50 Years and 1,100 New Works In, Kronos Quartet is Showing No Signs of Slowing Down

When Kronos Quartet traveled to Hungary in 2018 to perform at Esterházy Palace – the home of Franz Joseph Haydn’s patrons that served as a center for string quartet development in the 18th century – many people thought they’d perform Haydn’s music as a tribute. Instead, the group wanted to showcase the innovations of today’s composers. “There are people living among us right now who are writing fabulous music,” said David Harrington, founding violinist of Kronos, on a Zoom call. “There’s this sense of creativity, this sense of working with this artform — two violins, a viola, and a cello — and finding new ways of thinking about it.”

For the last 50 years, Kronos Quartet has been committed to new music. Founded in Seattle in 1973, the group, which now comprises violist Hank Dutt, violinist John Sherba, cellist Paul Wiancko, and Harrington, provided a platform for reimagining the string quartet and amplifying the voices of living composers. And since their establishment, they’ve commissioned more than 1,100 new works, gradually building a vision for the future.

Throughout their 2023-24 season, titled “Five Decades,” Kronos is celebrating the last 50 years of commissioning with 10 new works by both longtime and first-time collaborators, including Sahba Aminikia, Peni Candra Rini, inti figgis-vizueta, Michael Gordon, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Gabriella Smith, Trey Spruance, Mazz Swift, Vân-Ánh Võ, and Aleksandra Vrebalov. These 10 new works spotlight Kronos’ commitment to diversifying the string quartet repertoire, and highlight the themes that have graced Kronos’ work since the beginning, such as folk traditions, social issues, and creative experimentation with the string quartet format.

Kronos Quartet, 1988 -- Photo by Michele Clement

Kronos Quartet, 1988 — Photo by Michele Clement

By commissioning new works that touch on a variety of musical styles, Kronos aims to expand the potential of the string quartet. “What we want is really wonderful music and wonderful experiences that will give all of us more energy, and more perspective on possibilities,” Harrington said. “It’s going to make us all better musicians and better listeners.”

Premieres of Kronos’ Five Decades commissions began in the fall with inti figgis-vizueta’s clay songs, first performed in November 2023. For the piece, she looked to the Andean whistling jar, a pre-Columbian vessel that made a variety of ringing tones; clay songs conjures the spirit of these instruments by mixing thimbles, mules, and modern whistling jars with Kronos’ strings, creating a lattice of bird-like chirps.

Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Gold Came From Space also premiered this fall. The piece is a celebration of Kronos’ groundbreaking work and explores ideas of memory and freedom, which have colored her writing for the ensemble since their early collaborations. Vrebalov first met Kronos in the 1990s while she was studying composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music; since, she has composed 16 pieces for the quartet, and her Five Decades commission spotlights the individual members of the ensemble, giving each of them a solo cadenza.

"Five Decades" composers Michael Gordon, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Aleksandra Vrebalov, and inti figgis-vizueta

“Five Decades” composers Michael Gordon, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Aleksandra Vrebalov, and inti figgis-vizueta

In addition to Vrebalov’s work, several other Five Decades commissions pay tribute to longtime collaborations. On Mar. 2 in Berkeley, CA, Kronos will premiere gfedcba by Michael Gordon, his fifth piece for the group. In an email, Gordon detailed his long appreciation for Kronos’ vision, recalling how, when he was a kid in the ‘70s, new music wasn’t always well-received. He remembers going to a classical concert with his mom, and the room emptied when it was time for the newest piece on the program. Around the same time, Harrington launched Kronos and committed to playing music by living composers, opening up new avenues for the string quartet. When Gordon later teamed up with Julia Wolfe and David Lang to start Bang on a Can in the ‘80s, the three of them looked to Kronos’ vision for inspiration.

When reflecting on his collaborations with Kronos, Gordon recalls the group’s thoughtful involvement in sharing ideas and trying out different ways to articulate the music. “They knew so much more about how to make the music speak than I did,” Gordon said. “In the end, they completely ignored my markings and turned the music into something vibrant that jumped off the page. That is the mark of a great musical ensemble.”

Mary Kouyoumdjian’s first collaboration with Kronos was in 2014, and her new Five Decades commission will explore what is left after losing someone you love. Kouyoumdjian remembers learning about Kronos as a kid at her local record shop, Tower Records. Later, she participated in Kronos’ “Under 30 Project,” during which she composed Bombs of Beirut, a piece that shows the turbulent day-to-day life of people in the Middle East in their own words.

Kronos Quartet, 1999 -- Photo by Caroline Greyshock

Kronos Quartet, 1999 — Photo by Caroline Greyshock

Since that first collaboration, Kouyoumdjian’s work with Kronos has been formative. “Meeting them through this call for music makers has completely changed my life – both in helping me grow into my artistic purpose, and in offering a model on how to be generous to one’s creative community,” she said in an email. Her Five Decades commission, premiering in June in San Francisco, broaches deeply personal and intimate topics — something that can be difficult for her. But she says one of the many things she’s learned from Kronos is that “the topics that feel the most difficult to approach end up being the ones that invite the most fulfillment in personal and artistic growth,” so she is “joyfully embracing the challenge.”

One of the major themes in Kronos’ Five Decades commissions is climate change, drawing on the quartet’s interest in addressing contemporary issues. Sharing the program with Gordon’s new work on Mar. 2 is Peni Candra Rini’s Segara Gunung (Ocean-Mountain), which uses shadow puppets, original artwork, and field recordings to explore the volcanic and seismically-active ecosystem of her home country of Indonesia, and its vulnerability to the effects of climate change. Then, on Apr. 4 in Rohnert Park, CA, Kronos will premiere Sahba Aminikia’s Chahar Fasl (Four Seasons), which tells the story of Iran’s Lake Urmia, one of the largest salt lakes in the world that, due to global warming, drought, and lack of management, began to shrink; now, with the government’s revival efforts, the lake is growing again. Like Vivaldi’s famed Four Seasons concerti, Aminikia’s piece follows the cycle of the seasons, of death and rebirth.

Next up for Kronos is the premiere of Keep Going by Seattle-based composer Gabriella Smith on Jan. 27 in Stanford, CA. The piece explores how we can interweave music and environmental activism. Growing up in the Bay Area, Smith fell in love with the rich nature around her, hiking the mountains and spending time on the shore; now, she works as both a composer and environmental activist. Keep Going synthesizes these interests and is built around interviews Smith conducted with a wide variety of people working on climate solutions. To compose the music, she pieced together the interviews, then improvised on violin around the words, filling out each story with melodies.

"Five Decades" composers Peni Candra Rini, Sahba Aminikia, and Gabriella Smith

“Five Decades” composers Peni Candra Rini, Sahba Aminikia, and Gabriella Smith

At its heart, Keep Going honors the climate justice movement, offering a glimpse into the work many are doing to improve our Earth. “I wanted to provide listeners with an experience that many aren’t used to associating with the climate crisis — joy, fun, even humor,” Smith said in an email. “At a time when it feels so easy to slip into despair at the magnitude of everything we’re facing, this piece celebrates the people and communities all around us who refuse to give up and who are dedicating their lives to climate solutions in incredibly joyful ways that we all can, and all need to, be a part of.”

Kronos’ Five Decades commissions also draw on cultural histories and traditions. On Feb. 22 in Tucson, AZ, Kronos will premiere Trey Spruance’s The Black Art Book of St. Cyprian the Mage, which draws from a Byzantine epic poem to highlight the experiences of people currently in exodus around the world. And premiering on Apr. 28 in Los Angeles, Mazz Swift’s commission will look to American slave songs and spirituals to explore the Ghanaian concept of Sankofa, the idea of looking back to learn how to move forward.

RIVER by Vân-Ánh Võ, a composer and 16-string đàn tranh (zither) player finds inspiration in the Vietnamese tradition of using every part of the coconut tree and fruit, and provides a vision for a more sustainable future. For the premiere of the work on Apr. 9 in Beaverton, OR, Võ developed a communal musical instrument for Kronos to play.

"Five Decades" composers Vân-Ánh Võ, Mazz Swift, and Trey Spruance

“Five Decades” composers Vân-Ánh Võ, Mazz Swift, and Trey Spruance

Võ has had a long relationship with Kronos, who have deeply supported her vision. “When I was about to start working on my first commission for Kronos 12 years ago, David Harrington told me that I should feel free to work on music I have always wanted to bring out, but could never share before,” she said in an email. “Coming from a culture where, still today, censorship is a very real thing and women in arts are for men’s entertainment, being encouraged to freely express myself artistically was a dream come true.”

With her latest Kronos commission, Võ is exploring new areas of expression. “For RIVER, I have created a whole new instrument called ‘đàn Cây Nêu’ that is the bridge between the sound of the quartet and my instrument,” she said. She developed the piece from a research trip to the Greater Mekong Subregion, in which she researched the lives and cultures of the people living in the area. After the trip, she shared her findings with Harrington. “As the best artistic director I have worked with, David has not only been my mentor, but also the one who challenges me and encourages me to bring my best and deepest artistic ideas,” she said “Stories about the water, people, and river have been the center of our conversations, and questions of how we can share the region with audiences here have always been on my mind.”

When Harrington looks back on 50 years of commissioning and performing new works, he always returns to his eternal love of the string quartet. He has a sparkle in his eye as he describes his “inner Haydn” that blossoms whenever he sits down to play. He gestures toward his heart whenever he brings up the idea — it’s where he finds this never-ending spark for the string quartet, and his passion for the artform radiates through the new music he commissions and beyond. “What can I say?,” Harrington said with a smile. “I just infinitely love what Haydn started around 1770.”

I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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