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Kronos Quartet wrestles with musical conventions

Ensemble injects politics into recent performance




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Sunday morning breakfast grins with pleasantries: a wine glass full of cold orange juice, a saucer of white grits covered in cheddar cheese, a plate of potatoes and scrambled eggs, a waitress who refills a waiting coffee cup every five minutes with a grin and eye contact. Then, there's last night's worst memory.

"I thought, 'Holy shit.' I almost didn't know what to say to this guy. I couldn't believe it. What do I have to do? Get up there and give a speech about how much I fucking hate Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice and all of these fucking people that are throwing the world into chaos and killing innocent young people?"

This isn't how David Harrington typically speaks. He's the mild-mannered, calm, 58-year-old leader of the Kronos Quartet, the San Francisco-based institution that's devoted its past 30 years to expanding the repertoire and attitude of classical musicians. Certainly, there's a streak of genuine rebellion in his approach to music, but Harrington—a gray-haired father of two—is an affable man.

Kronos Quartet—David Harrington (left), Jeffrey Zeigler (right), John Sherba and Hank Dutt (hidden)—check their sound Saturday afternoon at Duke. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Kronos Quartet—David Harrington (left), Jeffrey Zeigler (right), John Sherba and Hank Dutt (hidden)—check their sound Saturday afternoon at Duke.

Last night, his quartet received two standing ovations for its world premiere of Monk/Mavericks: Kronos on Innovators in Duke's Reynolds Theater. Harrington had no idea if the program would work, and he admitted to the crowd the quartet was in a state of shock. Anton Webern, Terry Riley, Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra, Harry Partch, John Zorn: Harrington had held these composers in equal admiration for decades. Last night, he finally let those giants stand together, and it felt good.

But at an afterparty three floors below the stage they'd just conquered, a concertgoer asked Harrington about the quartet's intentions for its closer, a fierce feedback-and-abrasion interpretation of "The Star-Spangled Banner" inspired by Jimi Hendrix. The listener said Hendrix had meant it as a political statement, but Kronos hadn't. Harrington, rightfully, didn't understand: The two hours that preceded the encore were dotted with explicitly political statements. During the quartet's interpretation of Allen Ginsberg's 1956 poem Howl, a recorded Ginsberg screamed, "Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river!/ Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!" as the quartet roared beneath the words indignantly. During a three-hour soundcheck that afternoon, Harrington had told the quartet's John Sherba, Hank Dutt and Jeffrey Zeigler, "It's, like, cosmic. It's like yelling at the universe. And we should be doing that, too." The quartet added swagger and rhythm to an electronically manipulated recording of American journalist I.F. Stone reading his own words. As Stone repeated the sentence "There's nothing more unholy in human history than holy war," Kronos bore down with grit and opposition.

Other pieces—like Sun Ra's "Music from the World Tomorrow" and Terry Riley's "Half Wolf Dances Mad in Moonlight"—weren't readily political, but they were central to the renegade cloth Kronos espoused Saturday night. If anything, by the time Kronos filled Reynolds with the screams of "The Star-Spangled Banner," the song was simply the rock-oriented summation of the defiance they'd been championing since 8:10 p.m.

David Harrington in Duke's Reynolds Theater, preparing for Kronos Quartet's world premiere of Monk/Mavericks. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • David Harrington in Duke's Reynolds Theater, preparing for Kronos Quartet's world premiere of Monk/Mavericks.

Last night, Harrington was confused. This morning, he's incensed. Today is the 12th anniversary of his son's death, and that "The Star-Spangled Banner" was as much about anger as it was empathy: "For anyone who's lost a child, which I have, to have this perpetuated in the world is totally unacceptable. That's all there is to it. It just pisses me off on a daily basis."

Indeed, Kronos came to Durham to play the first show of Following Monk, an 18-engagement series celebrating the music of Rocky Mount native Thelonious Monk. But we—as an artistic community proclaiming an interest in uniting sparks of creativity from whomever or wherever they may fly—owe them more than a debt of introduction. With a series of three events that culminated in the 19-piece program Monk/Mavericks Saturday night, Kronos arrived in Durham to offer several questions: What unites creative quests? What unites those creative results? How can someone forge into something creative while staring down the past with veneration? And—when Harrington ran his fingers over a plate covered with water, creating squeaks as the remaining quarters of his quartet played a piece from Einstürzende Neubauten to begin Saturday night's show—he implied that one must know the basics before building anything bigger. Essentially, this: What is music? Or art?

The theme was obvious as early as Thursday night, when Harrington sat behind two CD players and a mixer in the Nasher Museum of Art's grand auditorium and played the music that he's interested in right now from a stack of broken CD cases. Harrington played recordings of Arctic dogs howling in chorus and Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq invoking all sorts of spirits and souls. Finland's Cleaning Women used household items to make rock 'n' roll, and Jon Rose and Hollis Taylor bowed and beat on fences in Australia. The pair is currently building a portable fence for Kronos to play on tour. Over the hour, some audience members dozed off; others giggled; one rubbed her temples and frowned; several left. But, at the end, one attendee admitted these were textures she'd never before imagined. Like the program planned for Saturday night, Thursday's listening session worked to expose alternate ways of communicating and connecting.

Kronos left high standards and big issues for Duke Performances and its audience in the marquee debut of new director Aaron Greenwald. Will Duke continue such bold programming and strive to connect bold thinkers through disparate disciplines? The quartet left similar ideas hanging for anyone committed to removing safety nets ensnaring local creativity, too. Art's as much about disdain as it is adoration, but both responses revolve around questions provoked and proffered like building blocks. Most of the audience belly laughed as Kronos lashed bows covered with extra rosin in the air during a John Zorn piece Saturday night. Some smirked at an electronic beat during Randall Woolf's arrangement of Monk's "'Round Midnight." For better and worse, the pieces Kronos played wrestled with conventional wisdom. Monk challenged rhythm; Zorn challenged framework; Riley challenged color; Stone challenged hypocrisy. They all challenged limits, and Saturday—as it scorched an anthem for the flag in hopes that someone in the audience may better see the place of the maverick—Kronos Quartet challenged us to do the same.

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