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No. 653:
Kronos Quartet

Today, a string quartet teaches me a lesson about invention. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I first listened to string quartets in college. Mozart and Beethoven were nice, but I'd wait for the Bartok piece. I knew I was watching a progression. By the time I reached graduate school, quartets were playing Carter and Kirschner -- wild twelve-tone atonality and worse.

Music was headed somewhere. I couldn't tell where. But I walked along a row of monuments that lead from the 18th century into the 21st. These composers had all written for the future.

Now I've just heard the Kronos Quartet, and they've changed the game utterly. These youthful players, in their casual clothes, are four of the best. Yet they played ten pieces I'd never heard, by composers I hardly knew.

They've cut themselves off from any progression of classic form. This was a sensate bath: an African tune with stringed instruments turning into tom-toms; rap voices rising behind the Dies Irae theme. One piece began with instruments tuning and mounted to a great tape-reinforced crescendo. They played a lovely Polish quartet based on a folk melody.

If I didn't recognize the music, neither did I recognize the audience. They were young. They were having fun. They responded with cat-calls and whoops. This was a new musical world.

I see the producer from our classical radio station in the lobby. We talk. I speak of the discontinuity. He observes that people like Telemann and even Haydn wrote for the moment, not for the future. Perhaps that's it! The Kronos Quartet isn't building monuments. This music is largely throwaway stuff. It's all fun to hear, but tomorrow they'll play something else.

I move out into the night. The last movement of that Polish quartet stays with me. There was both triviality and beauty here tonight. I remember something the poet Rilke wrote: "Since all is passing, retain the melodies that wander by us."

I enjoyed the evening because it took me to where the inventive mind lives. It took me back to the present. For 200 years musicians have looked past the present to the future. Henry Ward Beecher once said, "We steal if we touch tomorrow. It is God's." And so we do. Invention lives in the glory of today. The future will take what it needs from this array of possibilities.

The Kronos makes a far more radical break with tradition than just one of musical form. They've rediscovered the present. As they play with possibility, they pull us all into discovery. They remind us to savor the only moment that ever touches life.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

The Kronos Quartet concert took place in the Cullen Theater at the Wortham Theater Center in Houston, TX, on Friday, January 24, 1992. I'm indebted to Dean Dalton, Producer at KUHF 88.7 FM in Houston, for ideas and help on this episode.