The Kronos Quartet—David Harrington and John Sherba (violins), Hank Dutt (viola) and Jennifer Culp (cello)—was founded in 1973 and has colored outside the lines from day one. Their antic curiosity and remarkably un-complacent taste has led them to reach out to a wide variety of cutting-edge and/or traditional classical, jazz and world music styles and to collaborate with an astonishingly diverse roster of international superstars. Their latest project, You’ve Stolen My Heart (Nonesuch), is an exploration of wild-and-wooly, shamelessly romantic soundtrack hits from India’s frighteningly prolific “Bollywood” (Bombay + Hollywood) film industry, composed by the great Rahul Dev Burman and performed by the much-recorded “playback” singer Asha Bhosle, an iconic queen of the genre.
Of course, many people might find the idea of a string quartet moving from cerebral iconoclasts like John Zorn, George Crumb and John Adams to a medium renowned for cheerfully blatant, non-stop excess rather surprising. But an examination of the Kronos discography reveals previous encounters with Gypsy music, Chinese opera, Latin American jazz, folk and pop and assorted African traditions, all of which were approached with deep respect but reinterpreted amid an atmosphere of mutual discovery and non-antiseptic playfulness.
Seated in the restaurant of a midtown Manhattan hotel, Kronos founder and violinist David Harrington is modestly proud of the ensemble’s many accomplishments, which include a bevy of Grammy wins and nominations. For him, an awareness of the world’s music began as a precocious teenager in Seattle, Washington. “You know, I’ve never recognized boundaries that you might see in a record store,” he begins, “When I was about 13, I realized that all the music I was then playing—Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart—was written by men who had all lived in one city (Vienna, Austria) and that I had never played anything from Africa! From that point on, I tried to learn more about music from other places.”
Guided by this epiphany and an open-minded composition teacher named Ken Benchoff, who later contributed to the more than 500 works composed especially for Kronos, Harrington spent long hours studying what was then known as ethnic music. Sometimes he would even cut school to hang out at a local record shop equipped with listening booths and a remarkably liberal attitude toward non-purchasing customers.
Once he started Kronos, it was understood from the beginning that their repertoire was going to be eclectic, up-front and personal. “To play one note beautifully, with all the information, knowledge and feeling you have about life is a huge challenge,” Harrington relates earnestly. “And whether that note originates in Mongolia, New York City or San Francisco doesn’t matter. Because my task as an interpreter of music has been to keep my ears and imagination open. God, if I could only go back to school right now, I’d study languages, sociology, history, things that I feel would be great to know for the job that I’m doing. There’s so much to learn!”
The Burman-Bhosle project germinated fairly gradually. R.D. Burman was the groove-meister of Hindi film music, one of the first composers to up the ante with rock and other whiz-bang, trendy touches. His sound dominated the Indian film industry from late 1960s till the early-to-mid-1980s, transforming the styles of established stars like Asha Bhosle (who is known affectionately as “Ashaji”) and Kishore Kumar.
“Well, I’m reminded of something Bartok (Hungarian composer-ethnomusicologist) once said, that it’s important to graft new roots very carefully!” Harrington observes. “I first heard Burman’s music about 15 years ago and his song, “Aaj Ki Raat,” became a track on Kronos Caravan.” Then, a journalist friend of Harrington’s interviewed Asha Bhosle, and played her the Kronos version of the tune.
“He sent me a photograph of Asha
These are the albums a world music fan might find immediately intriguing, but the balance of their huge discography is also well worth exploring.
You’ve Stolen My Heart—Songs from R.D. Burman's Bollywood
with Asha Bhosle, Wu Man, Zakir Hussain Nuevo Nonesuch 79649 with Cafe Tacuba, Luis Conte, Alejandro Flores, Carlos Garcia, Ariel Guzik, Tambuco Percussion Ensemble, Efren Vargas, Luanne Warner
with Zakir Hussain, Taraf de Haidouks, Kayhan Kalhor, Ziya Tabbassian, Ali Jihad Racy, Souhail Kaspar, Martyn Jones
with Marja Mutru, David Lamb, Wu Man, Olov Johansson, Huun-Huur Tu
Pieces Of Africa
with Dumisani Maraire, Hassan Hakmoun, Foday Musa Suso, Hamza el Din, Obo Addy, Radouane Laktib, Said Hakmoun, Dan Pauli and the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir
Astor Piazzolla: Five Tango Sensations
Elektra/Nonesuch 9 79254 with Astor Piazzolla