Kronos Quartet has been celebrating its 40th anniversary this season – 40 years of upending and then rebuilding our idea of what a string quartet can be. The group’s name was carefully considered: it is not the Kronos String Quartet, but simply Kronos Quartet.
Founding violinist David Harrington has always seen the quartet as a band, whose members happen to play two violins, a viola and a cello. They have also, over the years, spoken and sung and played percussion and string instruments from various world music traditions, handled tape and electronic effects, and remade not only the sound but also the look of a so-called chamber music concert.
And over the course of those 40 years, Kronos has made a lot of recordings, covering everything from contemporary classical to country, from jazz to Jimi Hendrix, from Bollywood film music to Mexican folk music. Kronos’s own website offers 54 releases, but there are contributions to other albums, soundtracks and compilations that bring the grand total to somewhere over 70. It’s an impressive, important and potentially bewildering catalog. With that in mind, here is one person’s completely opinionated list of 10 Essential Kronos Quartet Recordings.
"LOU HARRISON - CHAMBER AND GAMELAN WORK" (2006)
This New World Records reissue of two earlier LPs on the defunct CRI label includes a lovely performance by Kronos of Lou Harrison’s String Quartet Set. This five-movement work offers an overview of Harrison’s eclectic and global musical interests: it begins with a series of variations on a medieval German song (the “Pälestinalied” by the musically-named Walter von der Vogelweide) before moving on to a lyrical lament, an earthy medieval stamping dance, and even a piece that recalls the court music of the Ottoman Turks. Kronos’s performance, about half an hour long, is an easy gateway to both their playing and the genial chamber music of a sadly underrated American composer.
"PIECES OF AFRICA" (1992)
A brightly colored collection of works written by composers representing the major musical regions of Africa. The opener, Mai Nozipo, comes from thumb-piano master Dumisani Maraire, born in Zimbabwe but a longtime resident of the Pacific Northwest; other highlights include White Man Sleeps, based on Zimbabwean and South African music by the “ex-South African” composer Kevin Volans. This is probably his best-known work. There are works from Morocco, Sudan, Tanzania and Ghana, most of them incorporating the strings as part of a kind of hybrid world/chamber music ensemble.
"STEVE REICH - DIFFERENT TRAINS" (1989)
Reich has written several works for Kronos – none more important than this. Different Trains is a genuine masterpiece that weaves together the various threads of Reich’s musical interests over the years, including the idea of finding the hidden music in human speech and the technique of layering similar sounds in rhythmic counterpoint. The work is for three layers of Kronos Quartet, train sounds and the voices of train conductors and Holocaust survivors, as Reich contrasts the American trains he rode on during the early 1940s as a child with the very different trains that Jewish boys his age were riding in Nazi Germany at the same time. The piece is a true journey in sound, and the return of earlier material towards the end, re-harmonized, is like the sun coming out after a storm. Reich won a Grammy for this recording, which included his Pat Metheny-inspired work for multiple electric guitars, Electric Counterpoint.
"GEORGE CRUMB - BLACK ANGELS"(1990)
This is the piece Kronos was born to play. Literally – this is the work that inspired David Harrington, 40 years ago, to form the initial, Seattle-based version of Kronos. This, though, is the “classic” Kronos lineup, formed a short time later when Harrington moved to San Francisco. And Crumb’s piece, written as a cry against the Vietnam war, is still a potent mix of skittering, insectoid darkness and haunting, angelic atmosphere. The album also includes a striking work for tape and quartet by Hungarian minimalist Istvan Marta called Doom. A Sigh. And a surprisingly convincing arrangement of the great 40-voice motet “Spem In Alium” by Thomas Tallis.
"NIGHT PRAYERS" (1994)
This collection focuses on music from the former Soviet Union, specifically the republics in Central Asia and the Caucusus. Having said that, one of the highlights of the record is K’vakkarat, a work for cantorial singing on tape with quartet from the Argentine-born, American-based composer Osvaldo Golijov. This was Kronos’s first collaboration with this now celebrated composer – though it would be far from the last. Other notable moments include Lacrymosa, a beautiful aria of sorts by Uzbeki composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky and featuring the sublime American soprano Dawn Upshaw, and a performance with the Tuvan “throat singing” group Huun-Huur-Tu. Actually, they’re almost all notable moments – the album is dark and moody but a winner throughout.
For this album, Kronos goes south of the border. From the space-age bachelor-pad music of Esquivel to a composition by Silvestre Revueltas to folk music from various Mexican states, Kronos teams up again with Osvaldo Golijov (whose arrangements are themselves worth the price of admission) to show Mexico as a kind of Disneyland of music. Don’t miss the incredibly high and irresistible guest vocals on “El Llorar (Crying)” – if this is the sound of crying, these guys and Kronos make it sound like a party. The album also features Kronos playing with the groundbreaking rock/fusion band Café Tacuba, and even ends with a dance remix. Possibly Kronos’s most infectious album, and one that can turn any day into Cinco de Mayo.
On a more serious note, this collection of works looks at an area of the world bounded by the Balkans in the west, India in the east, Central Asia in the north, and Ethiopia in the south. This is a part of the world where culture grew up around water, and where catastrophic flooding has been both a brake on civilization and a jump start. It is also a part of the world that contains some perennial trouble spots. The Palestinian band Ramallah Underground is represented in an arrangement for Kronos that shouldn’t work, but somehow does. From Iraq comes a traditional song called “O Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me,” whose lovelorn title takes on a sinister meaning in light of recent history. The album contains love songs, dance songs, electronic sounds, and a major work by Serbian composer Alexandra Vrebalov called … hold me, neighbor, in this storm… which is especially striking.
"EARLY MUSIC" (1997)
As the title promises, there is actually some early music here – perhaps a startling move for a quartet whose idea of “early music” had previously been Bartok. But this beautiful (and beautifully sequenced) album includes some very inventive yet convincing arrangements of works by Elizabethan composer John Dowland (sporting harpsichord-like work from Chinese pipa and zither player Wu Man), Master Perotin of Notre Dame, and Guillaume de Machaut. For Kronos, though, early music also means folk fiddling from Scandinavia, Armenian chant, and contemporary composers whose music draws heavily on the sound and the feel of medieval times. So Arvo Pärt is here, as is Harry Partch’s studies on ancient Greek scales. And a riveting account of the late Alfred Schnittke’s Collected Songs Where Every Verse Is Full of Grief– originally a choral work but transcribed beautifully for Kronos.
"WINTER WAS HARD" (1988)
This album served as a kind of audio business card for Kronos in 1988. It announced to anyone listening that Kronos was prepared to claim huge swaths of musical territory for the string quartet, for the first time. NY downtown hero John Zorn, Lounge Lizards founder John Lurie, minimalist founder Terry Riley, and Nuevo tango king Astor Piazzolla were all represented. Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (in its original quartet form) is also here, as if to say that the acknowledged classics and these newer excursions were all equally absorbing. And then there’s the title track. 98 seconds of glowing choral music with strings and pump organ by Finland’s Aulis Sallinen which stands among his finest moments, and Kronos’s too.
"AHEYM: KRONOS QUARTET PLAYS MUSIC BY BRYCE DESSNER" (2013)
Brooklyn’s Bryce Dessner gained fame as one of the twin guitarists (with his brother Aaron) in the popular indie-rock band The National. But he is also classically trained and in recent years has been active in composing works for chamber groups and orchestras. This, the most recent album on the list, came out just a few months ago and contains four pieces that Dessner wrote either for Kronos directly, or, in the case of Tour Eiffel, for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus with a kind of chamber/rock ensemble that included Kronos. Dessner’s works are rhythmically intriguing, his sense of tone-color and texture is keen, and he’s got some top-class musical friends to draw on when needed. (See singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens’s appearance in Tenebre.) The title track is an insistent, rockin’ piece that Kronos – who change their program practically every night – play frequently, either as a barn-burning opener or as a rousing finale.