Kronos Quartet celebrates the spirit of the ’60s

At 47, the path-breaking ensemble continues to look ahead

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Kronos photographed in San Francisco, CA March 26, 2013©Jay Blakesberg
Jay Blakesberg

Kronos Quartet, the string quartet known for adventurous programming, from Hendrix to George Crumb and music from around the world, turns 47 this year, and they are looking both ahead and back.

David Harrington, Kronos’ founder and first violinist, says, “I’m trying to use what we’ve done as a launching pad for what we will do.” And their latest program, which they will bring to Macky Auditorium March 19, demonstrates that perspective.

Titled “Music for Change: The ’60s, the Years that Changed America,” the program is overtly looking back. Indeed, it includes one of the earliest pieces Kronos performed, Steve Reich’s “Pendulum Music” from 1968. But the program also includes new commissions from Kronos, all growing out of a tribute to the turbulent decade of the ’60s.

Harrington explains how he planned a program based on that time: “When I’m thinking about the ’60s, I’m thinking about growing up, I’m thinking about the American war in Vietnam, and I’m thinking of things that feel important now as well.”

In that context, it is not surprising that “Music for Change” focuses on the music and the people who were leaders for change. In addition to Reich’s piece, the program includes music by Jimi Hendrix, the Everly Brothers, Billie Holiday and Mahalia Jackson, with tributes to Studs Terkel, Pete Seeger and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The program opens with Reich’s “Pendulum Music,” in which four microphones swing above speakers, creating feedback with every swing. “It ends in total feedback, the way Hendrix would often end a piece,” Harrington says. And from that, he says, “We start our version of ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ inspired by Hendrix.”

Hendrix’s feedback-infused version of the national anthem he played in 1969 at Woodstock was regarded by some critics as an unpatriotic protest, but he didn’t see it that way. A former paratrooper recruit, Hendrix filtered the anthem through his individual style, as a personal homage to the flag.

“I think of it as the most patriotic version that there is,” Harrington says. 

After Kronos’ version of Hendrix will be an arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun,” a folk song collected by folklorist Alan Lomax in Kentucky in 1937. Of the many recordings from the 1950s and ’60s of this popular ballad, Kronos based their arrangement on the version by the Everly Brothers, which Harrington calls “a defining version of that piece.”

After that they will play a piece that has become a defining statement about American racism: Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit,” as recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939. “It’s hard to know what she was experiencing when she sang it,” Harrington says of Holiday’s performances, which generally closed her concerts in near darkness, with only a single light on her.

“Her voice in that song is at the heart of not only our American music, but our defining problem that is so with us,” Harrington says. 

Two other musicians of the 1960s (and before) will be recognized by collected arrangements: Mahalia Jackson, in “Glorious Mahalia” by Stacy Garrop, featuring the recorded voices of Jackson and broadcaster Studs Terkel, who helped Jackson break the color barrier in broadcasting; and Peter Seeger, in Kronos Quartet & Claire McCahan Celebrate Pete Seeger @ 100, featuring CU music graduate McCahan performing songs inspired by Seeger.

“We are celebrating Seeger because his influence on American music and culture is felt even stronger now than during his life,” Harrington says.

Closing the program will be Peace Be Till by Zachary James Waters, which incorporates the recorded voice of Clarence B. Jones, Martin Luther King Jr.’s speechwriter. “Jones tells how the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech became the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” Harrington says. “It’s pretty amazing to be taken behind the scenes to that moment.”

One piece not on the program that is always in Harrington’s mind as he thinks about the 1960s is George Crumb’s anti-war quartet “Black Angels,” which later became one of Kronos’ most celebrated recordings. “‘Black Angels’ was completed in 1970, but I’m sure it was being formulated in the late ’60s,” Harrington says. 

“The very first time I heard that was in 1973. That’s when Hendrix and Schubert and Bartók and all kinds of experimental music were brought together in one piece. It all made sense, and that’s why I started Kronos.”

Today, Harrington and Kronos remain committed to a vision of a world of understanding and mutual respect. “All of us in Kronos are dedicated to creating energy out of the performances we play, and hopefully through music we can feel connected to different cultures, backgrounds and religions.”  

ON THE BILL: Music for Change: ‘The ‘60s, The Years that Changed America,’ by Kronos Quartet, with special guest Claire McCahan. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 19 Macky Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant St., Boulder. Tickets: 303-492-8008, cupresents.org