Tag: Kronos Quartet

A Thousand Thoughts

A few weeks ago, I saw an advert online that mentioned the Kronos Quartet was going to be in town to accompany a documentary at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. After writing an email to my students more-or-less stating, “You need to go to this—please GO!” (and hyperlinking their infamous stint on Sesame Street), I excitedly purchased a ticket myself and offered to drive any student who needed a ride.

The documentary was about the Kronos Quartet members themselves. After a consortium of arts organizations (including the Wexner Center) commissioned filmmaker Sam Green to create one of his “live documentaries” (which pair film footage with the live performance of the soundtrack and narration from the stage), he approached the Kronos Quartet and asked if he could not only make a live documentary about them, but also if they would perform a compilation of their greatest hits while the film about them was playing in real time.

How meta.

Kronos thought this was a brilliant idea.

A Thousand Thoughts chronicles the Kronos Quartet’s 45-year history through Green’s live narration, archival footage, and interviews with various (now) well-known composers and musicians. It tells the story of their early days in San Francisco and all their efforts to transform the stodgy string quartet into something hip and cool. David Harrington, the co-founder of the Kronos Quartet, sums up both the quartet’s mission statement and the thesis of the film in this way:

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. 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.

While I was watching this live documentary, I realized that the Kronos Quartet was not only hip and cool, but also absolutely relevant and meaningful.

How did they do this?

While watching the film and being completely captivated by the wonderfully interwoven live narration, music, and interactions with the audience, there came a point in the story during which the quartet was hit with a slew of devastating tragedies. Cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, who had been with the core quartet for a good 20 years, left the ensemble in 1999 when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Violist Hank Dutt lost his partner to the AIDS epidemic in 1993. And in 1995, David Harrington, the fearless leader of the group, suddenly lost his son during a hiking trip with his family. If the 1990s weren’t bad enough for the quartet personally, they too experienced the tumultuous 2000 presidential election, the 9/11 attacks, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, after the devastation of the losses Harrington and his quartet weathered, and with another controversial war brewing (one that had similarities to the Vietnam War, a war that he protested in his youth), he wondered why he was playing in a string quartet and if making music was worth it.

At that moment in the documentary, I wanted to shout to both the on-screen David Harrington and the on-stage David Harrington, “This is how I felt about the Iraq war too! This is how I feel now! We’re still supposed to make music, right? Please say yes?” And it was at this point that I paid very close attention to the film because I was hoping to discover what I needed to do as a composer when things got rough, depressing, or downright heartbreaking.

I was hoping to discover what I needed to do as a composer when things got rough, depressing, or downright heartbreaking.

In his search, Harrington had an opportunity to chat with Howard Zinn, historian and civil rights activist, about his true purpose in life. He asked, what was his role? What can a normal person (or even an artist person) do in this time to fulfill the needs of other people?

Zinn simply advised Harrington to create something beautiful.

Now, you may have heard something similar to this before. I’m certain that unavoidable Leonard Bernstein quote has resurfaced 11 times in this year alone, the one where Bernstein responds to the assassination of John F. Kennedy by stating, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

However, I’m not only talking about violence or politics here, per se. We should create beautiful and ugly music no matter what—that is our mandate. In fact, we composers and performers have always been commenting on everything and anything that inspires and influences us. Granted, we’ve been indirectly commenting on political things, too. And whether you know it or not, we are always creating a reflection and reaction to the political environment around us.

I just want us all to be aware of it. I want us to be more woke.

Violinist Mark Sokol—American Music Advocate (1946-2014)

[Ed. Note: Violinist Mark Sokol, a founder of the Concord Quartet and a persuasive advocate of music by American composers, died on November 28 at his home in Sebastopol, California. He was 68. In addition to being an important musician in his own right, he mentored many top players, including David Harrington of Kronos Quartet who shares his memories of Sokol below.]

Historic B&W photo of Jacovin String Quartet playing their instruments.

The Jacovin Quartet, circa 1966 (L to R): Mark Sokol, David Harrington, Sylvia Spengler, and David Campbell. Photo courtesy of the Harrington family.

When I was 16, Mark was like the big brother I never had. He was always a little larger than life. I had my first beer with him, my first cigarette. We’d stay up half the night on Fridays and Saturdays listening to Elliott Carter or Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite after having played quartets until we dropped. He was a Juilliard Quartet fanatic and I got to know all of their recordings. We compared many performances of many groups. There was a time when I could pretty much tell any group on record by their sound. This obsession started at Mark’s place.

The instrument I have played in Kronos for nearly 41 years was the violin Mark played when he, David Campbell, Sylvia Spengler, and later Audrey King and I played together in the Jacovin Quartet. I played my very first world premiere with this group in 1965—Ken Benshoof’s Piano Quintet. We all played in the Seattle Youth Symphony conducted by Mark’s dad, Vilem Sokol, who was also both Mark’s and my violin teacher at the time. I might not have met Ken had it not been that Mark already knew him and had asked him to write a Piano Quintet.

Mark was borrowing the violin I now play from a foundation in Seattle. I always loved the sound Mark made on it. He had to return it when he went to Juilliard as I recall. I heard about this turn of events and then got to use the violin. Later the foundation went out of business and I was able to buy ‘my’ violin for $1,200, most of which Regan (Harrington) earned as a hotel maid at the Meany Hotel where Bartok had stayed when he came to Seattle in 1945.
Mark went off east to study, later formed the Concord Quartet, and had a very successful career for many years. I learned a lot from the trajectory of his work. The Concord Quartet was a Naumburg prize winner, got a management contract and was very prominent. The group had a close connection to Robert Mann of the Juilliard Quartet. In fact, Mark named his first child Robert. I think Mark eventually found a way to ge

t a Stradivarius. Meanwhile, I was making an in depth study of various quartets and how they all negotiated our society.
Kronos got started in Seattle in 1973, and the path I chose was much different—more home-spun, working from things I knew and then moving out from there. The first piece written for Kronos was Traveling Music by Ken Benshoof, who has remained my close friend and was even my composition teacher. Mark and I had several meetings and calls over those early years of Kronos. I remember once he came to our apartment in Seattle and brought an LP of the Concord Quartet’s performance of George Rochberg’s String Quartet No. 3 for me and we listened to it together. What an astonishing recording.

Eventually he came to San Francisco and taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The last time I saw Mark was at an Afiara Quartet concert at the Conservatory on 19th and Ortega. That’s quite a while ago now. He had recommended to them that they call me regarding Peteris Vasks’s String Quartet No. 4, which was written for Kronos and which he was coaching them on. That’s how I ended up working with the Afiara.

I wish that Mark and I had been able to be closer these last 25 years or so. But there is no way to force that sort of thing.
Music has lost a really vital, passionate force.

Historic B&W photo of Jacovin Quartet members holding their instruments and talking.

Another photo of the Jacovin Quartet, circa 1966. (Mark Sokol is on the far left.) Photo courtesy of the Harrington family.

New England’s Prospect: Anniversary Waltzes—Kronos @ 40 in Providence

The end of Kronos Quartet’s concert in Providence on November 8 was almost designedly apt. At the close of Kareem Roustom’s A Voice Exclaimed (a world premiere), Kronos—surrounded onstage by faculty and students from Providential superheroes Community MusicWorks—began sending snatches of Middle-Eastern-tinted melody out into the Rhode Island School of Design Auditorium. These melodies were promptly echoed back by a sudden ingress of even more MusicWorks students, processing in from the back and sides of the hall. Kronos, the pied pipers of contemporary string quartet music, had enticed another crowd into their circle.

Kronos Quartet is celebrating its 40th season, a significant milestone; having that on the brain might be why I kept hearing the concert, on the whole, as a musical version of one of those married couples who grow to look like each other. Kronos played mostly recent works that all, nevertheless, had a kind of essential Kronos-ness about them: making reference to specific international vernaculars, utilizing Kronos’s flair for using extended techniques and intonations to evoke indigenous instruments, wrapping the whole thing up in a package of rock-and-roll energy and curated cool. I wouldn’t begrudge them any of it. After four decades, Kronos is still a new music group that takes its citizenship in the new music community seriously: show me another ensemble that has given more composers both the opportunity and the benefit of a meticulous, passionate performance. They’ve withstood their share of personnel changes, particularly on the cello—Sunny Yang is now there, joining violist Hank Dutt and violinists John Sherba and David Harrington—but their performance standards remain impeccable. The music they cultivate might be geared to what they do well, but what they do well, they do better than anyone.

Kronos Quartet

Kronos Quartet
Photo by Jay Blakesberg.

That said, the sort of genre-play at the heart of a lot of Kronos’s commissioned repertoire is not without its compositional perils. Roustom’s new work, the evening’s centerpiece—an expression of hope for his Syrian birthplace in the face of appalling violence—was the most effective of the evening’s Kronos commissions, mainly, I think, because his crossing of genres, his strategy of adapting Arabic musical materials to Western forms came with a certain clarity of purpose. When it works, Roustom’s use of familiar, firmly outlined formal patterns makes it easy to tune into the rhetorical novelties of the unfamiliar modes. This was especially beguiling in the second movement, “Consolation,” a call and response derived from a Syrian Christian hymn: Kronos would play a phrase in Arabic temperament, and the MusicWorks players would answer in Western equal temperament, a pattern that actually brought out additional, unexpected expressive subtleties in both intonations. And Arabic rhythmic cells made effective, Beethovenian motives threading their way through the outer movements.

The mix of expectations didn’t always play out: the mismatch between Roustom’s slow, static harmonic rhythm and developmental structures that, in the classical tradition, rely on increasing harmonic momentum meant that often the music was stuck at a low simmer just when it seemed necessary to boil over into the return of a theme or a section. Still, Roustom’s managing of the needs of both the forces—a triple quartet (one of which was expanded with additional players) of varying abilities, plus the extra theater at the end—and the needs of the occasion was skillful. A Voice Exclaimed provided a showcase for Kronos, the exceptional work MusicWorks is doing, and the sense of community involvement and pride that MusicWorks has fostered. That theatrical ending tied together the whole package—the piece, the players, the production, the process.
The first half of the concert was all Kronos, a mix of commissioned originals and arrangements, the provenance neatly dividing into music that imposed elements of genre and music that inhabited them. The commissioned works alternated between folk and pop costuming. Bryce Dessner’s Aheym reworked the musical colors of Eastern European Jewish immigrants into aggressive ostinati. Nicole Lizée’s Death to Kosmische looked to deconstruct the heavily synthesized Krautrock of the early ’70s—Popol Vuh, Tangerine Dream—going so far as to have the players put down their strings and pick up, periodically, a stylophone and an omnichord, redolently obsolete. Alexandra Vrebalov’s …hold me, neighbor, in this storm… had even more going on: Harrington and Sherba doubling on a Balkan gusle and double-headed drum, respectively; a recorded overlay of bells and thunder and calls to prayer; the full toolbox of Kronos’s imitative skills—microtonal inflections, expressively widened vibrato—brought to bear.
The arrangements were a similar old-and-new playlist. Judith Berkson’s transcription of Alter Yechiel Karinol’s “Sim Sholom” turned its pre-WWI cantillation into a fluid, florid solo for Yang’s cello, barely and simply accompanied by the other three. Jacob Garchik’s version of Laurie Anderson’s “Flow” used the instruments’ long-bowed abilities as a canvas for the song’s wisps of gently jostling triads. For an encore, Kronos slipped into Garchik’s arrangement of Greek-American chanteuse Marika Papagika’s 1918 “Smyrneïko Minore,” a slyly woozy bit of romance that turns briefly, bracingly frisky.

The programming was clever—while the arrangements were all bunched together, each seemed to have its counterpart among the original pieces: “Sim Sholom” and Aheym surveying the diaspora; “Smyrneïko Minore” and …hold me, neighbor, in this storm… a yin and yang of Balkan life; “Flow” and Death to Kosmische paying tribute to pop influences. Roustom’s piece had its programmatic partner, as well: another Garchik arrangement, of Omar Souleyman’s “La Sidounak Sayyada,” envelope-pushing Syrian pop music at its finest.

That sense of invention—Souleyman’s rhythms so happily furious as to threaten to overrun the meter—was, in the end, stronger in the arranged pieces than in the originals: they had the ebullience and fizz that comes with working within a genre rather than merely with it. Part of that is Kronos’s skill at curation, certainly; but part of it is also the difference between aiming for a style and inhabiting one—even, perhaps, looking to get out. Aheym was energetic and accomplished; but “Sim Sholom” was something considerably more mysterious and sublime. Lizée’s dismantling of very particular pop tropes, halting and dreamlike by turn, was diverting; but that Anderson/Garchik “Flow” was simply one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever heard.

Prior to A Voice Exclaimed, Kronos and the MusicWorks players joined for an older Kronos commission, John Oswald’s 1990 Spectre. The music grows out of the sounds of the instruments tuning up; at its height, Oswald—drawing on his Plunderphonics proclivities—brings in 1001 pre-recorded quartets, a jet-like din over which the live players then exaggeratedly mime a performance. As the recorded quartets shift into pizzicato, the live players again join in, and the piece winds down in a plucked fog. It’s a deftly, almost daftly simple piece, a gag, an idea, a trajectory, and not much else. But it’s concise enough not to wear out its welcome, and the execution has flair. Its arranged complement? Kronos’s final encore, Raymond Scott’s familiar-from-cartoons classic, “Powerhouse.” It could have been a reminder that, if you’re going to play with genre, you shouldn’t forget to also play.

After Kronos: Next Steps for Jeffrey Zeigler

Two weeks ago, the new music world received the news that there would be a new face with the Kronos Quartet. Cellist Jeffrey Zeigler had decided to move on from the group and come back to New York City, while Kronos announced the addition of 28-year-old Sunny Jungin Yang to fill the cello position beginning in May. Just a couple days after the announcement, I was able to speak with Jeff about this important change in his career and what adventures lay ahead for him.

Jeffrey Zeigler

Jeffrey Zeigler

Rob Deemer: How did you first join up with Kronos?

Jeffrey Zeigler: Before I joined Kronos, I had been playing with the Corigliano Quartet for about six years. At a certain point I decided that I needed to change direction, so I moved back to New York to pursue a career as a freelance musician. I had lived in New York previously but had never given freelancing life a real shot. I thought it would be an exciting and dynamic life, just like the city itself. I started doing some chamber music concerts and some off-off-off-off Broadway shows, but I knew that the area that I really wanted to get involved in was the contemporary music scene. I eventually found myself in a recording session with the group, counter)induction. It turned out that the producer of the recording was Judy Sherman, whom I had worked with many times with the Corigliano Quartet. She asked me what I was doing that summer. I proudly told her that I had no plans at all since I had recently accepted a teaching position at Smith and Mt. Holyoke Colleges and my girlfriend (composer Paola Prestini, now my wife) and I were planning on taking a summer trip down to Mexico! Two days later, I got a call from David Harrington, and the rest is history.

RD: Can you shine some light into your decision to move on from the quartet?

JZ: I’ve been playing with the quartet for eight seasons now, and it’s been both amazing and fantastic. The organization, the music-making, the artists and composers we work with—it’s really been a wonderful time and I feel so fortunate to have had a front row seat to some of the most innovative and creative work that’s going on anywhere. But just as a spoiler alert, there’s no juicy story here—David, John, Hank, and I are working together extremely well up to this very minute, and we’ll continue to be friends and colleagues for life after I step down in May. I’ve made some really strong friendships here, and I feel very supported by the entire organization.

The reasons why I’ve made the decision to step down from Kronos are three-fold. One is that I’ve been itching to get involved with various solo projects and collaborations. I’m looking forward to working with several composers on my own and to get the chance to collaborate with other artists. On an extremely limited basis, I was able to branch out a little while playing with the quartet. But because of the intense touring and recording schedule I just found it impossible to find the right balance of time.
The second part is that I had never imagined a career without teaching. This is an idea that’s been embedded in my mind from the start. I was once told by one of my cello teachers that a life in chamber music goes hand-in-hand with teaching. I am very excited to able to join the faculty at Mannes College The New School For Music and I look forward to working with my new colleagues.
The third reason is my family. Although touring is an important part of any musician’s life, Kronos is on the road for almost six months a year. I have a young family and I miss my wife and young son every day when I’m out of town. I think that this will be a healthier way for me to balance my time between touring and my at-home life.

RD: So what are the new projects that you’re working on?

JZ: There are a number of collaborations that I’m very excited about. Three projects I’m working on right now include a trio with the German pianist Hauschka and the Finnish drummer Samuli Kosminen; another is a collaboration with [jazz pianist] Vijay Iyer, [bassist] Scott Colley and [drummer] Satoshi Takeishi; and finally a duo with [pianist] Alessio Bax. I’m also going be premiering a new cello concerto by the Canadian composer Scott Good. This is an especially interesting piece because it’s a concerto for cello with jazz band—it’s mostly written out but there are some improv sections as well—and I’ll be premiering it with the Vancouver-based Hard Rubber Orchestra later this year.

I have a couple of solo albums that I’m working on at the moment along with several new commissions by Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner, Glenn Kotchke, Anna Clyne, Mohammed Fairouz, Richard Reed Perry, and also my interviewer, Rob Deemer! For more info and details, please check out my new website.

I would also like to point out that much of this will be difficult to bring to life unless we reach our Kickstarter fundraising goal! I’m currently involved in a two-month funding campaign through Kickstarter that we’re about 80% through with one week left. This will support the creation of the recording label of VisionIntoArt, the organization directed by my wife, Paola Prestini. The three initial recordings on this new label will include a Double Violin Requiem by Anna Clyne, Paola’s opera Oceanic Verses, and my solo album.
Being a part of this campaign recently inspired me to write a blog post on Paul Katz’s site, CelloBello. The piece looks at Alix Spiegel’s NPR story on Robert Cialdini and the Rules of Reciprocation and how they relate to our current trends in fundraising.
RD: I noticed recently that Mannes has just hired a number of high-profile musicians to their faculty in addition to yourself, including pianist Jeremy Denk, composer Missy Mazzoli, and violinist Miranda Cuckson. What’s driving these new additions and how did your working with them come about?

JZ: Richard Kessler is a real visionary—we’ve known each other for several years—and he has new ideas on how to bring the conservatory into the 21st century and beyond. Obviously the world has changed quite a bit over the past 100 years, especially for musicians, but the core curriculum for conservatories has hardly changed in that time. Richard is very aware of this dichotomy and I think he’s looking for new ways to innovate and truly prepare today’s musician for tomorrow. I admire his vision and I’m looking forward to working there with all of that uptown excitement.

RD: Any closing thoughts?

JZ: The eight years I’ve spent with Kronos have been eight wonderful years and I feel so much gratitude to my colleagues and the organization for a wonderfully creative and supportive time, especially as we take this next step into the future. I think that Sunny Yang will be a great fit for the quartet. As for myself, I’m very excited to be moving back to New York City with my family and to embark on all of these new adventures.