The Power of Collaborative Strings
By Lou Fancher
Wielding violin bows reminiscent of 17th century horsehair and Brazilian pernambuco models and rattling classical music cages with award-winning recordings, San Francisco string quartets are niche no more.
Rising to be cream of the crop among groups transcending the traditions established and refined by four grandaddies of yesteryear — Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert — the work of Kronos Quartet, Quartet San Francisco, and Magik*Magik Orchestra is more like a treasure-filled gully than a slim aberration in the chamber music landscape.
Preserving the techniques of classical music while satisfying a natural, evolutionary urge to grow, these Bay Area string quartet pioneers have used a secret weapon — collaboration — to construct a diverse body of category-defying literature.
Abandoning shuttered versions of what two violins, a viola, and a cello should do or the sounds they should create, the three groups have established distinct, recognizable profiles while operating in a common elixir that usually earns the moniker "crossover," but could more accurately be called "the third place." These groups don't "cross over" to an opposite side: They create an entirely new schematic where one plus one equals so much more than two.
For 42 years, Kronos founding member David Harrington has pointed his violin at collaboration. From a teenage fixation on George Crumb's Black Angels to today, Harrington has leapfrogged from the classical canon to a pinnacle atop nearly 900 original compositions and arrangements created for the Kronos string quartet. John Sherba (violins), Hank Dutt (viola), and Sunny Yang (cello) are his current, closest allies, with Yang being the sole newcomer in the Kronos cloister. Multiple Grammys, extended performing or teaching residencies, the nonprofit Kronos Performing Arts Association's commissioning projects for composers under age 30, and other innovations, round out the group's résumé.
"For me, every work written for us is collaborative," Harrington says. "At a certain point, the ideas behind and within the work are developed together."
And it's not always while hashing out details in a rehearsal hall that two, three, four, or more minds fold into one entity. Harrington recalls a recent conversation with a composer about Wagner — held while out for a walk — that morphed into an immersive piece with a nuanced backing track, accompanying video, and more. There are "voluminous aspects and specific reasons" why any one person at any one time should write a piece for Kronos, he says.
A healthy appetite for uncharted territory coincides with his belief in the string quartet as an endless palette, offering unlimited hues for expression. To tap the world of music and give an audience a sense of the amazing possibilities he says are available, Harrington reaches out to scientists, philosophers, painters, as well as to people who define themselves strictly as musicians.
"Human body sounds, sounds from the natural world — I'm anxious to bring all these things and music together. There are so many fascinating things to bring to the root system of the string quartet," he says.
And proving there's no ritard on the Kronos horizon, Fifty for the Future, a new commissioning initiative, will invite 25 male and 25 female composers to create 10 new pieces of string quartet music every year over a five-year period. In partnership with Carnegie Hall and other project participants, Kronos is documenting and archiving the project with videos, recordings, and digital and performance materials that will be distributed free of charge online.
"It's not easy to get our sheet music, our scores," Harrington says. "We get calls every day of the week asking how we do what we do. To circumvent the problems, (this will) make a body of work that will allow other players, especially younger players, to enter into the adventure."
Quartet San Francisco
Founder and violinist Jeremy Cohen apparently knows no boundaries. His hot-blooded fever for an all-things playlist means QSF is likely to riff on classics from musicians like Stevie Wonder, Dave Brubeck, and Vince Mendoza; include composers from the past 300 years; and feature any number of blues-, funk-, jazz-, tango-, Latin- and rock-inspired tunes. From its startup in 2001, multiple Grammy nominations and an intense touring schedule add to its visibility.
"At this moment we're involved in the UnderCover Presents performances at the Independent," Cohen says. "We're collaborating with rapper Boots Riley and rapper/singer Sylk-E. The project is a re-creation of Bob Marley's Exodus album using a different band for each of the ten tracks."
While auditioning for a new cellist (Kelley Maulbetsch recently retired after joining QSF in 2012), Cohen is writing music for a new CD, and QSF is active in a number of recording projects and preparations for a return tour in China later this year.
"Collaboration has two meanings to me," Cohen says. "One is the meeting of two or more musical minds, which creates an entirely new voice. Secondly, collaboration can be an introduction to an audience that has perhaps never before been exposed to the music of at least one of the collaborators."
For the Undercover project, Cohen says the quartet serves as the band, carrying the rhythmic responsibilities. "We bring the funk and carry the groove for the rapper and singer," he says. He likens it to a new form of chamber music and advocates for frontline, string-centric education that supports young musicians entering the profession by training them in improvisation and other contemporary approaches to music.
Artistic director and composer Minna Choi is the new kid on the string quartet block, but she's already transforming the neighborhood. Debuting at Herbst Theater in 2008, Choi's M*MO is impossible to pin down.
Four section leaders, Liana Berube (concertmaster), Phil Brezina (principal second violinist), Jory Fankuchen (principal violist) and Michelle Kwon (principal cellist) are the first people Choi calls for a gig. But four musicians can easily spring to 80 when a project calls for a pop-up orchestra.
And not just any ship will sail, Choi says. Competition for top Bay Area freelancers is fierce. Being reliable, hospitable, and paying more than the next guy often tips the balance for the most sought-after musicians.
Comparing collaboration to a rubber band, Choi says the process can be tight, with many contributors and one central "decider," or loose, with no clear leader. M*MO is master of both models: tight when a project requires nimble, rapid turnaround, and flexible while serving film composers, bands, record labels, and others with fluid, mercurial priorities.
One of M*MO's most rewarding, challenging projects was with an artist Choi never met. Vocalist Volary (real name: Samantha Lien) died of breast cancer in 2013. Volary's life partner, Alex Kushner, had recordings the late singer had made years ago and wanted to build a record. Combining Volary's whispery, melodic iPhone voice memos and song recordings from the past, Choi says a whole musical world was built around an archival voice.
"For obvious reasons, the project was a highly sensitive and important one, and required a delicate touch for communication. Alex isn't a musician, so we had to figure out how to communicate ideas back and forth, always thinking in the back of our heads, What would Samantha have wanted? It's been a really powerful experience both musically and personally," she says.