Kronos Quartet isn't your typical string quartet, if there is such a thing. That's been true from nearly the beginning. Case in point: the group delivered a wicked rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" years before Metallica made it cool for an orchestra to rock out. According to Kronos founder, David Harrington, the decision to cover Hendrix was rather whimsical.
"The initial entrance into performing the music of Hendrix was really simple," he says in a phone interview. "In about 1979, we were playing a new version of Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring' at Mills College. This is for quartet and piano. I was thinking, 'What's going to happen if we have to do an encore after 'Rite of Spring'? What could we possibly play?' The only thing that came to my mind was 'Purple Haze.' I just couldn't think of anything else. That's how we got into it."
Harrington grew up in Hendrix's hometown of Seattle, which is also where he formed Kronos in 1973. Though he's played classical music in a string quartet since he was 12, Harrington listened to Hendrix in the '60s and says the rock guitarist's music is as complex as anything by the classical composers and jazz musicians that also influenced his musical taste.
"As far as I'm concerned, the incredible virtuosity and imagination of Jimi Hendrix has been part of my world since the late '60s," he says. "It feels very natural to be performing his music."
From a layman's perspective, Kronos is one of classical music's only crossover acts. Over the years, the group has collaborated with the Icelandic indie act group Sigur Ros and Latin alternative rockers Café Tacuba, among others. Performance artist and avant-garde singer-songwriter Laurie Anderson is a regular collaborator (she's also written an "evening-length" piece for the group that it will debut on its current tour). All in all, some 400 works have been written explicitly for the Kronos Quartet. But to hear Harrington tell it, the group didn't set out to become a crossover sensation.
"There aren't dividing lines in music," he says. "If you go into a record store, there's the opera section and the death metal section and pop this and pop that and world this and world that. I don't hear music that way. There aren't these little fences. It's not like being 30,000 feet in the air and looking at all the ranches in the Midwest and everything is divided with these fences. To me, that's not how music works. We encounter things as listeners that magnetize and strike us in one way or another, depending on what's happening in our lives. It's like moths being attracted to light. We have to go to the music that pulls us and that changes from time to time."
As the group has achieved international fame, its music has taken shape from a variety of cultures. The Cleveland Museum of Art concert will feature an eclectic mix of music, including Steve Reich's "WTC 9/11," Bryce Dessner's "Aheym," Laurie Anderson's "Flow" and Dan Becker's "Carrying the Past." The group also intends to play a piece by Syria's Omar Souleyman — he was a hit at one of the CMA's Summer Solstice concerts a few years back. The concert will conclude with a piece by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov.
Harrington says he keeps a running list of music to listen to — and that list continues to grow too quickly for him to keep up with.
"In the case of someone like me, to feel like I'm truly alive in this vast world of music, there's a lot to do," he says. "I will never run out of things to do. I can tell you that. That's not even possible. Every day there are more cool things that I can't wait to try to do. So far, I don't think they've made days any longer. At least I haven't found a way to do it."
For Kronos, keeping classical and avant-garde music relevant is key. After celebrating its 30th anniversary, the group started a program called the "Under 30 Project" that was designed to nurture new young composers.
"All I've wanted to do is to try to make my involvement and the involvement of Kronos with the world of music something that feels vital and tangible and that responds to life and our society and hopefully provides some sort of musical answer or direction, and at some moments certain elements of comfort and warning," says Harrington, who adds that, like a jam band, the group constantly changes the set list so that "every show is different." "I think of the string quartet as this incredibly vital force in human expression. I want to be sure that we're passing on to the next generation of music lovers something that is some sort of testament of what it's like to be alive right now. That's all. It's real simple."