The Kronos Quartet is backing Bela Lugosi. No, Dracula's not part of the band. He's biting necks on a special film screen developed for Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet. While Dracula pursues Lucy Harker in the original 1931 film, Kronos will be behind the screen performing a new score written by Philip Glass. The setup allows Kronos to become part of the film at specific moments. The exact measurements of band placement are calculated prior to each show. The calculations are synchronized with the lighting crew, allowing the band to appear during parts of the film.
Lead violinist David Harrington would not reveal at what scenes in the film Kronos would appear. But Harrington promised the group will make a momentary appearance near the beginning of the film "where you wouldn't expect to find us."
The 1931 Universal Pictures film was made without a soundtrack except for an excerpt from Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" at the beginning of the film and a snippet of Wagner in the middle. Dracula was filmed after the advent of talkies and shortly before the era of the great film composers, when the possibilities of film sound were still being discovered.
In 1998 Universal approached classical music composer Glass with the idea of making a soundtrack. The company offered Glass the opportunity to make one of three early Universal horror films: The Mummy, Frankenstein or Dracula. After viewing the films, Glass was gravitating toward Dracula when he bumped into the members of Kronos in a London restaurant. Kronos previously collaborated with Glass on its 1995 album, Kronos Performs Philip Glass (Nonesuch).
"I've been thinking about doing Dracula," Glass said to Harrington and the group. "Would you like to do it?"
"We didn't hesitate," says Harrington.
Three months later Kronos was in the recording studio. Glass had composed some 65 minutes of film music in a matter of weeks. He has a reputation as a rapid composer; he once wrote and recorded 45 minutes of incidental music in five days. While occasionally his music sounds like it was dashed off at top speed, some of Glass's film scores, such as Koyaanisqatsi and The Thin Blue Line, are compelling with their somber power. The score to Dracula has just been released on the Nonesuch label.
The original Wagner piece remains at the film's middle, with the rest of the score's thematic material built around it. Of course, the music is subject to Glass's minimalist brand of repetition and slow transformation.
"We were delighted to be part of the film," says Harrington. "We grew up with this movie and Bela Lugosi. Glass wrote us a 65-minute string quartet with 26 scenes. For me, it's some of his most amazing music. I love the way it propels the action." At the Houston date, Kronos will be performing with Glass and Michael Riesman on keyboards. Riesman is music director of the Philip Glass Ensemble.
"Michael is responsible for keeping us on the film," says Harrington. "We're seeing it backwards while playing all those thousands of notes. So he's a kind of conductor."
Besides Harrington on lead violin, the Kronos Quartet is John Sherba on violin, Hank Dutt on viola and Joan Jeanrenaud on cello.
From its beginning 25 years ago Kronos has been different from most other string quartets. "One night I turned on the radio and heard something wild, something scary. It was Black Angels by George Crumb," says Harrington. "I knew I had to play this music."
Harrington called Crumb and obtained the score to Black Angels. He commissioned a new piece, "Traveling Music" from Ken Benshoof, with whom he had studied composition as a teenager. The cost: a bag of doughnuts. The first Kronos Quartet performance of these two works -- along with Bartók's "Third Quartet" and Webern's "Six Bagatelles" -- took place in Seattle before an audience of friends and family.
Since then, Kronos has created a repertoire of 400 new string quartets from hundreds of 20th-century composers. That's more than twice the number by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms combined. By concentrating exclusively on new music, Kronos has made a profound impact on classical music.
Consider the latest Kronos release, Caravan (Nonesuch). The CD contains a Terry Riley work, "Funeral on Diablo Mountain," a percussive, dissonant piece. Kronos has championed the American composer since the early 1970s.
At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum is a gorgeous romantic piece by the Portuguese guitarist Carlos Paredes.
"We have a number of people who take an active interest in our work," says Harrington. "The Lisbon Expo called us up and asked if we were interested in playing the music of Carlos Paredes. It happens that I had written to him just before he went into the hospital, hoping he would play with us. Unfortunately that will never happen. He's not able to play any longer. So we accepted the Lisbon offer and asked Osvaldo [Golijov] to do the arrangements with us. It's something I wanted to do for many years."
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You don't hear many string quartets playing with Gypsy village bands. One of the highlights on Caravan is a collaboration between Kronos and Taraf de Haidouks, the most recorded Gypsy band of all. Taraf's strengths include complex walking bass lines and fiery lead violins, which blend surprisingly well with the string quartet concept. It's a treat to hear Harrington and Taraf veteran Nicolae Neascu trade violin licks.
Nor would you expect the typical string quartet to play a version of shred guitarist Dick Dale's "Miserlou." But that's par for the course on a Kronos recording.
"There's a sense of texture and musical color on each album even though some music might come from the ninth century and some from the 1980s," says Harrington. "There's a connection and a fabric. I enjoy finding similarities between the music of Dick Dale and [Yugoslav composer] Aleksandra Vrebalov. For me, that's one of the things I enjoy in life, finding those connections, taking listeners through the world of music in an organic way.
"We hear certain connections. Maybe you hear certain other ones. But if we do our job, you'll hear connections from the very first note to the last note."