How we met: 52. The Kronos Quartet

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The first thing people noticed about the Kronos Quartet was the breadth of their repertoire, in which the compositions of Jimi Hendrix and Ornette Coleman, Astor Piazzolla and Terry Riley, John Zorn and Arvo Part could be found next to those of Bartok, Webern and Ives. The present line-up has played together since 1978, and all four members now live in San Francisco. They are (above, left to right) Hank Dutt (39, viola), John Sherba (37, second violin), David Harrington (43, first violin) and Joan Jeanrenaud (36, cello). They appear at the Festival Hall on 28 September.

DAVID HARRINGTON: It's a long and complicated story. I started the Kronos Quartet in 1973, in Seattle, which is my home town, but it took me a few years to find the right people, with the right chemistry.

I began playing the violin when I was nine, and I started my very first quartet when I was 12. After I finished school I had a lot of different jobs - I was a janitor for a while, and I got a job watering the plants in a nursery in the morning, so I could play violin the rest of the day. In 1973 I heard a piece of music on the radio - George Crumb's 'Black Angels' - that I felt I had to play. It was one of the pivotal experiences of my life. And when I found a copy of the score and studied it, it was obvious to me that a group that wanted to play it would have to rehearse every day - and that the kind of person for such a group would have to be a certain type, prepared to put in a lot of work and effort. It took us a while to find each other.

In fact it wasn't until 1977, when the quartet was based in a small town in upstate New York, that I met Hank Dutt. He was finishing school at Indiana University, and he came to check us out. I'll never forget when we first played together, because he has one of the most incredible sounds I've ever heard. It was very apparent straight away that he was the right person to bring into the group.

Then it was to be another whole year before Hank and I had the opportunity to have Joan and John play with us. By that time we'd moved to San Francisco. Joan was a friend of Hank's - she was in Switzerland, and about to get married when Hank called to tell her that we had a vacancy for a cellist. So she flew from Geneva to play with us, and again there was the feeling that, yes, this would work.

At the same time as we were looking for a cellist, we needed another violinist. One day I was talking on the phone to a cellist in Milwaukee, and my wife, who is slightly psychic - no, more than slightly - called out: 'Ask him if he knows a violinist.' He said he'd get a friend of his to call us. About 10 minutes later, John called. Within a few days they were both in San Francisco. The cellist went back, but the next time John saw Milwaukee was when we played there. So that was the four of us, and we've played together almost every day since.

To do what we do requires so much interaction that the enjoyment of each other's company is tremendously important. So it's not just a luxury that I like everybody in the group. It has to be a balance of personalities - if there were four of me in the quartet, there's no way it would happen. Of course, there are times . . . well, sometimes you get up at four o'clock in the morning to catch a plane to another city and you have a soundcheck at 2pm and then a meeting with a composer and a few interviews and then the concert followed by a party afterwards, and I guess I've lost my cool a time or two. But I can't ever remember us having what you might call a group-threatening situation.

HANK DUTT: It was 1977, I'd just graduated, and I was auditioning for jobs, with no success at all. Then, out of the blue, I got a call from the cellist in the group at that time. He'd talked to a mutual friend, who'd recommended me. Quartet openings aren't usually advertised - it's almost always done through word of mouth. Well, what he told me about Kronos sounded fascinating, and I was overjoyed to audition for them. The first piece I can remember playing with the group was some Webern, I think, followed by Bartok, Beethoven, maybe some Haydn. It was just to get a feel of how we played together. Right away, I was very impressed by David's intensity and energy. Almost any group needs somebody like that. It's hard for a young group to keep going unless all the people put in a tremendous amount of energy, of course, and this is a very cohesive group now.

At the time, they were about to move to the Bay Area. The first year there was very, very difficult - we were unknown, we had very little money, and San Francisco is a very costly place to live. Two members decided they couldn't carry on. I'd played in a group with Joan at Indiana, so I called her immediately and asked her to audition.

Early on, when we weren't really a marketable commodity, it was difficult to get people to manage us, so we each concentrated on an aspect of our business. Joan looks after the grants, I look after the budgets, John looks after the tapes, and David is the artistic director and does the interviews. We each acquired expertise along the way, and as we got people to help us we were able to train them in our way of doing things. It turned out well, because it allowed us to understand the business side of things.

Spending so much time with three other people has its wonderful positive aspects, and its minuses. First, the three of them are good people. I respect them highly as people and as musicians. In fact, we spend so much time together that they're the closest people to me in my life. Interacting with each other so much, we all take on different roles - and it's important to have humour around when you're doing serious work. But sometimes you can get to know people better than you need to know them . . . You can get too close.

We've just come off a recording session, which was a period of hard work over long hours. We felt good about it. But then it was good to have a vacation.

When we're on the road, Joan and I spend a good deal of time together. We go jogging, which helps us to see more of whatever city we happen to be in. Or we might find a museum or go to look at some architecture.

JOAN JEANRENAUD: I was fortunate to go to school with Hank Dutt. When he got the job with Kronos, I went to Europe for a year, to study cello with Pierre Fournier. We kept in contact by letter, and at the end of the year he asked me to come for an audition. The first piece was Bartok's 4th quartet, which I'd never played before. It's very difficult . . . Then there was something by a young Bay Area composer, with a lot of jazz and blues influence. They were trying the range of the music, to see what the feeling was like between us.

I was lucky in that when I was growing up I got used to playing anything that anybody wanted, so the variety in their music was very appealing to me. I was raised right outside Memphis, Tennessee, and I'd had the opportunity to play on recording sessions, which was valuable experience. I even played on a Rod Stewart session once - people like that were always coming through Memphis.

We run our business like we run a rehearsal. When someone suggests something, the rule of thumb is that you try it, no matter how stupid it may sound. So right away a lot of potential discussion is put aside. It's a much quicker way to work something out. There are times when we disagree. Each of us has a distinct personality, and we allow each other those differences. Something might not always work out the way you want it to, but over time you see that it doesn't really matter - there are enough things that do work out.

We see each other probably more than we see our families, but we don't socialise all that much when we're not working - although tonight I'm going over to Hank's house, as it happens.

It's been a real privilege to be working with these people. To play music with them is probably the closest form of communication that I could have with someone. It's a terrific bond. We'll probably be with each other for the rest of our lives.

JOHN SHERBA: I was born in the mid-West, in Wisconsin. I was playing with a quartet in Milwaukee in 1978 when a cellist from the Bay Area told me about the group, and that there was an opening. I was ready to leave, so I packed my bags and was in San Francisco within a couple of days - the first time I'd been to the West Coast. Bartok's 4th was the first thing I played with them - to tell you the truth, I'd never heard it before, which is kind of shocking. But it all seemed very natural - for want of a better term, we clicked.

I loved their enthusiasm for performing, and it was exciting to me that Joan was from Memphis - that brought in a whole new world. She had references in country and pop music, which I found great, since I'd always been involved in classical music. What impressed me from day one was her incredible sense of rhythm, the way she lays down the beat.

Each player's role changes from piece to piece. People say that we only play 20th-century music, but within 20th-century music is the greatest diversity you could imagine. Each piece requires a different procedure, and our roles are constantly shifting - so you could say that with each piece we're a new quartet.

I'm always amazed when people remind me how long we've been together. It still feels so fresh . . . I guess because we're always trying new things. Recently we worked on a piece by Ben Johnston, who specialises in using a lot of microtones - not just quarter-tones, but eighth-tones and stuff. We worked on it for two weeks, and the time just sped by. It's been like that for 14 years. -

(Photograph omitted)

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