Mutual Admiration Ensemble
When Degenerate Art Ensemble and the Kronos Quartet perform at the Neptune Theatre this month, they’ll consummate a cycle begun here in Seattle exactly 40 years ago.
One of the most lauded string quartets on the planet, Kronos began when violinist David Harrington dropped out of the University of Washington in 1973 to pursue music composition and performance full-time. At its outset, Kronos played concert venues all over Seattle—at schools, galleries, recital halls, even aboard a ferry. Eventually Harrington relocated his project, first to New York and later, in 1978, to San Francisco.
Kronos has remained stationed there as members have come and gone, taking on major commissions and collaborations (they’ve played with Tom Waits, Allen Ginsberg, Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie) and winning a Grammy in 2004. Though the quartet’s instrumentation is traditional, its music is thoroughly modernist—intense, haunting and grand.
Degenerate Art Ensemble is a decade-old Seattle performing arts group that transcends disciplines in pursuit of unconventional juxtapositions and unexpected reactions. At the core of the group are founders Haruko Nishamura, a dancer and singer, and composer Joshua Kohl. Though Nishamura began her artistic career as a concert pianist, she found greater expression in butoh, a Japanese dance style born out of World War II that emphasizes inhuman slowness and grotesquerie. Kohl, a graduate of Cornish’s music program, composes modern-jazz big band, classical music and found-sound collage.
“I’ve been a huge a huge fan of Kronos since I was 13 years old,” Kohl says. “I can’t even comprehend how much music from around the world that their music has led me to.”
Through overlapping interests and collaborators, Kohl had been in touch with Kronos before their last trip to Seattle in 2012. After the quartet’s concert, Kohl was invited to
breakfast with Harrington, who suggested Kohl propose an idea to him.
At the time, Kohl and DAE were immersed in a work called Predator’s Songstress, a series of multimedia character studies about a handful of fictional, iconic women. Kohl sent Harrington video of a recent performance at Seattle Center, one that took place on a flooded loading dock beneath the bleachers of
Memorial Stadium and that involved a massive, mobile lighting installation by Lilienthal | Zamora.
“He said when he saw the video he was thinking that if we had come up at the same time, we would’ve been doing shows together, 40 years ago,” Kohl says. “He said it felt like a very good full circle.”
Kohl hoped that Harrington might advise him on a piece for DAE’s next installment of Predator’s Songstress, which centers on a fictional warrior figure Kohl describes as a fusion of Joan of Arc and an indigenous girl.
“The research around the character has been indigenous struggles,” he says, “and the relationship between indigenous cultures and current cities and the juxtaposition of colonized landscapes on top of indigenous landscapes.”
Not only was Harrington interested in collaborating, Kohl says, he also wanted to perform the piece in Seattle for Kronos’ 40th anniversary.
During the writing process, Harrington offered advice and critique. “He told me to read up on the Fibonacci series,” Kohl says, referring to the famed numeric sequence that yields organically pleasing proportion. Kohl ended up adding a part to the final section of the piece to provide a feeling of “more expansive release.” He sent Kronos sheet music in early September.
For the performance on Nov. 16, Kronos will perform two sets. The first will be of self-selected material, including work by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki and Bryce Dessner of rock band the National. The second will include a piece by Seattle composer Jherek Bischoff and the collaboration with DAE.
The 20-minute installment of Predator’s Songstress will feature dance by Nishamura and a six-member chorus comprised of what Kohl describes as “crazy human beings,” including John Osebold, Jherek Bischoff, Dohee Lee and Soul Childe Okanamode. Kohl wrote physically demanding parts into the vocal parts, including 80 bars of singing with no built-in rests.
“Sometimes the spirit of what you’re trying to accomplish is a little bit beyond the capability of what is possible,” he says.
And, of course, there’s music for Kronos.
“I tried to give the string players a run for their money, give them some hard stuff to work on,” Kohl says. “I mean, they’re Kronos Quartet. There’s probably nothing I can hand them that they haven’t tried.”
The Kronos Quartet performs with special guests Degenerate Art Ensemble on Nov. 16 at the Neptune Theatre.