The Sound of San Francisco: Stern Grove Festival and Kronos Quartet

This piece was originally published in Grove Notes, Stern Grove Festival's seasonal program guide.

For seven decades, Stern Grove Festival has been a leader in creating cultural performances of the highest caliber, representing a true cross-section of the San Francisco performing arts experience.  More than just a venue for music and dance, the Festival is a curator and collaborator in bringing one-of-a-kind performing arts experiences to the public. This summer’s performance with the innovative group Kronos Quartet is just one example.

“One of the fantastic things about two violins, a viola, and a cello is that there are no two composers that sound the same,” Kronos Quartet’s David Harrington tells us on a sunny Thursday morning in his Sunset studio. We are discussing the group’s July 14 Stern Grove Festival appearance, an event that will afford concertgoers the opportunity to hear three ensembles based here in the Bay Area. Though each ensemble consists of the same instrumentation, they are all pushing the boundaries of what a string quartet—and chamber music in general—can be.

Opening the concert is Real Vocal String Quartet, a group that is equally at home playing strings as they are singing. Following them is an acoustic performance by indie rock trio Geographer in collaboration with Magik*Magik Quartet, a group known for giving symphonic flavor to acts such as Radiohead and Death Cab for Cutie. After these introductions to the contemporary string quartet form, the Stern Grove Festival audience will be treated to the grandfathers of string quartet dynamism—Kronos Quartet.

In their first Stern Grove Festival appearance since 1998, Kronos brings a program that will allow the audience to experience what Harrington calls “the breadth of variety that can happen within this one expressive form.” The central piece of the program is the world premiere of a new work by Brazilian electronic music producer Amon Tobin. The piece, called Notoation [at time of writing, now called V838 Monocerotis], is not the first collaboration between Kronos and Tobin. After discovering his music eight years ago in Amoeba Records, Harrington sought out Tobin, and soon, Kronos was recording material that later appeared on Tobin’s 2007 album Foley Room. “Bloodstone”, the track containing Kronos samples, was later arranged by the Quartet and formed part of their set when they opened for Tobin at the Hearst Greek Theatre in Berkeley in October 2012.

In the audience that night was Judy Tsang, Stern Grove Festival’s Director of Programming. A fan of both Amon Tobin and Kronos Quartet, whom she calls “the rockstars of the string quartet world,” Tsang decided to put together a concert that would feature Kronos amongst their San Francisco brethren. “We wanted to do something special for Kronos’ 40th anniversary,” says Tsang. Lincoln Center for Lincoln Center Out of Doors and Stern Grove Festival commissioned Tobin to write a new work for the Quartet. Kronos will perform the piece later this summer in New York at Lincoln Center Out of Doors.

The result is unlike anything Harrington has heard, from Tobin or from anyone, and certainly defied his expectations. Rather than creating electronic soundscapes from samples as he has done previously, Tobin wrote Notoation from scratch as an entirely acoustic work. To Harrington, it sounds something like “New Orleans funeral music. It’s very thoughtful and very gentle.”

In deciding which projects to take on and whom the Quartet should work with next, Harrington says he is always looking for “the natural next step.” What this means is “having an antenna on the music world,” understanding what is going on, and trusting the instinct that says, “Why do I keep thinking about Amon Tobin?” It is this instinct that keeps Kronos, and the string quartet form, in a constant state of development. For Harrington, it is this evolution that makes string quartet music so exciting. This chamber form is over 250 years old, beginning with Haydn in 18th-century Vienna. “Between 1750 and the day Schubert died in 1828,” Harrington tells us, “just think about what happened in terms of this one field of human expression. Haydn wrote his quartets—Mozart—Beethoven—Schubert. All in one city. And when I was thirteen years old, I was looking at a globe and I realized: this is bizarre. All the music that I know in this art form was written by four guys that lived in one city. Well, what do other cities sound like?”

San Francisco, as with all the places Kronos has traveled over the last 40 years, also has its own sound. “San Francisco is the coolest sounding place in the universe!” Harrington says, beaming. His home since 1977, Harrington says he is constantly amazed by the melding of cultures in the city. Harrington explains, “I want to make musical experiences that reflect the vitality and diversity and beauty that is possible.”

These kinds of shared and diverse cultural experiences are synonymous with Stern Grove Festival. When discussing the program for their performance on July 14, Harrington lists all the factors that went into the choices the Quartet made: “We get to play in our hometown. My family’s going to be there, my dad’s flying in from Arizona to hear this concert, my grandkids are going to be there. It doesn’t get any better than that! And I think of the concerts I’ve been to at Stern Grove Festival and I just think, ‘OK, we get a chance to play for our audience here.’ Maybe a lot of people [will be there] who have never heard of us before. There’ll be families; people will be relaxing on a Sunday afternoon. What would be wonderful to hear and to play at that point?”

The result of this collaborative process is something that can only happen at Stern Grove Festival. “This is what the Festival is all about,” says Steven P. Haines, Executive Director of Stern Grove Festival. “This concert is by the community, for the community, and truly celebrates the cultural innovation for which these artists, Stern Grove Festival, and San Francisco are all known.” Following Stern Grove Festival’s mission to “enhance San Francisco’s renown as a cultural center,” all of the artists featured on the July 14 concert are in fact locals. Even Amon Tobin, though originally from Brazil, is currently based in Marin. In true Stern Grove Festival fashion, this concert is sure to bring together a broad spectrum of the community. “Most Geographer fans have probably never seen or heard Kronos before,” says Tsang.

And when it comes to creating a community around music, Stern Grove Festival could not agree with Harrington more: “None of us own this,” Harrington tells us. “We don’t own it at all; we just get to be a part of it and get to share it with other people.”

Copyright Stern Grove Festival Association, 2013