David Harrington, founder and leader of the world-famous — and world-traveled — Kronos Quartet, finds it hard to believe the group hasn’t played Cincinnati since 1987. Kronos will be the headliner for both nights of the MusicNOW festival March 11-12 at Memorial Hall in Over-the-Rhine.
Now in its fourth year, the nonprofit festival is the brainchild of Cincinnati native and classically-trained guitarist Bryce Dessner, who is now a member of the popular Brooklyn-based Indie band The National and Chamber group The Clogs.
Other performers this year are The Books and African kora player Toumani Diabate.
“I’m really glad to be coming back,” Harrington says during a phone conversation from Kronos’ San Francisco headquarters before a rehearsal. “It’s such a vital music community, and what’s happening with MusicNOW is great. We’re really looking forward to it.”
When Kronos, which Harrington established in 1973, last played Cincinnati (also at Memorial Hall, in a concert sponsored by Contemporary Arts Center), it was still an acoustic group. That was just before it had recorded perhaps its most famous work — Steve Reich’s then-new “Different Trains,” which used overdubbing and electronic treatments, including vocal samples, in addition to Kronos’ traditional two violins, viola and cello.
“Since 1988, just about every concert we play has been amplified as a result of the music written for us,” Harrington says. By following what Harrington calls an “open ear” approach, Kronos has sought out innovative, daring and unusual 20th (and now 21st) Century music. Often, it has been written for the quartet. To date, as a nonprofit organization, Kronos has commissioned more than 600 new works and new arrangements.
Its albums feature work by everyone from Reich and aligned minimalist composer Terry Riley to Polish composer Henryk Gorecki, ethereal Icelandic rock band Sigur Ros, Jimi Hendrix and Ornette Coleman.
Just last month, Kronos’ version of “Dark Was the Night,” by the Southern blues/spiritual singer Blind Willie Johnson, was released as the title track of a conceptual compilation album — the latest project from the nonprofit Red, Hot organization that raises funds for anti-AIDS efforts. That album was produced by Dessner and his twin brother and fellow National member Aaron.
“The spirit of the festival matches the spirit of David Harrington and Kronos as an institution,” Bryce Dessner says. “Their whole way of being, their influence on contemporary culture, has been what allows a festival like MusicNOW to exist.”
In short, Kronos has made the string quartet hip. For its March 11 show, Kronos will premiere two compositions written for it by members of adventurous rock bands. “Uffe’s Wood Shop,” described by Harrington as “alarmingly fast,” is from Tyondai Braxton (the son of Jazz composer Anthony Braxton) of Battles. And Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire was commissioned to compose “Quartet for Heart and Breath” for Kronos.
“This will be first time we’ve ever used stethoscopes to keep us in line,” Harrington says of Reed Parry’s piece. “It’s for personal alignment; each member of the group is using his own heartbeat and breath rate to control the tempo of the music he’s playing.”
Among the other pieces to be played on March 11 are works by Jim Thirlwell, a pioneering Post Punk rocker best know as Foetus; avant-garde musician John Zorn; Palestinian group Ramallah Underground; and Mexico’s Café Tacuba. On March 12, Kronos’ repertoire will include “Dark Was the Night’; a piece by an unknown Iraqi composer; and a song learned from an old record by dynamic early 20th Century Greek vocalist Marika Papagika.
During its first five years in existence, Harrington’s Kronos went through numerous personnel changes before finding a lineup — Harrington and John Sherba on violin, Hank Dutt on viola and Joan Jeanrenaud on cello. That lasted until 1998, the time when Kronos’ Nonesuch recordings started to be bestsellers. Then Jennifer Culp took over on cello. Today the cellist is Jeffrey Zeigler.
Growing up in Seattle, Harrington heard a recording of Beethoven’s “Opus 127” at age 12 and decided he wanted to play string quartet music.
“It took a while for me to navigate past the late 18th Century/early 19th Century music coming from Vienna,” he says. “I was 14 and realized all the quartet music I had played up that point was written by guys who lived in the same city. It was bizarre to have that realization. I was looking at a globe and realized there were so many other cities in world, so many cultures, and that I wanted to learn more.”
He played his first new piece — by a Seattle composer, Ken Benshoof, who later became his composition teacher — at age 16. Upon graduation from high school, he took a job in the Victoria (British Columbia) Symphony, out of fear he might be drafted for Vietnam. He wasn’t, and when he returned from Canada, he heard modern Classical composer George Crumb’s mournful “Black Angels” — an anti-Vietnam piece written for string quartet — on the radio.
“All of sudden, that music felt like right music,” Harrington says. “Basically, I’ve tried ever since to find the right music to play. Things are always changing and as a musician you try to align yourself with whatever you feel will balance your life. So when we put together a program like what we’re doing in Cincinnati, it’s an attempt to create that.”
KRONOS QUARTET headlines the MusicNOW festival at Memorial Hall March 11-12. For details, visit musicnowfestival.org.