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Saint Paul SundayFeatured Artist

Kronos Quartet

November 3, 2002 Program

Kronos Quartet: Building a Repertoire

Their first commission was for a bag of doughnuts.

When David Harrington was 22 years old, something happened to him. He heard a piece of music by avant-garde composer George Crumb, Black Angels, and knew immediately that he had to play it and other music like it. So Kronos Quartet was formed, and in 1973 they gave their first concert. The program included that first commission, Traveling Music, by Ken Benshoof, along with music by Bartók and Webern.

Since then, Kronos Quartet has steadily commissioned works from an astonishing variety of composers; the number of new quartets they've inspired now exceeds 400. "I had a book where I would list every composer I had ever heard of," says Harrington.

  Kronos Quartet

Kronos Quartet

Left to Right:
David Harrington, John Sherba, Jennifer Culp, Hank Dutt

Photo Credit: Caroline Greyshock

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That bit of homework has paid off. In addition to household names like Henryk Górecki, Terry Riley, and Phillip Glass, Kronos has created a following for the music of such composers as Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Osvaldo Golijov, and Gabriela Ortiz. They commission about 12 new works each season. Many of these new works have found their way into the concert repertory of other quartets and performing artists, permanently establishing Kronos' musical legacy.

As David Harrington tells listeners on this week's Saint Paul Sunday broadcast, "What a great time we live in right now. I can't think of a time that so many wonderful things were happening." Indeed Kronos is living and working in a time when the group is able to travel around the world, collecting sounds of different cultures and finding ways to bring these sounds to the ears of its listeners.

Kronos approaches the creation of new music with an intense curiosity and a desire to express what it is to be alive. "I've always wanted the string quartet to be vital and energetic and alive and cool...[To] be absolutely beautiful and ugly if it has to be. But it has to be expressive of life, to tell the story with grace and humor and depth, and to tell the whole story, if possible."

The musical stories that Kronos tells often originate from unusual sources for a classically grounded ensemble. South African composer Kevin Volans wrote for them his White Man Sleeps, which was recorded in 1988, beginning the tradition of non-western music that is now so important to Kronos Quartet.

The group has managed to revitalize the once deteriorating repertory of new music for string quartet by approaching composers like Volans, whose musical language is not based in traditional western European sound, or even classical sound for that matter. Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze," arranged by Steve Riffkin, was one of their early hits. The legendary Ornette Coleman, father of free jazz, has also given Kronos music, as has David Byrne, front man for the rock band Talking Heads. Kronos has commissioned many contemporary classical composers, including Sofia Gubaidulina, Alfred Schnittke, and Zhou Long. With each new work, a relationship with its creator is formed; the collaboration of composer and performers - the formation of a community - becomes the vehicle for giving life to this new creation.

Kronos' appearance on Saint Paul Sunday this week features performances of music that also appears on their recent recording, Caravan. The area once known as "Pannonia," which connects northeastern Europe with the Mediterranean and the Orient, largely inspires the music on this release. Composer and friend of the quartet Osvaldo Golijov made many of the arrangements of the music.

As violinist John Sherba explains, "Writing a quartet is hard. You have to have the right texture, the right balance, the right length. I'm very proud of not just playing one piece and then it's over. Kronos is about taking the relationship further. Composers not only know us better - they write in the form better."

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