The Kronos Quartet is a superstar of contemporary classical music. During their more than 40 years together, the San Francisco–based group has continually pushed the art of classical music forward, creating the definitive blueprint of what a contemporary string quartet is and should be. As such, any composer who is commissioned to write a piece for the group is guaranteed instant celebrity status. Some of the A-listers who have created works for Kronos include Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Ástor Piazzolla, and Osvaldo Golijov. I recently spoke with group founder and violinist David Harrington.
Before we get to the music stuff, I’m dying to know what you guys do when not playing music. Each one of us is interested in all sorts of things. For me, I try to stay on top of current events. At home I’m always checking out C-SPAN and MSNBC and exploring the field of music. I’m the most delighted amateur in the world. For me that’s a great deal of fun. Also trying to learn more about the world of expression, whether it might be scientific, religious, poetic, or theatrical expression. Those kinds of things are very important to me.
For your UCSB program, you’re playing a wide stylistic range, from works by Gregorian chant composer Hildegard von Bingen to Mary Kouyoumdjian’s Silent Cranes. How do you guys prepare such a repertoire? Well, there’s no way to prepare for a piece like Silent Cranes [a multimedia piece commissioned by Kronos in commemoration of the Armenian genocide centennial]. But actually all the music we play — you use everything you have in terms of the knowledge and experience, and emotional questioning.
The quartet has been committed to performing contemporary works; can you explain your Fifty for the Future project? Over the next five years, we will be commissioning five women and five men to write pieces. What we’re hoping to do is create a body of work that will allow other musicians right into the center of the world of music that we inhabit — especially young quartet players. They will be available on the Internet, totally free to download along with recordings. We’re playing these pieces all over the world, and we think it will be great to play Wu Man’s Four Chinese Paintings in Santa Barbara.
That’s cool! I have to say, I’m a sucker for those Piazzolla recordings. Yeah, that was one of the most astonishing experiences we’ve had, to work with Ástor Piazzolla [the famous Argentine tango composer who wrote Five Tango Sensations for Kronos]. We recorded it in two hours, and we don’t do anything in two hours in a recording studio. The musical force and intent that he had was so incredibly strong. It was like a magnet; it was a beast. It shocked all of us; we just sat there and did it. It was amazing.
Any advice for young quartet artists starting out? Fifty for the Future will be a good place to start. In terms of getting a group together, it takes a lot of single-mindedness. It’s very important to not allow the difficulties of being a musician in our society get you depressed or down, or to somehow subvert your desire to live with the world of music every moment of your life that you can. I think it’s very important to create a community. Something [historian] Howard Zinn told me once: “You can’t do anything by yourself. You need to have a community of people.” It can start with your friends, family, and move on from there.
Another thing is play everywhere you can. When Kronos started in Seattle 1973, I started out as a booking agent — believe it or not. We played in every art gallery, every school, and every ferryboat. Everywhere you can imagine music possibly [being played], Kronos was doing it.
The Kronos Quartet will perform Thursday, November 19, at 7 p.m. at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Call (805) 893-3535 or see artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.