From the December 2016 issue of Strings | BY DAVID TEMPLETON
It’s a classic Kronos Quartet moment. As late-afternoon shadows lengthen across the sprawling “backyard” of Rancho Nicasio—a western-style roadhouse tucked among the hills of Marin County—the large, lawn-chaired audience appears to be literally holding its collective breath, as something bizarre and beautiful and one-of-a-kind takes place before them. Perched precariously atop a tiny outdoor stage, the four members of Kronos—David Harrington (first violin), John Sherba (second violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Sunny Yang (cello)—are playing the final notes of a brand-new composition that has, quite clearly, stunned, surprised, delighted, astonished, and perhaps even confused this deeply attentive and open-mouthed assemblage of afternoon music seekers.
After the briefest of pauses, Harrington, Sherba, Dutt, and Yang all lower their bows, and wait. As if shaken from a trance, the audience abruptly roars to life, responding to whatever it was that Kronos just played with the kind of ferocious applause usually reserved for NBA playoffs and lifetime-achievement presentations at the Academy Awards.
‘The piece played is titled “Sivunittinni,” by acclaimed Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq, of Northern Canada. Composed by Tagaq as a special commission for Kronos’ recently launched Fifty for the Future project, “Sivunittinni” sounds less like a traditional string-quartet composition (even by Kronos standards) than it resembles the straining and croaking of ropes and planks on some 18th-century pirate ship on a long ocean voyage. Or perhaps it’s the primal snorting and snoring of a vast, hibernating herd of woolly mammoths. Or a symphony of creaking doors played by agitated spirits in a haunted house.
Whatever it’s supposed to resemble—and stay tuned to find out the answer to that question—as played by Kronos with the group’s characteristic commitment, focus, and musical mastery, “Sivunittinni” is wholly mesmerizing, unnervingly jarring, and entirely magnificent.
“Thank you. You know,” says Harrington with a sheepish grin, once the uproar has died down, “I think the world will be a much cooler place when every young string quartet in the world can sound like that!” The remark is met with another burst of delighted applause.
After discussing the piece a bit more, Harrington briefly describes the basic idea behind Fifty for the Future. Over a five-year period, Kronos will be commissioning 50 brand-new pieces of music, created for Kronos by some of the planet’s greatest living composers, 25 women and 25 men. Each year, ten of the pieces will be introduced by Kronos through their concerts, with the musical scores made available—for free—on the Kronos Quartet’s website. Along with detailed notes by the composers on how to play the pieces—some of which include non-traditional elements like oscillating fans, sonic electronics, and even a bit of singing—all 50 pieces will eventually be posted, in hopes that other string quartets, from the brand new to the long established, will be encouraged to take a crack at them, hopefully adding some or all of them to their own repertoire.
“All you need to know,” Harrington adds, the unforgettable sounds of “Sivunittinni” still ringing through the crowd’s collective cerebral cortex, “is that if any of you out there want to sound like that, too, all you have to do is go home after the concert, download the music you just heard, and go out and play it yourselves.
“That,” he says, “is what Fifty for the Future is all about.”
The ambitious effort—also known as “The Kronos Learning Repertoire”—is gleefully and quintessentially Kronos. Since 1973, the San Francisco–based ensemble has been energetically committed to changing the course of quartet music. Eschewing the standard classical repertoire, the music of Kronos has always been music of the moment, created by composers equally engaged with testing the boundaries of what is possible within the structure of a standard quartet ensemble.
Often minimalist, and boldly experimental, the type of music Kronos has gravitated toward—as evidenced in its mighty discography of over 40 studio albums, numerous digital recordings and movie soundtracks, and countless contributions to other artists’ albums—always asks its listeners to be willing to let go of comfortable definitions of what music can and should do.
Along the way, Kronos has collaborated with and commissioned works from a consciously and geographically diverse pool of composers, often creating works that require Kronos to adopt new techniques and technologies, and in terms of content, frequently take on some of the most challenging and significant issues facing the world today, from war to global warming, from life on Earth to the promises of outer space.
The composers involved in Fifty for the Future are no less eclectic. Already announced for year one and year two are 20 composers whose careers have been similarly focused on evolving the definition of what it means to be a musician or a composer. They include well-known names such as Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Rhiannon Giddens, India’s Grammy-winning Kala Ramnath, and Ireland’s Garth Knox, along with lesser-known creators, some of whom are better known as musicians than as composers for string quartets.
Select scores and compositions are available for download already, including Franghiz Ali-Zadeh’s “Reqs,” an 8:32-minute piece titled after the Azerbaijani wordmeaning “dance.” There is also Aleksandra Vrebalov’s “My Desert, My Rose,” a 7:14-minute composition that proves to be propulsive, wildly soaring, and intensely dramatic. The five-movement “Sunjata’s Time” is by Fodé Lassana Diabaté of Mali, who composed and recorded the piece on the balafon, a kind of wooden xylophone. The piece was then transcribed by Jacob Garchik for Fifty for the Future.
The aforementioned Garth Knox has contributed a cosmic-jazz fantasia titled “Satellites,” which requires a number of non-traditional techniques, including circular bowing, looping pizzicato, left-handed slaps, and the “whip,” which is making a swooshing sound in the air with an upward swipe of the bow. The final of the “first five” is “Four Chinese Paintings,” by Wu Man, the Grammy-winning pipa player from China. Composed on the pipa—a four-stringed Chinese lute—the four-movement piece was arranged for Kronos by Danny Clay.
Another five scores will be uploaded—along with recordings of Kronos performing the pieces, and videos of the composers describing the thought processes behind each piece—before the end of the year. Year one, of course, will eventually include the score of “Sivunittinni.”
“It’s the sound of Arctic ice breaking,” Harrington says with a laugh, finally answering the question of what Tanya Tagaq’s magnificent piece is intended to represent.
It is several weeks after the Marin County performance. Harrington is taking a break after a Kronos rehearsal at the Phyllis Wattis Theater, inside San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art. This evening, Kronos will join four other groups—including the Albany High School a capella team and San Francisco electronic hypno-rock trio Bronze—all covering, in very different ways, the 1986 Crowded House hit “Don’t Dream It’s Over.”
It’s further evidence of the indelible spirit of adventure and curiosity that has defined the Kronos Quartet for 44 years, and which lies at the very heart of Fifty for the Future.
“We’re hoping that when this is all complete five years from now,” he says, “other players will have this musical mosaic of the world that Kronos is a part of, and that all of us are a part of. It will be notated music by people whom you maybe wouldn’t ever be able to find out how to get to work with—like Philip Glass, like Fodé Lassana Diabaté, like Tanya Tagaq.”
According to Harrington, the purpose of the project is to teach players— including the members of Kronos—about how these wildly different composers approach and think about and live out their music.
“I’m trying to find a way to speak to each of the composers,” he says, “in a way that will make them think about how they put their musical life together, and what it is they can share about that with Kronos and everybody else who might want to play their music.”
One of the reasons Kronos began the project, he explains, is that for years, whenever the quartet would be invited to coach musicians at colleges, universities, and conservatories, there was an obvious problem whenever Kronos suggested focusing on the type of music they’ve built their careers on.
“We’d say, ‘OK, let’s work on something by Alfred Schnittke. Let’s do “Black Angels.” Let’s do Terry Riley!’ And they’d say, ‘Um, how do we get that music?’
“There was always some reason why the music we suggested didn’t arrive at the school, and then they would say, ‘Oh, well, actually, we’re going to be doing Schubert, today.’ Which is fine. I love Schubert as much as the next guy, but it’s not what we do.
“So,” he continues, “we decided to circumvent all of the excuses we’ve heard for our entire career, all the reasons why people can’t learn and play the kind of music we play. Now, that music is there, it’s online, and it’s free. And it’s as accurately edited as possible. We are working hard to get every slur, every accidental, and every indication the composer has in mind—to get this amazing music as correctly notated as possible.”
Along with each piece, in addition to the score and parts, and the previously mentioned videos and audio recordings, there is exhaustive biographical material about each composer.
“And in the case of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s piece,” Harrington says, “there are also several paintings that she made. That’s how she composes her pieces. They all begin as paintings—so we have those, too.”
The process of putting all of this together, while exhausting and time consuming, is part of the pleasure of the Fifty for the Future project. He mentions a composition by Nicole Lizée, of Canada, who will be included in year two’s batch of downloads.
“I was mixing her work yesterday,” he says. “When she was little, she used to take clocks apart and put them back together again, just to see how they work. Now she does these amazing musical pieces.
“Her Fifty for the Future piece in is two parts, and one of them requires a fan.” That’s right. A fan. You know how, as a kid, you used to sing into a fan and it made your voice sound funny?
“Well, this piece does that,” Harrington says. “Each of us in the quartet has a different fan behind us.
“And then there are these ‘twirlies,’ and ‘groan tubes,’ and sometimes we have to stomp in rhythmic ways. There are so many things that are fun to do, including singing while we play.
“For me,” he adds with a laugh, “I never thought I would be hearing my own voice on a recording, but yesterday, I did. These are the things you get to do when you are part of the world we are a part of. Things you never thought you’d do. You’re not trained for this. No one is trained for some of this stuff, but when you are able to accomplish it, it’s fun. And you feel more capable somehow.”
Though the website does not currently have the technological wherewithal to track the folks who are downloading the initial batch of scores, Harrington says that some groups have been sending Kronos video and audio recordings of themselves playing the pieces.
“That’s been very exciting,” he says. “We get to look at each other and say, ‘Wow! It’s working.’”
“Fifty for the Future is very much a project about legacy,” says Janet Cowperthwaite, managing director of the Kronos Performing Arts Association. She adds, “We want these 50 to be available a hundred years from now.”
KPAA is the nonprofit organization that was built around Kronos back in 1975. It’s a unique model that allows Kronos to receive grants and funding not available to individual artists, and makes projects like Fifty for the Future possible.
According to Cowperthwaite, Kronos has commissioned over 900 new works and new arrangements over the years. In most cases, the composer—or the composer’s publisher—owns the copyright of that piece, with Kronos, as commissioner, gaining the right of first performance, along with permission to record and perform the work for a specified number of years.
“With Fifty for the Future,” Cowperthwaite says, “our organization does own these works. That’s something we talk to the composers about at the front end of our conversation, because it’s different. The reason we need to own them is that we need to have the right to give them away for free. The first 20 composers we’ve worked with have been really delighted to be a part of this, and there has been no intense conversation around wanting higher fees because they are giving up ownership. I think they all understand that this is about education, and access, and giving something to future generations of string players.”
Cowperthwaite acknowledges that there is plenty of new music being written in the world today, and much of that is available, one way or another, to performing musicians who are eager to play it.
“What sets Fifty for the Future apart is ease of access,” she says. One need not write in for permission. You don’t have to track down any agents or managers. And best of all, no money changes hands.
“Anyone with internet access and a printer,” Cowperthwaite says, “can get this music, instantly.”
Which brings up the question, what exactly is this music? How can it be described or categorized? Asked how he describes the music Kronos has embraced and promoted over the last 44 years, Harrington pauses a moment.
“I do my best to not describe it,” he finally says, “because I’m never sure where it might go next, and I want it to be wild and free and mysterious. But I am hoping it will always be as inclusive of creativity and ideas about life as possible. I want our music to always have viewpoints, surprising and unexpected viewpoints, ways of looking at life and society, ways that can give us energy and hope, and perhaps a new ability or a new skillset with which to deal with the world we are all a part of right now.”
Part of the excitement of presenting a project like Fifty for the Future to the world, he says, is that it finally allows Kronos to share, in an intimate, personal way, what it’s been like to be the Kronos Quartet.
“We were at Carnegie Hall, working with some students, and one of the pieces required the violist to get up and play little Chinese wood blocks, and Chinese cymbal,” he recalls. “Now, she’d never done anything like that in her life, and here she is, on the stage of Carnegie Hall, doing it anyway. It was thrilling to see that!
“We’ve done that kind of stuff,” he goes on. “We’ve been doing that kind of stuff for years, but most people who play the kind of music we do, do not do that as part of a quartet. But when you do it, as we’ve discovered, all of a sudden, your palette gets bigger.
“When that happens,” Harrington says, “the whole idea of what your own quartet might be able to become, that changes. It evolves and it morphs. And the idea of what you, yourself, might be able to do with your violin or your viola or your cello, that changes, and then, all of your ideas about what you might be able to accomplish with your own talent and experience, and what you might be able to do with your whole life, that changes, because it all suddenly gets a whole lot bigger.
“And that,” he says, “is a very good thing.”