Time is on Kronos side The hip string quartet with the grunge look is still enthusiastic and flexible after 25 years, relishing its position on the cutting edge of classical music.

October 18, 1998|By Justin Davidson | Justin Davidson,NEWSDAY

SAN FRANCISCO - David Harrington, a 48-year old violinist with the serious, sleep-deprived look and conversational urgency a late-blooming adolescent, is the founder and designated visionary of the Kronos Quartet, but that's not exactly how he describes himself.

"I'm a collector of musical experiences," he says, making his career sound like a hobby. Talking over a midnight pizza a few blocks from the Kronos office, Harrington is dressed in the grunge costume of his native Seattle - T-shirt, open flannel shirt, black jeans and tattered Converse All-Stars - and his hair is a shag of graying bristles.

Enthusiasm is the principal tool of his trade, along with his fiddle. The Kronos Quartet is 25 years old this season, an anniversary that must come as a shock to the flocks of fans who still consider the group radical and fresh, and which the string quartet itself is celebrating without much retrospection.

True, the record company Nonesuch has just released a 10-CD anthology of the group's career, but there always is something fresh and forthcoming to add to a repertoire of more than 400 works written for the group. "I can't wait to play this piece" is Harrington's frequent refrain.

The Kronos Quartet has irritated many purists with its multicolored stage clothes and defiant shades, the glum-rocker attitudes they've struck for publicity photos, and their use of lighting, plunging audiences into darkness and illuminating only their own tight huddle. But even critics concede that the group deserves credit for cajoling a generation or two of composers into believing that the venerable string quartet was not a worn-out genre.

The members of Kronos have wired their instruments for electronics, played tangos and music from African villages, made string quartet arrangements of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" and of such orchestral monuments as Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," and taken a Swedish nyckelharpa, the throat singers of Tuva and a gospel choir into the recording studio with them.

In the 1970s, when the quartet was in residence at Mills College in Oakland, Harrington badgered the ur-minimalist Terry Riley for a piece, even though the composer, who was absorbed in the improvisational tradition of North Indian classical music, was reluctant even to notate his ideas.

Rather than the juicy, throbbing vibrato all string players are raised on, Riley asked for paler shades of sound, different brushstrokes made by using less (or no) vibrato in the left hand and varying the speed and pressure with which the bow slips across the string. It is this direct contact with the imagination behind the notes that energizes Harrington and his colleagues.

The result is that while many quartets try to develop an acoustic fingerprint, Kronos has developed a malleable sound, able to absorb the technical vocabularies of disparate cultures. "I want to be involved in a sound that is the right one for whatever note we happen to be playing," Harrington says.

A couple of days later, Harrington and the rest of the quartet - second violinist John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud - drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, out of the gloomy fog of San Francisco into Marin County and up miles of switchbacks to Skywalker Ranch, a sort of entertainment monastery owned by film producer George Lucas. For a couple of weeks nearly every August, the Kronos Quartet retires to this vast estate and records whatever music they have ready.

On the agenda for this morning is "Mario, Dreaming," by the Seattle composer Ken Benshoof. It's a relatively light morning, but the session is freighted with history and emotion. Not only is this brief, delicate and melancholy piece a memorial for Jeanrenaud's child, Mario, who was stillborn in 1994, but Benshoof is, in a sense, Kronos' musical godfather. He was the first composer to write a piece for the quartet - "Traveling Music," included on the Nonesuch set - and, years before that, the first living composer whose music Harrington ever played.

At 16, Harrington attached himself to Benshoof, and the two would spend long evenings talking about music. Curiously for a pair of musicians immersed in contemporary music, their joint ideal was a violinist who composed short, alluring encores full of tenderness and Central European charm: Fritz Kreisler.

"There's a kind of magic in Kreisler's music," Benshoof muses. "The surface is very elegant, very transparent, but just beneath it is a sense of reaching into something deeper. You can hear that in the composers David's chosen to work with."

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