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