When violinist David Harrington founded the Kronos Quartet in 1973, he contacted every New York manager from Musical America for representation. “I didn’t get one callback,” said Harrington in an interview with 21CM’s Mark Rabideau. “The thing is, at that point we hadn’t done anything. It was all in our imaginations. I guess this is a way of saying that it’s important for adults and seniors … to be cognizant of those people that have that desire to make something, and they haven’t done anything yet – but you know they will.”
Harrington takes his own advice to trust others’ creativity when he reaches out to composers dozens of times throughout the year, seeking to forge relationships that will lead to fruitful collaborations and daring new music. His faith in artistic vision is largely what has made Kronos the groundbreaking ensemble that it is: a vanguard in promoting contemporary music and possibly the first classical ensemble to stylize themselves after a rock-star aesthetic. Over its 43 years, Kronos’s many accomplishments include commissioning over 900 new works, recording soundtracks for films like Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, producing dozens of studio albums and winning both the Polar Music Prize and a Grammy.
The group’s hunger to bring fresh, high-quality music to new audiences is insatiable, with new initiatives starting every few years. In 2015, the Kronos Quartet launched their 50 for the Future project, an effort to make the music they perform more accessible to other quartets. Commissioning 50 composers from all over the world, 25 of them women and 25 of them men, Kronos stipulated that scores and recordings be provided for free on their website. And this month the group celebrated their third annual music festival based in San Francisco, KRONOS FESTIVAL 2017: Here and Now.
David Harrington took some time to speak with 21CM about what motivates him and his group to keep dreaming and working to create the most inventive music yet.
On pursuing personal artistic vision…
There are moments when there are things you have to do in your work. Usually they’re very personal things. For me, the sound of the string quartet has been my instrument since I was a little kid, since I was about 12 and I first heard the Budapest Quartet on record. The Opus 127, Beethoven – that opening chord just did it for me. And I wanted to make that sound. I got a group together and for a tenth of a second, it sounded like the record. So I believe in tenths of seconds and the value of that little moment when everything gets clear. [That moment] doesn’t happen very often, but it happens often enough that you can remember it and count on those kinds of things happening.
…What I’ve always trusted the most is the inner voice, the sound that you’re hearing inside at any point that is the result of everything that’s happened to you in life. It’s the resonating body that music bounces off of or absorbs. To me, that’s how we hear, actually. I want music that is so beautiful and so strong and so powerful that it can actually solve problems in the world. That’s what I want.
On the behind-the-scenes work with the composers…
A lot of my personal work as artistic director is in the conversations with the composers, sometimes years in advance. One of the things I find very important is to try to be aware of when someone might be able to write a great piece next. Like, what’s going on in life? Those little moments of clarity, those big moments that are almost like branching-off moments in life – those are when people ought to write quartets for Kronos.
On how Kronos’s worldwide reach has changed over the years…
The thing about our work now is we’re regularly in touch with musicians from every continent [and] many different cultures, backgrounds, religions. When we first started it was so much more limited. Now it’s a much larger panorama.
…What we’re trying to do [with Fifty for the Future] is make a body of music that can bring other groups into the kind of work we do. One thing that we want is [for] there to be as many women composers as men composers. And that goes back to the very first concert that Kronos played in 1973. My wife said, well, where [are] the women composers? Well, I didn’t know a woman composer. People now can’t even imagine that would have been possible, but it was the truth. Not only that, I didn’t know any Asian composers, any South American composers, absolutely no African composers. You could go on and on about what I didn’t know. I had long lists of things I wanted to be sure that we did in Kronos. I’ve since lost all the lists but I’ve tried to mark off as many of the things I can remember.
These highlights have been edited for clarity and length.