It's a melange! Kronos Quartet bows across barbed-wire borders and reps for composers under 30

Not on the fence

SUPER EGO Let's quit partying for a minute and listen to some mind-blowing music. Oh, lies! We can do both, Big Ears.

In a year when the best-sounding new dance track (so far) is experiment-laced, bottle-kicking psych-pop ditty "Odessa" by Caribou, and the planet's most adventurous club continues to be the New York City's Le Poisson Rouge, with its nights of circuit-bent string quartets, "contemporary classical" is more than ever the connoisseur's nightlife drug of choice. It needs a better name, but none of our current bangers (let alone Animal Collective) would exist without it.

So when I heard the Bay's beloved Kronos Quartet was staging four nights of audacious tunes at Z Space showcasing commissioned scores from composers under 30, and that the centerpiece of each performance would feature the four stringers playing giant electrified fences, what, I hopped on the horn with ever-hip Kronos violinist David Harrington.

"Our audience is definitely getting younger," he told me from Maryland, his group stalled there by the East Coast snowpocalypse. "Although I've always said that all you need to get into a Kronos concert is two ears. Heck, one will do. We're not picky."

Since 1973, Kronos has taken the unconventional approach. When I first saw them in the early 1990s, they played John Oswald's jaw-dropping "Spectre," during which the foursome appeared to sculpt phantasmal drones in the air around their instruments. Harrington told me, "Kronos was originally formed specifically to play Black Angels by George Crumb, a work that galvanized me when I heard it on the radio. Besides the strings in that, we banged gongs, strummed tuned crystal glasses, chanted in several languages ..." So bowing juiced barbed wire for John Rose's Music from 4 Fences is no sweat.

When Kronos premiered Fences in Australia last summer, it was bracketed by works from the quartet's globalesque Floodplain (Nonesuch, 2009) and other pieces that represented regions recently defined by blood and turmoil: Iraq, the Balkans, Afghanistan. "The idea that musicians can turn objects of confinement, detainment, and violence into musical instruments has inspired me," Harrington said at the time. "There might be a way to transform the nature of fences, by bowing them. We will try."

This go-round, the context has been tweaked. Besides under-30 composers Alexandra du Bois, Felipe Pérez Santiago, Dan Visconti, and Aviya Kopelman, the four performances — different each night — will also include works by rockers Damon Albarn (Gorillaz, Blur) and Bryce Dessner (The National), noise-jazz god John Zorn, Bay minimal legend Terry Riley, and Clint Mansell, who worked with Kronos on the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack. The sonic possibilities of the fence will take on a more rockist feeling.

"For us, it's always about playing with context," says Harrington. "We have more than 650 works in our catalog to choose from, so at this stage we have a tremendous opportunity to improvise and do whatever we feel the moment requires. In fact, we still haven't planned the entire program for our run! But frankly, I can't wait."

Lest anyone fear the results will lack political or emotional edge, however, the quartet is dedicating the four nights to the memory of recently passed author and subversive hero Howard Zinn. "Howard was an amazing friend, a guest performer, and someone who supported us completely,' Harrington said, a quiver seeping into his baritone. "We miss him so much."


Feb 24–27, 8 pm, $20–$25

Z Space

450 Florida, SF

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