Kronos Quartet At 40: Songs We Love
Most every Kronos Quartet fan who has followed the group through its four-decade career has a favorite Kronos moment. Mine is from around 1990 in El Paso, Texas, when a performance of Istvan Marta's powerfully evocative Doom. A Sigh caused me to hyperventilate right there in the theater. The immense power the group unleashed that night is indicative of the astoundingly wide-ranging trove of music it has engendered — more than 800 new works and arrangements by composers from all over the world.
To mark the quartet's 40th anniversary, Alex Ambrose of Q2 Music spoke to some of the group's myriad composers and collaborators, from veteran Steve Reich to newcomer Dan Visconti of the Kronos Under 30 Project. And our own Anastasia Tsioulcas talked with Terry Riley.
The celebrations don't stop here. This past Monday night, Q2 hosted a performance by the group, recorded live at The Greene Space, that you can watch online; they will also be providing an encore presentation of a 24-hour Kronos Quartet marathon online this coming Sunday, March 30.
I first met Kronos back in about 1987 or 1988. Betty Freeman, who's no longer with us, and was a music patron, asked me to write a piece for Kronos, and I was delighted to do that. [That piece, Different Trains, now stands as a landmark of modern chamber music. - Ed.] Before Kronos, the string quartet was basically a group of four musicians who were playing Haydn up through Bartók; rarely would they do something else. That was the bread-and-butter repertoire they dealt with. Kronos' basic idea was: "We're going to start after Bartók, and go forward, and make this our daily bread. That's our gig." And now, without naming them, there are close to, I don't know, a dozen different young string quartets who frankly I think would have been inconceivable without Kronos breaking through, blazing the path. They have given the string quartet a new lease on life and a new possibility for younger composers to think of the string quartet as not just the possibility of first violin, second violin, viola and cello, but all of that plus pre-recording; all of that plus non-musical sounds; all of that plus other musicians who have nothing to do with even Western music. It's not only what they themselves have achieved, but the door that they have opened for so many other quartets to pass through. — Steve Reich
I'm a composer and concert presenter who's not only a fan of the Kronos Quartet but has had the chance to work with them on the "Under 30" commissions; I'm "Under 30" composer No. 3. The first time I had the chance to hear the Kronos Quartet was actually as a child on the television show "Sesame Street." It was really great to see a string quartet live, in a fun environment, and there was something about their presence that was really interesting, even to a young child. There's something about how Kronos approaches interpreting music that is just so incredibly nuanced, because it's so informed by commissioning hundreds and hundreds of new compositions. — Dan Visconti
I think 20 years ago I met the Kronos Quartet at a new music festival in Pittsburgh. A couple of days later, I got a phone call from David Harrington and he said that they were interested and wanted to work with me. I wasn't quite sure about this ensemble, and also my English was not very good, so it was very funny — after the phone call, I talked to my musician friends, and I said, "There is this very weird guy calling me, he says they're called the Kronos Quartet." My friends were all very shocked. And by then, I understood: "Ohhhh!" And then we had a piece by a Chinese composer, Zhou Long; that was the first piece for pipa [Chinese lute] and string quartet, which premiered in 1992. The experience of working with the Kronos Quartet opened my music thinking, or you could say was the turning point of my musical career. — Wu Man
I first met Kronos in 1984 in Darmstadt, Germany, at the international summer course for contemporary music. They were playing Morton Feldman's huge Second String Quartet. It was about four and a half hours long. They finally ended sometime after midnight and it was clear they could barely stand up to take a bow. So I went backstage to congratulate them, but also said, "Would you like a neck rub? Because obviously you can't move!" And a couple of them put their hands up immediately. We all went out to dinner and we became very good friends. It was while we were there that David [Harrington] asked me about my music, if he could hear some stuff, and if I could arrange it for Kronos. I'd written this piece called White Man Sleeps, and I initially said no, because it was in African tuning and I didn't see how they could possibly play it. But the more I thought about it, the more I became interested in a string quartet version in Western tuning. So I did write the piece, and the following Darmstadt, in 1986, we were back in the same place, the same hall, and they premiered the piece. And it caused a riot. We had people marching up and down, in front of the quartet, complaining. The shouting and the booing and the applause went on for almost as long as the piece. They definitely changed the course of contemporary music, in one way or another. — Kevin Volans
The first time the Kronos Quartet got on my radar, I certainly wasn't in any position to meet them — I was a kid! I had this record — it was a lovely thing. It had a piece by an Australian composer called Peter Sculthorpe and a piece by Kevin Volans. I loved it. — Donnacha Dennehy
I was on the faculty at Mills College during the '70s and early '80s, and I was on the selection committee for bringing in guest artists, and Kronos made an application. I heard their demo tape, and I was just really floored by how beautifully they played contemporary music. It's the same thing that I think they've always kept over the years. Just this incredible energy that they put into their music, an intensity and dedication to detail that was quite unusual, especially at that time, because performances of new music were often very shoddy, you know. People would just kind of be reading the music. David Harrington [the group's founder and first violinist] took this so seriously that he really goes deeply into any piece he prepares for performance. — Terry Riley