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April 09, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, April 09, 2004

Kronos breaks new ground -- again Kronos breaks new ground -- again (April 09, 2004)

Legendary quartet to feature work by young composer

by Marge Speidel

Violinist David Harrington's relentless pursuit of new and often experimental music has kept the Kronos Quartet on the cutting edge for more than 30 years.

Since its earliest days, the quartet has dedicated itself to presenting contemporary composers (and, once in a while, reworking rock standards) to audiences unaccustomed to the notion that classical music is as immediate and relevant to modern times as any other art form.

In that spirit, Harrington's legendary group will perform a newly commissioned work at Stanford by the winner of the "Under 30 Project" -- a competition for young composers started a year ago by Kronos. The concert will take place April 16.

"This is part of an idea we (members of the quartet) came up with when we reached our 30th anniversary last year and realized that there were many composers out there whose experience was circumscribed by our 30 years of existence," Harrington said in a telephone interview from Urbana, Ill., where Kronos played last weekend.

The competition attracted 350 scores and tapes for the quartet to consider. A piece by Mexican composer Felipe Perez Santiago, "Camposanto," was their unanimous choice for 2004.

"He has written this marvelous piece for us," Harrington said. "It starts with a prerecorded Kronos section, then a beautiful electronic rhythm track, then we play the live part. It's a multi-layered piece and one I think our listeners will find astonishing."

Such musical discoveries are not unique for Harrington, who is known for his inexhaustible enthusiasm for new music.

"I spend a good part of my days and nights listening and learning about the world of music," Harrington said. "People know that I do, and I receive records and tapes every day. I might get behind, but I will catch up. It's like assembling a vast collection of the human experience."

Since the Kronos plays more than 100 concerts a year, many of them abroad, time is precious.

"When I go into a record store, I don't leave until I've gone through every section," Harrington said. "Rap, hip-hop, jazz, country western, opera, all of it. I feel this responsibility to learn whatever is a part of music. When something resonates with me, I try to find a way to get it into the Kronos repertoire."

Perez Santiago's piece examines death ("Camposanto" can be loosely translated as "graveyard"). In an e-mail interview, the 23-year-old native of Mexico City said "I locked myself for 10 weeks in a studio in Amsterdam to produce "Camposanto." It relates to my two previous string quartets, the first, El Ansia, based on a movie called 'The Hunger,' which relates to death and the second, Cempoal, also based in the Mexican death tradition."

In a program note, Perez Santiago pointed out that in Mexican culture, the graveyard is also a place for celebration. Death, as well as birth, is observed in a festive manner.

Harrington loves to draw on the music of lesser-known nations. The Stanford program will also offer the West Coast premiere of a piece written by an Ethiopian saxophone player, Getatchew Mekurya.

"His music is inspired by a vocal form of Ethiopian music. He altered it from battle music to become instrumental, and then we altered it for a string quartet,' Harrington said.

Also on Friday's program is a number by legendary jazz bassist/composer Charles Mingus.

"He's one of our favorite composers. Toward the end of his life he was going to write for us, but it didn't happen," Harrington said. "This is a fantastic piece of music, a beautiful melodic part countered by a shocking rhythm."

April 16 will mark Kronos' 17th appearance at Stanford. The group's membership includes Harrington on first violin, cellist Jennifer Culp, second violinist John Sherba and violist Hank Dutt.

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