Kronos Quartet's search for a unified field theory

New music quartet still making inroads between highbrow, pseudo-pop, and the otherworldly

On a foggy Friday night in January, David Harrington, violinist and founding member of San Francisco's Kronos Quartet, stood on stage at Wilton's Music Hall — London's oldest concert hall and a bastion of Dickens-era England. The program that he and his contemporary chamber music ensemble had prepared for the evening was titled "Early Music" — early in the sense that the group was revisiting the first piece of music that Kronos Quartet had ever rehearsed together, Anton Webern's "Six Bagatelles" from 1913. The schedule also included a performance of Morton Feldman's 1951 pioneering work of 20th-century composition, "Structures For String Quartet," along with a Bob Dylan tune, "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," from the 1963 album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.

On the surface, any connections between Webern's intellectually complex arrangements, Feldman's nontraditional notation, and Dylan's pop and folk singer/songwriter musings are seemingly nonexistent. But before the group raised its bows to begin sawing away at its strings, Harrington spoke.

"I'm searching for the unified field theory in music," he says over the phone, recalling his introductory speech just a few weeks after the show. "Every chance we have to play another program is an attempt to find balance, or a certain way for listeners to gain entry into the world of music. It's hard to talk about it in a way that feels real, but what I've found over time is that the things that seem like impossible barriers between different kinds of music just melt away."

In many ways, those sentiments exemplify Kronos Quartet's entire existence. Since founding the group in 1973, Harrington has remained at the crossroads of classical music, pop culture, and the avant-garde, while maintaining a global perspective. Through it all, the group's terse, energetic performances are driven by a deep sense of mystery in every note, hinted at but never fully revealed through chord changes, tonal color, and a quasi punk execution of short, sharp melodic musical movements.

This open-minded rebellion against academic hubris, while simultaneously embracing its discipline, is what has kept Harrington compelling as an artist and kept the Kronos Quartet forever moving forward.

Sporting a current lineup that also includes John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Jeffrey Zeigler (cello), the secret to the group's ability to rise above the stuffiness that often surrounds classical music lies in its inclusive approach, one that blends the high-brow concert atmosphere with pop music's grit and experimentalism.

Over the years, soundtracks for films such as Requiem for a Dream and Heat have punctuated the group's catalog, as have collaborations with a vast repertoire of artists ranging from Allen Ginsberg, David Bowie, Björk, Tom Waits, and a close working relationship with minimalist composer Philip Glass. Fiery renditions of such adventurous rock staples as Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and Television's "Marquee Moon" have underscored the respective genius of the writing that went into these songs, while offering a decidedly non-rock 'n' roll take on the music.

The program for the upcoming Kronos Quartet show at the Schwartz Center at Emory University will feature the group performing the works of three American songwriters: Michael Gordon's "Clouded Yellow," Bryce Dessner of the National's "Aheym (Homeward)," and a Philip Glass arrangement of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright." The latter number is an instrumental take that draws out the notorious wordsmith's melodic sensibilities. It was recorded for last year's Amnesty International 50th anniversary CD, Chimes of Freedom.

Adding a deeper sense of global mystique to the show, Kronos Quartet will then be joined by the Alim Qasimov Ensemble (featuring the father-daughter singing duo Alim and Ferghana Qasimov) for a set of Azerbaijani folk/bardic songs, known as "mugham." Alim Qasimov's ensemble will perform its own set before being joined by the members of Kronos Quartet to delve deeper into both modern and primitive forms of Azerbaijani music.

The same pairing yielded the 2010 album Rainbow: Music Of Central Asia Vol. 8, which resonates as one of Kronos Quartet's most highly regarded collaborations in recent years, especially by Harrington himself. "It's one of the relationships that we've made over the years that I feel most proud of," he says. "It's amazing what music can do; it can cross language barriers, cultural issues, and become the centerpiece of any conversation. That's certainly how it's been playing with Alim and his ensemble, and it's been one of the greatest pleasures of my life."

Call it the "unified field theory," or a marriage of two world-class ensembles from opposite ends of the earth joining forces to melt away seemingly impenetrable barriers.