A few months back, Kronos Quartet presented a concert for the very first time in San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Park Bandshell, just a few blocks from the ensemble’s headquarters. “Our job,” says founder and violinist David Harrington, “is to create a place for experiences with symbolic statements that can perhaps tilt things, just a little bit, but are also going to feel like wonderful fun.”
For the crowd under the advancing fog in the park, the experience was a dazzling sampling of Kronos’s energized adventuring in territory unexplored by string quartets before the ensemble assembled in Seattle 50 years ago. The program ranged from a Mexican huapango to a piece by Angélique Kidjo based on traditional music from West Africa to a take on Janis Joplin’s version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” to selections from a couple of Darren Aronofsky soundtracks to Nicole Lizée’s “PhoneTap + CCTV,” which had the quartet members chattering on old-style telephones and bowing their instruments with rolls of parchment paper. Transcending geographic and cultural boundaries and the restraining walls between genres has been part of the purpose of Kronos, as has been catering to curiosity.
And there’s also the intent to have music make a difference. Kronos’s return to Carnegie Hall on November 3 begins with that same huapango, “El Sinaloense,” and proceeds with what Harrington characterizes as “lots of tangents dealing with environmental and climate-change issues.” Harrington cites progressive journalist I. F. Stone and socialist history professor Howard Zinn as greater influences on him and Kronos than have been most musical icons.
In evidence in Stern Auditorium /Perelman Stage will be a few of the long time collaborating friendships integral to the quartet’s approach to making music: Laurie Anderson, Wu Man, and arranger and horn player Jacob Garchik. The spirit of trusted community will be expanded in the evening’s finale—a new version of “Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector” by veteran composer and friend Terry Riley—to include Sō Percussion and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, as well as several ensembles who have looked to Kronos as role models: Attacca Quartet, Aizuri Quartet, and PUBLIQuartet.
During its 2015–2016 season, Kronos launched Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire in partnership with Carnegie Hall’s own 125 Commissions Project. The nonprofit Kronos PerformingArts Association describes this unprecedented project as “a free library of 50 contemporary works, designed to guide string quartets in developing and honing the skills required for the performance of 21st-century repertoire.” The library includes “YanYanKliYan Senamido” by Kidjo, based on traditional music of her nativeBenin; “Sivunittinni,” composed by Tanya Tagaq, who will join Kronos for a special performance of the piece at Carnegie Hall; and “Only Ever Us” by Paul Wiancko, composed two years before he was recruited as Kronos’s newest member earlier this year.
Harrington is rightfully proud of the impact of Kronos Fifty for the Future on performers as well as the commissioned composers. “The music is appearing on concerts of other professional groups, but it’s also being used in high schools and colleges across the US and in Europe and Asia. It makes me happy when a group I’ve never heard from emails me that they’ve discovered a [Kronos Fifty for the Future] piece, totally independent of our coming to their town, from their own initiative. It’s that initiative that I hope we can stimulate.” To date, Kronos Fifty for the Future scores and parts have been downloaded more than 33,700 times from 107 countries and territories worldwide.
Musing on Kronos’s anniversary, Harrington chuckles, “I’m not really sure I can make sense of this as an arc of 50 years.” But he does recall his awareness, after first discovering George Crumb’s Black Angels in the turmoil of the 1970s, that “there was a disconnect between what it felt like to be a young musician, the music that we found available to play, and the feeling in our society. In November of 1973, how many areas of the world weren’t represented in our field? My wife, Regan, asked me, ‘Where are the women composers?’ It was practically impossible to do what we were trying to do then”—showcasing new music from divergent sources.
The nascent quartet’s mission was directed by this challenge, despite, as Harrington recalls, being advised by a Seattle Symphony musician that “this has been tried before—playing contemporary music—and good luck, but it’s not gonna be successful.” Kronos’s first season, at North Seattle Community College, included (alongside Webern, Bartók, and Hindemith) the first piece composed for the quartet written by Ken Benshoof. Their collaborations with composers have by now elicited more than a thousand pieces that speak to both the musicians’ virtuosity and their inquisitive courage. “And each one of those composers has become a teacher for us,” says Harrington.
In its first few years, Kronos changed players and places, relocating briefly from Seattle to Binghamton, New York, and arriving at its permanent SanFrancisco residence in 1977. Violist Hank Dutt, who has the second-longest tenure in the group, was joined by violinist John Sherba and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud in 1978. A year later, they recorded their first album, launching what would eventually become a catalog of more than 70 albums, three of which would go on to win Grammys. In 1990, the group released Black Angels, the work that inspired Harrington to form the quartet seven years earlier. “It had immediately become an antiwar statement for me,” he says, “and we’ve played it during every war the United States has been involved with since.”
While touring disseminated the quartet’s reputation, it also fostered Harrington’s further study of music, his instrument, and the possibilities of the ensemble.“ When we started performing with the Modern Jazz Quartet, I recognized how they were truly quartet players, subtle and soft,” he recounts as he discusses the intimate interplay between chamber musicians. “Although Astor Piazzolla’s violinist Fernando Suárez Paz couldn’t tell anybody how he did what he did, he helped me out by showing me. And Nicolae Neacşu, founder of [the Romanian-Romani] Taraf de Haïdouks, taught me how to tie a loose string onto the G string of the violin and have it sound like it’s speaking when you play. This August, when I was a mentor in Banff, I was able to teach a young player how to do this.”
In the process of busting boundaries, Kronos hasn’t felt a need to subvert the well-established and relatively well-supported community of ensemble chamber music, but rather to partner with and inform it. “We were invited to play at the Esterházy Palace, where Haydn wrote many of his quartets,” Harrington relates. “The question was, ‘Are you going to play any Haydn?’ And my response was simply no. There are plenty of people playing Haydn. What I wanted was to play our ‘inner Haydn.’ We started with ‘Last Kind Words,’ the music of Geeshie Wiley, a Black American singer-guitarist from the 1930s. And from there, it was all composers from places Haydn would have never been able to hear music from. We celebrate the art form by bringing things into the world for which Haydn, Mozart,Beethoven, and Schubert created the foundation. What we are all doing wouldn’t have happened without Haydn, without two violins, a viola, and a cello.”
Harrington recently got word that Norbert Brainin, the first violinist of the Amadeus Quartet who died in 2005, was a Kronos fan. “And I thought, ‘That’s so cool!’ They never did anything like we do. But I always thought they were great talents, with their feeling of quartetness.” By way of association, he recalls a conversation with Dumisani Maraire, the Zimbabwean composer and mbira player who starts and finishes Kronos’s Pieces of Africa, which in 1992 became the first album to top both of Billboard’s classical and world music charts. “Dumisani told me that the first music he ever heard was Bach, even before he heard his Shona tribal music. There was something about bowed Western strings that called to him. And I think that’s been true of many of our collaborations, along with our group personality, that has always invited creation.”