On November 16, the University District’s historic Neptune Theater buzzed with energy as an excited crowd packed into the auditorium’s two tiers. Fans young and old came to help the Kronos Quartet celebrate their 40th anniversary as an ensemble. The Grammy Award-winning string quartet is renowned for their adventurous globe-trotting repertoire and support of contemporary composers. In their forty-year history, the ensemble has commissioned over 800 works. Not content to stay within the boundaries of the classical, jazz, and rock genres, Kronos has thrived on decades of exploring the world’s musical traditions, including collaborations with top artists from around the globe.
What many listeners might not know is that Kronos, based in San Francisco since 1978, was actually born in Seattle. The brainchild of a young University of Washington violinist named David Harrington, the group played its first concert in Seattle in November 1973. Three of Kronos’s original members still perform with the quartet, with Harrington and John Sherba on violins and Hank Dutt on viola. Cellist Sunny Yang joined the group in June 2013, after the departure of Jeffrey Zeigler.
Though a Kronos Quartet performance always promises to be fresh and unique (the ensemble has never played the same program twice) the ensemble pulled out all the stops for their 40th anniversary bash at the Neptune. Almost as much of a love letter to Seattle as a celebration of Kronos’s career, the evening was packed with collaborations featuring several of Seattle’s hottest artistic luminaries. Local composer Jherek Bischoff, a rising star on the national stage, joined the quartet for a performance of his work “A Semiperfect Number,” commissioned in honor of Kronos’ anniversary. Towering over the other musicians, the lanky composer brandished his bass guitar like a rock star, propelling the textured piece along with emphatic waves of chords.
Along with “A Semiperfect Number,” the first half of the evening featured a cornucopia of pieces that spanned Kronos’s entire history, with Bischoff’s piece representing 2013 and Seattle composer Ken Benshoof‘s “Traveling Music” paying homage to the quartet’s early years. Back in 1974, the fledgling Kronos Quartet commissioned their very first work. According to popular legend, the four music students paid Benshoof a commission fee of “a dozen donuts and a cup of coffee” for “Traveling Music.” It’s easy to see why the youthful Kronos Quartet was drawn to Benshoof’s writing. The three-movement work weaves jazz, bluegrass, and folk influences into its pleasantly meandering melodies. Benshoof was on hand at the Neptune for the performance, joining Kronos onstage to accept a box of donuts and round of hugs from the ensemble.
Composed in 1960, Krzyzstof Penderecki’s “Quartetto per archi” is the musical equivalent of a Jackson Pollack painting — blots of sound splat in a seemingly random manner, from sudden taps and scratches to deliberate, drawn-out tremolos. A performance of this abstract work could easily be bewildering for audiences, but Kronos brings it back down to earth with a clever tactic: reading from a scrolling video of the score that’s projected onto the stage wall, a technique that Kronos has employed with this piece in the past. The result is fascinating, inspiring audience members to appreciate the sheer technical difficulty of the work. The projection enables the audience to watch the complex score unfold as the music is played and associate each sound with a visual symbol or marking.
Other pieces in the program’s first half represented Kronos’s commitment to musical diversity and genre bending. Performance artist Laurie Anderson‘s “Flow” created a lovely, wistful soundscape that ended all too soon. Guitarist Bryce Dessner of the rock band The National composed his work “Tenebrae” for Kronos in 2011. The piece explores the concepts of light and darkness with layers of sound, incorporating Kronos’s live performance with pre-recorded snippets. An arrangement of singer Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words” provided contrast to the newer works on the program. Originally recorded in the 1930s, the song captures the emerging soulfulness of early blues tunes.
Anticipation grew during intermission as stagehands placed fluorescent tube lights and candles on the stage, forming a large, glowing rectangle, a stage-within-a-stage for dancer Haruko Nishimura of Degenerate Art Ensemble. The experimental group combines aspects of modern dance, Japanese Butoh, and Western performance art traditions to create dark, fantasy-inspired pieces. Based in Seattle, they’ve garnered accolades and acclaim throughout the artistic community and were featured in an exhibition at the Frye Art Museum in 2011. At the Neptune, it seemed that everyone was excited to see what they were able to cook up in their dream-come-true collaboration with Kronos Quartet.
Occupying the entire second half of the program, Joshua Kohl’s “Warrior” begins in darkness. Mysterious figures clad in white spacesuits file through the auditorium, chanting alternating syllables. The procession mounts the stage, where the musicians of Kronos await. Together, the string quartet and spacesuit chorus introduce Nishimura, who steps into her glowing box clad in a stunning white bodysuit, each of her legs encased in a thick, puffy layer of white feathers. Nishimura moves deliberately to the drone-like, ritualistic music as video clips are projected on the wall behind her. Her motions evoke pantomime; she’s running frantically, battling an unseen foe with karate-like kicks and punches, and bobbing around underwater.
As part of Degenerate Art Ensemble’s Predator Songstress series, “Warrior” tells the story of “an indigenous rebel taking back a modern city from its colonizers.” Though this plot evokes themes of racial injustice, Western imperialism, and female empowerment, the piece didn’t seem to tackle any of these issues head on. Instead, most of the work’s energy went towards depicting the plot in a literal fashion. A skilled dancer with an impressive range of movement, Nishimura is captivating to watch, whether she’s aggressively springing into a crouch with hands dramatically smacking the stage or tumbling head-over-heels in slow, deliberate somersaults. Despite its slick aesthetic appeal, “Warrior” ultimately felt more like an artistic representation of one of history’s many heroine myths than the powerful contemporary retelling I was expecting.
After “Warrior,” the members of Kronos took the stage for an encore, filling the Neptune with the stadium-rock sound of “Death is the Road to Awe” from science-fiction film The Fountain. With a driving rhythm track in the background, the quartet blazed their way through the piece with strings wailing and an energy level through the roof.
After decades of intensive touring and countless performances, many top-notch string quartets begin to fade as members inch towards retirement. Not the case with Kronos. Harrington, Sherba, and Dutt are still at the top of their game, delighting audiences with their technical mastery and passionate playing. The addition of Yang gives the ensemble an extra boost of fresh, youthful energy, with show-stopping cello chops to boot. But what’s perhaps the most impressive about these four musicians is the sense of unity in their performances. Together, they throw themselves headlong into the music they play — whether it hails from the 20th century avant-garde, ancient Chinese folk traditions, or something entirely new — and inspire us to follow.
Originally published in The SunBreak on December 2, 2013.