BIG EARS 2015: Kronos Quartet

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On a mid-February evening, David Harrington, first violinist and founder of Kronos Quartet, politely accepts a scheduled phone call, and even more politely delays the intended conversation with a digression on war photography.

“I met a photojournalist who has covered virtually every war in the last 30 years,” says Harrington. “His name is James Nachtwey. He was showing me his photographs and there was no way I could not keep looking at these. It was just so incredibly beautiful, moving, disturbing. It was so many things all at once.”

Kronos Quartet was founded in 1973. The ensemble has changed little in terms of membership over those 41 years plus change. Currently alongside Harrington onstage and in studio are violinist John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Sunny Yang. Kronos Quartet has recorded and performed music from across the spectrum—from Esquivel to Jimi Hendrix, Steve Reich to Terry Riley, Alban Berg to Alfred Schnittke, Bryce Dessner to Oswaldo Golijov, and most of what lies between. Kronos Quartet has redefined a form that many consider to have been perfected by Beethoven. And Kronos has refined that form in ways that, surprisingly, can make the string quartet seem the ideal descriptive and documentary device for life during the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

One way Kronos Quartet has advanced the string quartet form is by commissioning diverse works specifically for their collective and individual instrumental voices. More than 850 original works have been written for them. David Harrington may have been made aware that the goal for this article was to examine the Kronos commission and cultivation programs. If not, all the more impressive is the ease with which he transforms the Nachtwey portfolio from momentary diversion to Exhibit A.

“There is no way that is not going to lead to a Kronos project,” he says of the photos. “Music has to be a counterbalance to terror and war.”

Kronos has fruitful and long-running histories of collaboration with American minimalist giants Riley, Reich, Philip Glass, and John Adams, and there is an often otherwise unaffiliated school of gifted living composers who value Kronos both as assessor and ambassador. Kronos is their mirror and their pitchman. And so the repertoire grows of its own accord.

The Kronos Performing Arts Association is a San Francisco-based nonprofit that raises and disperses much of the funds necessary to make all this music. According to the organization’s website, 40 new works are currently underway by composers from 25 different countries. In order to commemorate the ensemble’s 30th anniversary in 2003, Kronos launched the “Under 30” program—1,000-plus aspiring composers from 58 countries, all under the age of 30, submitted compositions for consideration, and five of them have been realized and have received their premiere performances.

The system works.

“When I was 12, I first heard string-quartet music,” Harrington says, remembering a time when his musical world was shaped by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. “I got addicted to the sound. Years later, it became clear to me that at that age, the string quartet became my instrument. At age 14, I’m looking at the globe and I have this realization that all the music I know for this form that I’m addicted to was written by four men who lived in the same city.

“As I got a little older, I began playing music written by composers living in Seattle. I started to play the music of Bartók and started to hear all kinds of music by Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Edgard Varèse, and Charles Ives. And the vocabulary started to increase. Then I started to hear music from Africa and Asia and different places. Then there’s the contact with the American war in Vietnam and thinking, what am I going to do with my life?

“And then hearing [West Virginia composer George Crumb’s] Black Angels in 1973 for the first time, and all of a sudden I knew exactly what I had to do. There was not even a question. It was one of those moments when everything was so clear.

“A week later I started Kronos.”

Harrington was 24 years old at the time.

In January of this year, Kronos announced a new program, “Fifty for the Future,” a program that promises continued new music—50 new compositions over the next five years—and an online infrastructure that provides teaching tools to music educators and emerging musicians around the world at no charge. Among Kronos’ many blue-chip partners for the endeavor is the host institution, Carnegie Hall.

“There’s so much that can be done in music,” Harrington says. “One experience leads to another. Music itself is a set of variations. This substance, this man-made substance, is infinitely variable. Each person, each group, each composer, is able to create these variations and we get to share it with each other.”

And life is long.


Kronos Quartet will perform
with the following:

The Music of Terry Riley with Wu Man • Tennessee Theatre • Friday, March 27 • 9 p.m. 

Folk Songs with Rhiannon Giddens and Sam Amidon • Tennessee Theatre • Saturday, March 28 • 1:30 p.m. 

Landfall with Laurie Anderson • Tennessee Theatre • Saturday, March 28 • 7 p.m. 

Tundra Songs with Tanya Tagaq • The Standard • Sunday, March 29 • 3 p.m.

40 Canons with Bryce Dessner • The Standard • Sunday, March 29 • 3:52 p.m. 

Views from Here to the Heavens (for Scott Fraser) with Nels Cline • The Standard • Sunday, March 29 • 10 p.m.

Read all our Big Ears coverage here.

Chris Barrett's Shelf Life alerts readers to new arrivals at the Lawson McGhee Library's stellar Sights and Sounds collection, along with recommendations and reminders of staples worthy of revisiting. He is a former Metro Pulse staff writer who’s now a senior assistant at the Knox County Public Library.

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