who replaced longtime cellist Joan Jeanrenaud a couple of years ago)--have built a solid reputation with their unorthodox approach to classical music.

In addition to this nontraditional work, Kronos will reaffirm their eclectic (some might say eccentric) tastes later this month at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, when the quartet perform Sun Rings, an elaborate multimedia production rooted in Berkeley-based composer Terry Riley's recent composition based on the sounds of the solar system.

The 85-minute multimedia piece is itself based on nearly 40 years of research by University of Iowa astrophysicist Donald Gurnett, who has collected, analyzed, and interpreted the strange chirps, whistles, grunts, and moans gathered by sensitive instruments carried since the 1960s on unmanned spacecraft.

"I'm not a musician, but I've spent my life studying the sounds and phenomena of sound waves . . . so in a way we kind of speak the same language," Gurnett, whose specialty is experimental space-plasma physics, told the Associated Press. "But I really didn't have a clue how or why you would set this stuff to music."

But someone knew.

NASA and SFJAZZ co-commissioned the chamber work after contacting Harrington. Harrington, in turn, enlisted Riley. Visual designer Willie Williams, who has designed lighting and staging for many top rock acts, has incorporated images taken from the Voyager space mission and hopes the result will give audiences a deeper appreciation for the mystery of space. "Musically, it feels quite introspective," Williams notes. "And using the images from the Voyager archive gives one a sense of the vastness of space."

The Los Angeles Times has called the work "the music of the spheres and then some."

Dedicated to 20th- and 21st-century compositions, Kronos' repertoire is a mixed bag that includes the contemporary chamber works of Arnold Schoenberg and Philip Glass, as well as quartet arrangements of works by jazz greats Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans, rock god Jimi Hendrix, Mexican minimalist Esquivel, Argentine bandoneon master Astor Piazzolla, blues legend Willie Dixon, and Nubian oud master Hamza El Din, to name a few.

In addition to the jazz-fest concerts, Kronos are celebrating their anniversary with a series of events, including the recent release of three midline-priced CD singles: Harry Partch: U.S. Highball, Alban Berg: Lyric Suite, and Peteris Vasks: String Quartet no. 4, all on the Nonesuch label. The Partch recording is a bohemian masterwork that features a reading from the composer's journal recounting a 1941 trip during which Partch rode the rails hobo-style from Carmel to Chicago. It is a companion piece to the 1996 Kronos recording Howl, U.S.A., which included Partch's composition "Barstow: Eight Hitchhiker's Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow, California."

Kronos also decided to mark this milestone by commissioning yet another new work, this time from a relatively unknown composer under the age of 30. More than 300 composers from 32 countries responded to the call for entries. "It was an amazing experience to listen to 300 composers who we'd never heard of before," Harrington says. "Many of them are so committed and so involved in finding their voice. It gave me a great deal of energy. It's been a fantastic experience, and we plan on repeating it next year as well."

In the end, the quartet selected 22-year-old Alexandra du Bois of Bloomington, Ind. Du Bois began training as a violinist at age two and as a composer at 15.

"Trying to find music that feels like the right music has always been one of the most important things for me," Harrington says. "I would say that feeling of urgency is even more prevalent, wanting composers to find their inner voice, their strongest statement, their most universal statement, and for them then to find a way to communicate that to Kronos so we can pass it along to the audience.

"That is such a dynamic process, and probably one that I value now more than ever."


The Kronos Quartet perform Oct. 24 and 25 at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Tickets are $28 and $46. Showtime is 8pm. 415.788.7353.

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From the October 16-22, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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