Classical: We sing the body eclectic

A new CD box-set celebrates 25 years of innovation and exuberance from the Kronos Quartet.
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The Independent Culture
"THE YEAR is 1973. The futile, useless war in Vietnam slogs to a close." So begins Alan Rich's chronology of the Kronos Quartet in the booklet that accompanies Nonesuch's handsomely appointed 25th-anniversary boxed set. The tone may seem a little apocalyptic - a little Apocalypse Now, even - but it isn't entirely misplaced. In the quarter-century since a 23-year-old violinist from Seattle called David Harrington founded what would go on to become the most popular string quartet in the world, a quiet revolution in classical music has taken place.

The historical context is relevant too, for Harrington's sense of mission was first inspired by a 1973 radio broadcast of George Crumb's Black Angels. "It seemed like a musical response to the Vietnam war", Harrington says in a quote from the booklet. "I didn't even know it was quartet music at first, but it was a magnetic experience. All of a sudden I felt that this was the right music to listen to."

In the years that have followed, the success of Kronos's commando raids into the hallowed ground of the traditional string quartet repertoire (with more than 400 new works commissioned so far) has helped to break down the resistance to contemporary music in ensembles everywhere. Kronos's recordings of works by jazz and "ethnic" composers have contributed greatly to a general blurring of boundaries between different genres, and the group's eclecticism has encouraged a new, more adventurous attitude among concert and festival promoters. To cap it all, Kronos don't wear suits, or even matching flowery waistcoats. While it may sound trivial, their informality in matters of dress and performance style has helped to attract a sizeable new audience to contemporary music.

That said, what's in the box? Understandably, given the cost of the luxurious packaging, most of the contents have appeared before, although there's a number of new or previously unavailable recordings. These include two Arvo Parts, a Piazzolla, two Terry Rileys, three compositions by the fascinating Tasmanian composer Peter Sculthorpe, and two pieces by the relatively unknown Ken Benshoof, who was David Harrington's composition teacher in high school. It was Benshoof who provided the quartet's first commission, with a bag of doughnuts as his fee. The box's more familiar fare includes the minimalism with which the quartet is so strongly associated, with pieces by Adams, Feldman, Reich, Glass and Grecki. Appropriately, the final disc ends with one of Kronos's most praiseworthy works, White Man Sleeps, by Kevin Volans.

Regrettably, at least in terms of demonstrating the breadth of the quartet's interests, there's no jazz, and nothing from either their most popular album, Pieces of Africa, or the spoken-word pieces on Howl USA. For all that, the box is highly impressive, and there's almost enough music inside to keep listeners busy for the next 25 years. By which time, of course, Schubert and flowery waistcoats may well be the hippest things going.

Kronos Quartet: `25 Years' (Nonesuch, 10-CD boxed set)

The quartet plays Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (0141-287 5511) 23 Feb; Cambridge Corn Exchane (01223 357851) 24 Feb; and Warwick Arts Centre (01203 524524) 26 Feb