BIG EARS 2015: Exploring the Kronos Quartet Discography

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During a mid-1980s period of compulsion for all things Philip Glass, I found myself on Park Row in New York City, plopping down money for two recent recordings of the composer’s music that, coincidentally, were both performances by the Kronos Quartet. The first was original music for the Paul Schrader film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, which contained Glass’ String Quartet No. 3. The other, an album titled simply Kronos Quartet, included a string-quartet arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” in addition to Glass’ String Quartet No. 2 (also called Company) and quartets by the now-late composers Peter Sculthorpe and Conlon Nancarrow.

Although I had been aware of Kronos by name for several years, this was my first tangible encounter with the group, and I found their eclecticism and enthusiasm for diverse contemporary music irresistible. What I experienced in the ’80s was but a hint of the mind-boggling diversity that was to emerge over the next 30 years—more than 50 recordings and the commissioning of more than 800 works for string quartet from both relative unknowns and greats of contemporary music such as Astor Piazzolla, Osvaldo Golijov, Steve Reich, John Cage, Henryk Górecki, Morton Feldman, and, of course, Glass and Terry Riley.

Big Ears audiences can explore the special bond between Riley and Kronos on Friday evening in a set that is slated to feature The Cusp of Magic, a 2008 recording. Their relationship, though, began 30 years earlier at Mills College, in California, where Riley taught composition and the members of Kronos served as artists-in-residence. Perhaps the most emotionally charged collaboration with Riley was the 2001 Requiem for Adam, a project that had its origins in tragedy. In 1998, founder David Harrington’s 16-year-old son Adam died while the family was hiking. Riley’s touch in this memorial work, though unmistakable, has a compelling and unexpected gentleness.

Reich and Kronos have collaborated on several works, but I’m drawn over and over again to an earlier one, the Grammy-winning Different Trains, from 1989. The three-movement work combines layers of strings combined with the sounds of trains and the voices of train workers in the U.S. and Holocaust survivors who had been transported via trains during World War II.

In a completely different direction and sensibility, Nuevo, Kronos’ south of the border-flavored recording from 2002, features several Osvaldo Golijov arrangements as well as rhythmically addictive works by Silvestre Revueltas and others that drip with humor and spice. The variety of tone and texture on this recording is amazing, insuring that you must listen till the end.

Bryce Dessner, best known as a guitarist for the indie band the National, also treads another musical path in a completely different direction, and with a completely different sensibility—that of a composer of post-classical music for orchestral and chamber ensembles. Big Ears audiences can catch Kronos with Dessner’s 40 Canons, which premiered in May. A year earlier came the recording Aheym: Kronos Quartet Plays Music by Bryce Dessner. The title track is driving and anxious, yet contains perversely satisfying twists. The music surges, then relents, all the while dotted with porcupine-like string textures. Following “Little Blue Something” and “Tenebrae” comes the contrast of the finale, “Tour Eiffel,” which opens with a youth chorus reciting a poem by the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro that softly clashes in dissonance. The work then moves in multiple directions, exploring a range of events of what one might conceivably define as luscious minimalism.

The journey through the music of Kronos always leads back to where it began for me—with Philip Glass. 2013 brought another commission to Glass from Kronos for the String Quartet No. 6, a work still awaiting the recording studio. However, an essential trek through the other Glass string quartets via Kronos can be had in the 1995 album Kronos Quartet Performs Philip Glass. The album includes the two mentioned previously plus the string quartets No. 4 and No. 5. For those familiar only with Glass’ soundtracks, operas, or theater pieces, the No. 5’s depth and wealth of lyricism, minus the repetition, plus a sensitive performance from Kronos, may just force you to view the composer in an entirely new way.

Alan Sherrod has been writing about Knoxville’s vibrant classical music scene since 2007. In 2010, he won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts—the Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera—under the auspices of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He also operates his own blogs, Classical Journal and Arts Knoxville.

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