As ensemble marks its 40th anniversary, ‘Strings’ charts the formative years of the group that reinvented the string quartet

“I’ve always wanted the string quartet to be vital, and energetic, and alive, and cool, and not afraid to kick ass, and be absolutely beautiful and ugly if it has to be,” violinist and Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington declared in 1998. “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.”

For four decades, Kronos Quartet—which currently includes Harrington, violinist John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Sunny Yang (who this month replaced eight-year veteran Jeffrey Zeigler)—has redefined the boundaries of chamber music, through numerous personnel changes, often blurring the lines between classical and pop, and launching a generation of adventurous chamber groups that include Turtle Island, Brooklyn Rider, ETHEL, the Brodsky Quartet, and eighth blackbird, to name a few.

“For ETHEL, it is impossible to discuss a world without Kronos,” says Dorothy Lawson, violinist and co-founder the New York-based avant-chamber ensemble ETHEL. “Their efficient, elegant genius, combining classical virtuosity with popular sensibility, reconfigured the quartet landscape powerfully and prophetically. By the time we emerged 25 years later, their reputation and their body of work were large enough to nourish and encourage a generation.

“There isn’t a classical performer today who doesn’t have to address this legacy in some way.”

That sentiment is echoed by Johnny Gandelsman, a violinist with Brooklyn Rider and a member of the Silk Road Ensemble. “As a member of a young string quartet that often looks outside of the classical world for inspiration and ideas, all I can really say [to Kronos] is simply, thank you,” he notes. “Thank you for your continuous and insatiable curiosity, and the countless commissions and collaborations that have enormously enriched the quartet repertoire. Thank you for incorporating amplification and lighting design into your live shows. Thank you for opening the ears and eyes of so many to the unknown. Most importantly, thank you for showing the rest of us that there are no limits to what a string quartet can be.”

Since its emergence in 1973, the Grammy-winning Kronos has become one of the best-selling classical-music groups in the world, with 46 albums to its credit, including five film scores. Its eclectic catalog ranges from 1984’s arrangements of jazz pianist Thelonious Monk tunes (with jazz bassist Ron Carter) to 1991’s acclaimed collection of Astor Piazzolla tangos to last year’s stunning survey of the music of Soviet-era composer Vladimir Martynov.

In between, there have been recordings devoted to the sounds of Bollywood, blues, jazz, Alban Berg, Mexican music, Central Asia, and a myriad of other musical points.

Its stature shows no sign of waning: in 2011, Kronos became the only recipient of both the prestigious Polar Music Prize and the Avery Fisher Prize.

The group’s trademark is its commitment to contemporary classical music. Kronos has performed or recorded more than 500 original pieces composed expressly for the quartet, some spawned by the unparalleled Kronos: Under 30 project, an annual composition competition created in 2003 during the group’s 30th anniversary. To date, that project has garnered 1,000 applications from composers in 49 countries and on six continents.

Those commissions alone represent a level of composition virtually unheard of before Kronos came into existence.

But how did Kronos become such a titanic force?

Forged in the Fire of the Vietnam War

In 1973, chamber music was the most genteel form of Western classical music. Some of the century’s most prominent chamber players—including violinist Isaac Stern, cellist Pablo Casals (who would die in October of that year), and violist William Primrose—were still performing. Yet, the works of such great 20th-century composers as Bartok, Webern, Shostakovich, and Ives were seldom programmed. As often as not, chamber music then was simply Mozart, Haydn, and Brahms played in the garden on a soft summer day.

But the world, shaken by the Vietnam War, changed in 1973. And those reverberations shook the relative serenity of the chamber-music world in ways that no one could predict.

That year, the then–22-year-old Harrington, a Portland native who grew up in Seattle, heard the Concord String Quartet’s recording of George Crumb’s bleak work Black Angels on the radio—coincidentally, a founding member of the Naumberg Award–winning Concords, first violinist Mark Sokol (now on the collegiate faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music), had been a chamber partner of Harrington’s at Roosevelt High School in Seattle. Crumb has said that the unflinchingly modern 1970 work, subtitled 13 Images from the Dark Land for electric string quartet, began as a depiction of the voyage of a soul in three stages: Departure (fall from grace), Absence (spiritual annihilation), and Return (redemption).

The dark work is laced with musical references to hell, the devil, and death, including quotations from Diabolus in Musica (the tritone interval associated in Medieval times with Satan), Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill,” the Roman Catholic Funeral Mass (Dies Irae), and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.”

But before he completed the piece, the composer began associating Black Angels with the horrors of the Vietnam War. “I came to recognize that there was something of the feeling of that strange time. That’s when I called it music in tempore belli, in time of war,” he told the Philadelphia City Paper.

The music snared Harrington’s imagination. “I didn’t even know it was quartet music at first, but it was a magnetic experience,” he recalled in a 1998 oral history posted on Kronos’ website to commemorate the group’s 25th anniversary. “All of a sudden it felt like this was absolutely the right music to play.”

In response, Harrington phoned Ken Benshoof, a Seattle educator and composer whom he had met as a teenager. “I’m starting a group,” he said, “because I have to play that music.”

Ultimately, Benshoof would provide Traveling Music, the first of the hundreds of works commissioned by Kronos. The payment: a bag of donuts.

The Influence of Music Teachers

At the time of their first meeting, Benshoof was a rookie teacher at the University of Washington. Harrington played second violin in a string quartet that had formed at Roosevelt High—a public school that has spawned a number of notable artists, actors, authors, scientists, and such musicians as orchestral composer David Kechley, Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue, rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot, and Duff McKagan of Guns ’n’ Roses, among others.

Ron Taylor, who ran the school music program, helped to cultivate Harrington’s creativity. “[Ron] was a person who allowed, and encouraged, kids to do whatever,” recalls Benshoof, 80, during a phone interview from his Seattle home. “That was before people started thinking that arts in the schools was evil. It was powerful stuff. There were doors that opened. If you wanted to play something and were willing to work hard at it, there was a place to make use of that.”

Another influence was the local youth symphony, run by Mark’s father, Vilem Sokol, a Czech-American violinist, conductor, and professor at the University of Washington. “[The youth symphony] was very high quality, so the kids coming out of high school had a place to play great literature under a very good conductor,” Benshoof says. “That was part of the reason that Seattle exported so many great string players for years.”

The Roosevelt High string quartet, with Harrington and the younger Sokol on board, performed a school concert of Benshoof’s transcription of music for piano and string quartet. “They thought it was a big deal at the time to come over to a composer’s house—I was 30 at the time,” Benshoof says with a laugh. “They rehearsed in my house. I had a few pieces that I had written in the context of that group: I had a trio for piano, violin, and cello; a piece for piano and viola. They ended up playing everything I had for strings. It was a great deal of fun, because of the enthusiasm of these young people—they would try anything.

“This was a time when people were still arguing over whether the future of music was going to be determined by 12-tone stuff—in other words, the followers of Schoenberg or the followers of Stravinsky. People thought those were real arguments, but they were campus arguments, right? The great thing is, these kids weren’t a part of that. They didn’t grow up with those history books telling them how they ought to behave and what they ought to believe.”

Indeed, in a 2005 interview with Learning Musician, Harrington recalled that Seattle’s vibrant music scene, which had spawned rock-guitar great Jimi Hendrix, was fertile ground for his creative mind.

“As a teenager in the ’60s, I’d hang out in the summertime at the University of Washington, which had one of the great ethnomusicology departments in the US, and I’d get to hear people who many years later I heard on recordings,” he told music writer Dan Kaplan, noting that the group’s subsequent focus on world music became a goal first fully realized on Kronos’ 1992 album Pieces of Africa CD, which featured seven African composers/performers. “I tried to take advantage of whatever there was. There was a great record shop right near the high school, and most often I was over there rather than at algebra or geometry or wherever I should have been. And in those days, you could open the records and go into a booth, so I heard Edgar Varese, Ives, Bartok.”

After graduation from Roosevelt, Harrington’s formal studies at the University of Washington, in 1969 and 1971, were interrupted by the Vietnam War—he played violin in the Victoria (Canada) Symphony Orchestra for a year to avoid the draft, before crossing the border back to Seattle. In August 1973, shortly after hearing Black Angels, he gathered local violinist Jim Shallenberger, violist Tim Killian, and cellist Walter Gray, then a Curtis Institute student home on vacation, to read chamber music. The foursome became Kronos Quartet, named for the infanticide-prone Greek god of time.

Armed with Benshoof’s Traveling Music—an amalgam of theater pieces the composer had penned earlier for a stage play—as well as Bartok’s Third Quartet and Webern’s Six Bagatelles— Kronos  made its debut performance for friends and family at North Seattle Community College.

“Here’s the story I like to tell young people who want to try something unconventional,” Benshoof says. “David got three more people together and scheduled 60 concerts—in prisons, hospitals, old folks homes, wherever he could find a gig. They made very little money, though they received a small grant from Anne Gerber [the Seattle art collector and arts patron—a self-professed “artnik” who had a fondness for risk-taking artists and musicians].

“It was the standard starving artist’s story, and it stayed that way for a long time.”

There’s no question that the first two years were a labor of love. “It seemed logical to jump into this situation without any money, playing just for the love of it,” Gray told the Seattle Times in 1998. “We’d practice five and six hours every day, rehearsing in parents’ living rooms, and weekends up in the art studios at the UW. It was a nonstop thing.

“Then we’d all pile into a car and drive nonstop to Portland for concerts there. All four of us played in the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, too. We got all the work we could.”

Their big break arrived in 1975 when the ensemble began a two-year residency at the State University in Geneseo, New York, chamber-music training program directed by Peter Marsh, the first violinist of the Lenox String Quartet (he now directs the USC Thornton School of Music string chamber-music program). At Geneseo, Kronos encountered such contemporary composers as Lejaren Hiller, Morton Feldman, Elliott Carter, and Iannis Xenakis, playing new music as well as standard repertoire. The quartet also underwent several personnel changes as Shallenberger and Killian left to be replaced by violinists Roy Lewis and Richard Balkin, and violist Michael Jones.

But Harrington and cellist Walter Gray felt the quartet needed a place that would foster greater creative freedom and advance their exploration of new music.

So, in 1977, the two musicians set their sights on San Francisco.

Staking a Claim in the Golden State

It didn’t take long for the Golden State to lose its luster for cellist Gray and his wife and then–second violinist Ella Killian Gray (sister of founding violist Tim Killian). Trying to raise two young children on the meager income derived from busking for tourists outside the red-brick chocolate factory at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco’s Marina District proved too challenging, and there were artistic differences.

“My leaving actually was a very good move on all fronts,” Walter told the Seattle Times. “What they’ve ended up with in the current membership is an incredibly cohesive, focused group of four players. They’ve found a group that works perfectly. But they couldn’t be a broad-range quartet, one that played all kinds of music, and reach their current level of success. They found the niche that worked for them. It didn’t really work for me.”

“The Kronos has opened a lot of doors: they find new pieces from unusual sources, and that’s a valuable thing. But they’ve closed a lot of doors, too,” he added, offering a hint of the conflict that led to his departure. “I’d have wanted to explore more repertoire of all eras, but if the quartet had gone that route, they probably wouldn’t have done so well.”

So the Grays moved back to Seattle (see sidebar, “Where Are They Now?”).

Their move set the stage for what many regard as the classic Kronos lineup (from 1978 to 1999): Harrington, violinist John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud. It was a group that would endure until Jeanrenaud was diagnosed in 1999 with multiple sclerosis (she reunited with Kronos in 2009 and again in 2012). Sherba had gained a reputation as a new-music enthusiast during his stint at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, where he often teamed up with his younger brother Charles (a founding member of the performance ensemble Aurea and a teaching associate at Brown University).

Dutt, the son of two visual artists, had taken up viola in the last year of high school at a summer music camp—he referred Jeanrenaud, who had just completed a year studying with French cello great Pierre Fournier in Paris. “It was perfect timing for me because I thought it was time to get a job,” Jeanrenaud says with a laugh. “I had studied music long enough and figured I’d better start making my living now.

“I was lucky because they had just gotten the position as quartet-in-residence at Mills College [in Oakland].”

Dutt had been a chamber partner of Jeanrenaud’s at Indiana University and knew that Kronos had found a special chemistry. “Once the four of us sat down, it was pretty clear that this was it,” he said in 1998. “There was a wonderful respect, seemingly without ego—we could talk to each other.”

At Mills—a progressive women’s college where composer Darius Milhaud had taught between 1940 and 1971, and both the Budapest and Pro Arte quartets had held residencies—Kronos began a lifelong association with composer Terry Riley. And Kronos found a guiding angel in Mills music department head Margaret Lyon, who had held open a two-year residency funded by a Chamber Music America grant while Kronos worked through its personnel changes.

“The residency gave us some kind of base salary, which wasn’t much at all, but I was so happy to be able to play in a string quartet,” says Jeanrenaud, during an interview from her San Francisco home. “I was 22 when I joined and I was very excited.”

A Caché of Hipness

Despite their love of new music, until 1980, Kronos still clung onto many of the chamber world’s old conventions. Onstage, the men wore tuxedos and Jeanrenaud donned a floor-length gown.

“When I joined, the group was still playing standard repertoire with one so-called classical piece on the program, something written before 1900,” Jeanrenaud says. “So, we’d play a Haydn or a Brahms or a Beethoven, and the rest of the program would be contemporary. So, the focus was always contemporary, but in those days it was hard to get presenters to hire you solely based on playing contemporary music.”

One day, at a group meeting, the members decided to draw a metaphorical line in the sand.

“In my mind, I recall that we had performed the Third Brahms Quartet, which has a big viola part. And Hank and I, who were more focused on our classical performances that the others, both thought that we had done such a poor job as a group that we brought it up at the next rehearsal,” Jeanrenaud says. “I said, ‘You know, guys, I really don’t think we should be playing this music because it’s really not what we do the best. It’s not what we’re focused on, it’s not what we enjoy the most, so let’s just play contemporary music from now on. And so, of course, everyone was in agreement with that and we decided to do it.”

The group wrapped up its Mills College residency with a program that featured James Brown’s “Sex Machine” and a performance with a eight-foot robot named Elvik. Soon, the musicians began developing their entrepreneurial skills: Harrington handled commissioning and repertoire, Dutt (who was nicknamed “Hank the Bank”) supervised finances, Sherba managed the growing tape archive, and Jeanrenaud wrote grant requests.

Kronos—known to practice eight or nine hours before each performance—rented a cheap rehearsal space in a noisy print shop that offered easy access to a Xerox machine. They began producing a concert series at a 300-seat hall above the Herbst Theater across the street from San Francisco’s Civic Center. They performed Penderecki for inmates at San Quentin Prison in nearby Marin County; the “Star-Spangled Banner” at Candlestick Park, then-home to the San Francisco Giants and 49er sports teams; and The Rite of Spring and “Purple Haze” at the aging Great American Music Hall, next door to the notorious Mitchell Brothers adult theater.

A February 1980 edition of the New York Times offered the Old Gray Lady’s first take on the unapologetically modern Kronos Quartet. In a review of the ensemble’s often overlooked 1979 Composers Recordings label debut of Dane Rudhyar’s abstract pieces “Advent” and “Crisis and Overcoming,” the Times critic deemed the recordings “unanalyzable perhaps, but oddly compelling and wholly original.”

In time, the group hired its own sound engineer, incorporated lighting design, and developed a stage presentation akin to a rock band with those traditional costumes replaced by unorthodox spandex, street clothes, and spiked hair, changes that led Rolling Stone to dub Kronos “classical music’s own Fab Four.”

The street dress “was really important for us,” Jeanrenaud says. “People asked if we had consulted someone about our image. But, no, it was what we felt comfortable doing and what made sense to us. It was a projection of who we felt we were. Just like with the music: no, we didn’t play Brahms as well as the Guarneri, but we played Bartok really well. And that bled into everything. It’s also when we started using amplification and it’s when we did Steve Reich’s Different Trains.”

In 1982, Kronos gathered at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco to record its “official” debut,In Formation, on the niche Reference Recordings label. It included compositions by Benshoof, Derek Thunes, Hunt Beyer, Alan Dorsey, John Geist, John Whitney, David Kechley, and others.Fanfare wasted no time heaping praise on the album: “In imaging, transient accuracy, and timbre, one of the finest string quartet discs ever issued.”

A Pervasive Presence

By the close of its first decade, Kronos had released nine albums, including several landmark recordings on the Nonesuch label, introduced chamber music to a generation of rock, pop, and jazz fans, and redefined the terms for chamber groups in fundamental ways that led even the buttoned-down Emersons to employ lighting design and theatrical elements onstage.

“In a larger sense the Kronos influence is everywhere,” the New York Times concluded in 2010. “Iconoclastic artists of all musical persuasions mingle and collaborate in clubs like Le Poisson Rouge and performance spaces like the Issue Project Room. No one blinks when alternative-rock acts like Sufjan Stevens and Dirty Projectors work with chamber ensembles and orchestras in a manner that extends beyond luxurious window dressing for one, down-market slumming for the other. Composers who cut their teeth on rock, hip-hop, and electronica apply those influences in their concert works, then run out to play in their own bands.

“Those developments may have been inevitable, but Kronos got there first and showed just what could be done. In intuiting the shape of things to come with his reimagined string quartet, Mr. Harrington had a hand in inventing the future.”

Kronos shows no sign of retreating from its mission to change the music world, and change the world through music. “People who regularly go to concerts have somehow convinced themselves that music is a refuge, that it’s a place to hide from the world of thoughts and ideas and action,” Harrington told the Daily Beast last spring. “I’m intending to spend the rest of my life attempting to change that perception.”

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