"I'm always looking for musical answers to social problems," says David Harrington, founder and first violinist of the Kronos Quartet.
For almost thirty years, Kronos has been producing avant-garde art for the masses, demonstrating on over 50 albums that aesthetic experimentation and radical politics can and often do go together. From their notorious rendition of Jimi Hendrix' "Purple Haze" to the searing anti-war statement of George Crumb's Black Angels, Kronos has chronicled the soul of the 20th century. In premiering over 400 new works for string quartet, from minimalist Philip Glass to tango composer Astor Piazzola, they've also expanded the vocabulary of their instruments well beyond what Bach or Vivaldi ever imagined.
This year Harrington, John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Jennifer Culp (replacing long-time cellist Joan Jeanrenaud) revealed another remarkable facet with the release of Nuevo, a work that springs from a longtime obsession with the densely layered musical landcape of Mexico.
"When you visit Mexico the world of sound is just colliding into your eardrums there," says Harrington, speaking recently from his home in San Francisco. "It wakes up your whole imagination as a musician. You feel like you've never heard as much music as you're hearing now."
"It's a very exciting musical experience to just walk down the street in Mexico City," Harrington recalls. "I wanted to find a way of telling that story, of what it's like to be a musician encountering this incredible sophistication and depth and sense of time and history."
The choice of rock en español producer Gustavo Santaolalla, who tweaks records for some of the Distrito Federal's hottest indie rockers, proved crucial to realizing Harrington's vision for Nuevo. As the producer for the indie rock group Café Tacuba, who combines everything from ranchera to heavy metal into a distinctly hip, distinctly Mexican sound, the eclectic Santaolalla was able to push the quartet into radically new territories.
"Gustavo is very creative, very imaginative, very instinctive," says Harrington. Over 30 days--the longest post-production in Kronos' history--Santaolalla transformed their sound so completely that even longtime fans might be challenged at times to recognize them. Rest assured, though: that's no distorted brass band blaring from a transistor radio on "El Sinaloense." Nor are you listening to a virtually enhanced "101 Strings" romantic orchestra on their cover of "Perfidia."
"A lot of the work on this album happened in turning our sound into various qualities that we hadn't had before," notes Harrington. "That was something I was really committed to. This album had to propel the world of Kronos into a totally different place than we'd ever been before. That's why we called it Nuevo."
Santaolalla's power to transform one voice into another, morphing pizzicato strings into cathedral bells in mid-note, embodies the album's larger theme of transformation. Reflecting on last September, when the CD was being mixed, Harrington noted that the richness and depth of Mexican history and culture has the power to transform visitors. So, too does the power of art. "Nuevo, for me, had to do with transforming pain into something else, something joyous if possible," he says. "That was the goal of this album."
No strangers to transformations in sound, Kronos has long incorporated rare and unconventional instruments in their recordings. Here we hear maracas, water glasses and a hybrid, trumpet-amplified Stroh violin from the early days of radio recording that Harrington plays on Nuevo's "Tabu." The most unusual instrument heard on the album is undoubtedly a vibrating leaf, played like a reed instrument by one-armed street musician Carlos Garcia. In "Perfidia," it sounds somewhere between a trumpet and a musical saw.
"When I first heard Carlos Garcia [in Mexico City] I was several blocks away from him, and I thought it was a violin," Harrington reminisces. "The closer I got, the stranger this violin sounded. When I was right next to him, then I realized. That experience ... taught me that any object can become a musical instrument, depending on what the performer can extract from it. People think they have to have Steinway pianos, or Stradivariuses, or whatever, all this stuff. When I heard Carlos Garcia, I felt like he was telling the truth with a leaf."
Kronos listened to "hundreds, if not thousands" of CDs as background research for the album, which took seven years to make. "We were hoping to find a way of telling this story so Nuevo was almost like a film," Harrington says. One album featured '60s sound engineer Juan Garcia Esquivel, whose zany collages and early experiments with stereo effects and 3-D sound defined that era's swinging lounge music. Its name was See It In Sound, and it gave them the synaesthetic roadmap they were looking for.
"It blew me away," Harrington remembers. "I wanted [Esquivel] to write an original piece for the album, but his health didn't allow it." When the group went to visit Esquivel, Mexico's patron saint of space-age bachelor pad music did give Kronos his blessing and some advice.
"He said, 'remember the sense of humor.'" Harrington says. "We tried to honor that suggestion." Nuevo delivers with a cover of Esquivel's "Mini Skirt," a medley of retooled telenovela theme songs, rollicking huasteco fiddle music, and a norteña/electronica dance remix by Nortec Collective's Plankton Man.
Mixing play and high seriousness has always been a Kronos specialty. Their albums and concerts have consistently loosened the tie of the stuffed shirts in the classical music establishment. Harrington notes, "Frequently people think that music has to be one thing or another... that it's not real if it's not really serious. I'm always looking for a balance."
The serious side of Nuevo emerges on tracks like Osvaldo Golijov's "K'in Sventa Ch'ul Me'tik Kwadulupe," featuring 1970s field recordings of Chiapas Indians praying to the Virgin of Guadelupe in their indigenous tongue, and "12/12," a 12-minute piece honoring the Virgin's feast day, written and performed by Café Tacuba with Kronos. These reverent observances dedicated to Mexico's symbolic mother show that Nuevo is more than a brief, touristic foray into her lap.
Instead, the album taps deep into Mexico's foundational myth of la raza, a story in which races and cultures mix in often violent, but always compelling ways. Like Mexico's attempts to forge a positive identity out of an ambivalent past, Kronos has always sought music that describes violence and loss while tranforming it into something beautiful.
Though Nuevo may prove too postmodern for Mexico purists, Kronos largely captures in it a Mexican-style ethos of ingenuity, humor, spirituality and infinite variety. Uninterested in the turf wars inspired by critical terms such as postmodern ("I'm probably the only guy on the block who doesn't know what that means") Harrington says, "I look at music as the friction that humans encounter between themselves and the world. The resulting sound is music."
Regional audiences can catch some of that friction this Saturday, when Kronos performs new works and old at Duke's Reynolds Theater.