Forty is old for a string quartet but not ancient. The Budapest String Quartet, founded in 1917, lasted 50 but with no original members after its first 15 years. The Juilliard String Quartet has been around since 1946, and its founding violinist, Robert Mann, hung in for a phenomenal 51 years. But both are quartets that outgrew their early ground-break radicalism with the complacency of age and renown.
The Kronos Quartet — it's name taken from the Greek word for "time" — has, however, beaten the clock. Begun by violinist David Harrington in Seattle in 1973 and celebrating its 40th anniversary in special concerts around the world, including at UCLA over the weekend, Kronos has led and continues to lead what surely must be the longest unending revolution by any ensemble ever in music history. The Beatles lasted but a decade. Miles Davis' bands changed every few years.
The statistics are incomprehensible. More than 800 string quartets have been written for Kronos, half of them in the last 15 years. That's an average of a new string quartet a fortnight. And not all are short. Kronos was responsible for the longest of them all, Morton Feldman's six-hour Second Quartet.
I have no idea the number of musicians with whom Kronos has collaborated or from how many countries or musical genres. But this much is obvious: No string quartet has played with more or more different collaborators. No string quartet has ever been so popular or has had so wide an audience, globally and culturally. Early next month, the Kronos releases its latest CD, "A Thousand Thoughts," a gorgeously sundry collection of music from 14 countries.
In Royce Hall on Friday night, the quartet was joined by Chinese pipa player Wu Man for a work by Philip Glass. The night also included Nels Cline, lead guitarist of Wilco, for the first performance of his "Views From Here to the Heavens." The Kronos program Saturday was devoted to the Los Angeles premiere of Laurie Anderson's 75-minute "Landfall," her latest work and her first appearance since the death of her husband, Lou Reed, last year.
The Kronos did not forget its history, ending Friday's concert with George Crumb's 1970 "Black Angels," a string quartet meant to address the troubled times of the Vietnam War. Harrington formed Kronos to play what were at the time some of the most horrific effects, raw scraping of amplified instruments, that a refined string quartet had ever been asked to make.
"Black Angels" also includes unsettlingly insect music and excerpts from Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" quartet. It's theatrical music, ceremoniously staged in Kronos' moving, carnal performance, as the quartet shouts, bows water glasses and hits gongs to convey Crumb's "voyage of the soul."
The Kronos that appeared at Royce was but for the cellist the same ensemble that made its Southern California debut at a new music festival at the California Institute of the Arts in 1981 — Harrington, violinist John Sherba and violist Hank Dutt. The new cellist is Sunny Yang, who joined last summer, fresh out of USC. She is half the age of the other players, and this was her first appearance with Kronos in L.A. Coolly unflappable and supremely competent, she seems to be a particularly smooth fit, not so much as an injection of youth but a continuance of its fountain of youth.
Friday's concert might not have been quite a thousand thoughts, but it was decidedly this, that and the other thing. With its nearly thousand pieces added to the string quartet, the foursome rarely plays anything else. But it brought back not just "Black Angels" for old time's sake but also Krzysztof Penderecki's experimental early '60s "Quartetto per archi," the first quartet Kronos attempted to stage.
The ensemble members stood, backs to the audience, and faced a video screen with the Polish composer's graphically notated score scrolling by. That was followed by Canadian composer John Oswald's 1990 "Spectre," which includes overdubs of 1,001 Kronos recordings at its thickest. Then came a new arrangement for pipa and string quartet of the China movement from Glass' globe-hopping "Orion," originally written for the composer's ensemble with soloists from different cultures, including the eloquent Wu Man.
From there to "Sim Sholom," an arrangement of a 1913 recording by a Polish cantor, Alter Yechiel Karniol (with an exquisite cello solo by Yang), and from there to, of all things, Wagner in an ecstatic arrangement by Aleksandra Vrebalov of the Prelude from "Tristan and Isolde." And from there to Cline, with his thick electric guitar chords, shimmering electronic effects and sweet simple song at the end in a piece dedicated to Kronos' longtime sound engineer, Scott Fraser.
On Saturday, Anderson's "Landfall" was an elegiac response to Hurricane Sandy. "Please don't tell me your dream," she asked early on, standing at a lectern next to the Kronos players. A large screen projected text behind the quartet and gave it colored backlighting.
"Landfall" is the land beyond dreams that Anderson no longer needs. She ended proclaiming being surrounded by "Melville's melancholy angels."
Sandy was a disturbance of galaxies, its rains an unbroken flow of tears. Anderson noted that her basement flooded and that she saw her career floating away — old keyboards, props and papers. It was a beautiful, magical catastrophe.
The work included a nonstop score for Kronos, which went in and out the background. Anderson joined at times on electric violin and had a computer for electronic background. She spoke of the departed, particularly the species that have gone extinct, 99% of all that have existed. That suited her quartet score, which is excellent on beginnings. Small motives percolated through the string quartet. But Anderson seemed less concerned with endings, leaving the feeling of sections unresolved.
Kronos, meanwhile, moves on in ever a thousand directions, renewal all it ultimately understands.