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The Quirky Kronos Quartet

Stephanie DePrez | Friday, March 27, 2009

There is one thing to remember when listening to the Kronos Quartet: they are not a string quartet. They are, in fact, a “new music ensemble.” What does this mean to the average listener? It means they are somewhere between Stravinsky and Arcade Fire – and nowhere near Mozart.

Kronos was started in 1973 by David Harrington, who decided to form the group after hearing a Vietnam-inspired piece by known avant-garde composer George Crumb. He decided to delve into the new musical tradition of music that is off the beaten path. Born from the avant-garde movement, the Kronos Quartet has played and recorded music that varies from Shostakovich and Webern to Thelonious Monk to Jimmy Hendrix.

Their unique interest in minimalistic music and anything with an unusual rhythm has led them to run the musical gamut a few times over. They have collaborated with Bollywood artist R.D. Burman (giving them a distinct Indian sound), appeared on the album “Late in the 20th Century” (next to a Romanian woman’s choir), can be found on the new release for AIDS awareness “Dark was the Night” (along with Sufjan Stevens and Iron and Wine), and were commissioned to write an ode to earth by NASA. They have appeared with Dawn Upshaw, Dave Matthews, and Nine Inch Nails. The heart-stopping music in “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain”? Yeah, that was these guys.

There is nothing they cannot do, and for that matter, nothing they will not do.

Tonight they will be premiering a piece by Terry Riley, famed minimalist composer. According to Harrington, Riley’s “In C” in 1964 was a marked change in music. “All the sudden people thought about music differently,” says Harrington. “There was no more hierarchy of musicians. It was a community of music.” Riley has since become one of the most famous composers of minimalism.

The premier tonight of “Transylvania Horn Courtship” will be the 24th collaboration between Riley and Kronos. It will be unique for Kronos in many ways, one being the addition of on-stage sampling, creating a musical loop in the middle of the piece they can play over. “We’ve never done sampling in a show before,” says Harrington.

The next thing one might notice about the piece is that Kronos isn’t playing normal instruments. Instead, the instruments look like someone took a violin and a trumpet and bashed them together. Instead of a cello, there is a long neck with strings and what looks like the head of a phonograph sticking out of the bottom.

These instruments are actually recreations instruments from Thomas Edison’s time. Because string instruments had a hard time being picked up by an Edison cylinder, musicians would put the round, flaring part of a horn near the strings to amplify the sound. Kronos had these instruments recreated for this piece by an artist and instrument maker in San Francisco. Since they were originally made for Edison’s cylinder players by an Eastern European man, Riley was inspired to use the name Transylvania.

The instruments used for “Transylvania Horn Courtship” are a strange, jarring blend of brass and strings that signifies some sort of quirky relationship between the two. The dichotomy is strangely appropriate for Kronos, who pride themselves on their musical diversity and openness to literally anything that comes their way. Watching them play, it seems to make sense. As Harrington said, challenges came with “learning to play completely new instruments. There has never been a piece we’ve played in 35 years that has required as many aspects”

But why premier a piece at Notre Dame? “Anne Thompson [executive director of the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center] invited us to make a project that would be joyous,” says Harrington. “It’s been a wonderful experience with Terry Riley. This piece is the most joyous we could put together, this piece for this occasion.”

The collaborative team that calls itself the Kronos Quartet is a musical feat to be marveled. For over thirty years, they have been redefining contemporary music in all its forms, from metal to movie scores to minimalism. They are an American institution, and their appearance at the Leighton Concert Hall in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center will be a night to remember.