Kronos Quartet muses Monk

Fewer names loom larger or have more crossover appeal in today's classical music world than the Kronos Quartet. Violinist David Harrington, inspired by composer George Crumb, formed the group in 1973. Since then, it has snagged six Grammy nominations-and one award-and released more than 40 recordings, playing works by composers from Bartok to Zorn.

Harrington and co. play twice at Duke this weekend, once Friday in Page Auditorium for "Awakening: A Musical Meditation on the Anniversary of 9/11" and again Saturday for "Mavericks/Monk: Kronos on Innovators," where the quartet will play three world-premiere arrangements of Thelonious Monk's masterpiece ballad "'Round Midnight" along with pieces by other "mavericks," from Television's Tom Verlaine to Anton Webern. Harrington spoke with recess' David Graham last week.

What attracted you, as classical musicians, to Monk, one of the quintessential jazzmen?

It was back in 1984 when I first met [legendary jazz producer] Orrin Keepnews. We were on a long car ride together and we got to talking about Monk. By the end of the car ride, it was decided that Kronos would figure out a way to make a record for Orrin's then-new record company, Landmark Records. It happened very quickly that we assembled that album [1985's Monk Suite].

What was your personal introduction to Monk?

I was first introduced to Monk by my composition teacher when I was about 17 yeas old, What he wanted me to do was to listen to the way Monk used timing, What I found myself attracted to, in addition to the amazing sense of timing, was the way I've never heard a pianist before or since that can make a minor second sound more dissonant than Thelonious Monk. In that way he's almost more like a violinist to me. That's how I can be listening to the radio and I can tell Monk every time.

How does Monk fit in with the other "maverick" composers?

We were looking for a context that felt right to us and kind of a-first of all, we wanted to give our audience a large sense of the music. Harry Partch just kind of found a new way of defining a new set of instruments. We're ending with a piece by a friend of ours named Stephen Prutsman. I've wanted to put Webern's music in another context than the normal context-where you might hear his music surrounded by Schoenberg and Berg, but "Six Bagatelles," which we're playing this evening, is the first piece that Kronos ever played, back in 1973. It's rarely been programmed. It's so intimate and so fleeting.

Jazz critic Gary Giddins has written about the difficulty of finding anything new in "'Round Midnight." What attracted you to that piece?

First of all, it's absolutely beautiful. What I wanted to do was take something that many members of our audience will know and have it appear and then reappear throughout the concert in various forms, and so we decided to get three different people to make new versions of "'Round Midnight." Hopefully there will be moments of recognition; in a musical way, hopefully it will work something like evolution. You'll hear the way things change in music. The listener will actually hear how that occurs in real time.


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