If, among the universe’s unfathomable number of sounds and silences—many of which coast on wavelengths or at decibels undetectable to the human ear—there is an audible noise abhorrent to David Harrington, it is the cacophony of war. But even within war’s wrenching, raucous and just plain wrong symphony composed of bombs, bullets, human screams, battle cries and bone-chillingly dispassionate orders and reports, an argument can be made that the evil soundscape provides a bedrock for the work of violinist Harrington, founder and artistic director of San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet.
Kronos was launched in Seattle, WA, when Harrington returned in 1973 to his hometown after escaping the Vietnam War draft by working in Canada. He heard composer George Crumb’s “Black Angels,” a Vietnam-inspired work featuring bowed water glasses, spoken-word passages and electronic effects. The music jolted him into action and lifelong anti-war activism. “It’s why I started the group,” Harrington said in an interview with this writer in 2013. “I had to play that music.”
Kronos has made its home in San Francisco since 1977. During its 50-year, legacy-making span, the contemporary string quartet has presented thousands of national and international concerts annually, made over 70 recordings (selling more than 4 million and far surpassing any string quartet in history), won 3 Grammy Awards, 12 Grammy nominations, among many other awards, presented the annual multi-day Kronos Festival that attracts in-person audiences by the thousands, gained prominence through film soundtracks, staged multimedia works and collaborations with music industry titans such as Laurie Anderson, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Patti Smith, Zakir Hussain, and others.
Veering into monumental abundance and broader visibility, there are also educational and community programs largely overseen by the nonprofit Kronos Performing Arts Association, and the Kronos 50 for the Future project completed in 2022 that includes 50 new works commissioned by Kronos that delivers a free online module for each work with scores, recordings, instructional videos and artist interviews, and has, as of 2023, over 32,000 downloads by listeners in over 107 countries.
Topping all of the above and lifting the 50th anniversary celebration and world tour to celestial heights is the quartet’s astonishing repertoire that includes over 1,100 new works and arrangements commissioned by Kronos and its nonprofit KPAA since 1973. By expanding the contemporary string quartet library more than any other entity during the last half-century—if not all time—the works added to the string quartet canon eternally preserve and continue to showcase music written by seminal artists such as John Cage, Terry Riley, Meredith Monk, Kaija Saariaho, Tanya Tagaq, Aleksandra Vrebalov, WuMan, Philip Glass, Henryk Góreck and the next generation of up-and-coming, innovative composers gathered from around the globe.
Appearing Jan. 27 at Bing Concert Hall on the Stanford campus, Kronos in addition to Harrington, includes John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Paul Wiancko (cello). Special guests Eiko Otake (movement artist) and Mariana Sadovska (voice and harmonium) join the quartet in the program featuring Gabriella Smith’s world premiere, “Keep Going,” a Kronos arrangement of “Kiss Yo’ Ass Goodbye,” by Sun Ra, Terry Riley and Sara Miyamoto, Otake’s “eyes closed,” Nicole Lizée’s “Zonely Hearts,” Tanya Tagaq’s “Sivunittinni” (arr. by Jacob Garchik) and Sadovska’s “Chernobyl. The Harvest.”
In an interview, Harrington says what always drives the repertoire and propels the quartet’s selection of new works is the desire to work with composers they’ve not had opportunity to work with before or to work with past collaborators on never-before style projects. In regards to most of the composers on the Stanford Live program and the ten composers chosen for the KRONOS Five Decades commissions who arrive from North America, Southeast Asia, Central Europe and the Middle East, he says, “In each case there is a specific reason we felt it would be a good time at this point to have a new piece. Michael Gordon, for example, has written for Kronos for at least 20 years and every time, the work was different than the last one. We wondered, ‘What’s Michael going to do next? What might exist that hasn’t existed before?’”
Another example? The second work on the program, Kiss Yo’ Ass Goodbye. Given access to all of American jazz composer, bandleader, piano and synthesizer player Sun Ra’s recorded music, Harrington says Sun Ra, who died in 1993, is an artist who remains a creative, huge force in American music. The composers who are part of the curation, which includes favorite Kronos composer Riley, have been able to incorporate Sun Ra’s prolific output of material in new pieces.
“That’s enabled Terry with Sara to introduce aspects of Sun Ra’s amazing ‘Nuclear War’ into the work on the program,” he says. “‘Nuclear War’ is one of the definitive pieces of American music. What did that cause Terry (who at age 88 continues innovative music-making and performing) to discover? Terry found a whole new way of composing using the iPad as a compositional tool. With an associate, he put together a backing track that makes Kronos a part of the piece. Then, Paul Wiancko, our cellist, actualized it and we just recorded it a few weeks ago. We’ll be playing for the first time in the United States at Stanford.”
Kronos is hoping every work they encounter points them in specific, new directions. Yugoslavia-born Aleksandra Vrebalov, who left Serbia in 1995 and now lives in New York City, is one of the ten composers newly commissioned for the anniversary year. Aleksandra comes from space and her new work, “Gold Comes From Space,” holds so much excitement for Harrington he falls into atypical, suspenseful comments, such as “wait until you hear it,” and “It’s not on this program because we can’t do everything on one concert. Or at least, not yet….”
Vrebalov’s piece, he goes on to say, “is genius. It’s beautiful. We’ve played it three times and every time it’s gotten a standing ovation in the middle of the concert. It’s that kind of work. Why? That’s a good question. It’s just so good. You feel you’ve been wanting to be a part of something amazing and here, it’s just happened. Nobody sounds like that, it’s just that good.”
Smith’s roughly 30-minute world premiere begins the concert at Stanford. “Of all the composers I know of, Gabriella in everything she does is concerned about climate issues, sustainability, repairing damaged environments. She is consistent,” says Harrington. “I wanted that kind of outlook, intensity and commitment in the work of Kronos this year. There’s nobody better. She spent months recording people involved in climate change issues and has made a work that feels familiar. It’s like you’re hearing people you know talking about things. What happens over the course of the entire work is this large feeling that we can actually do something, make something better. She won’t give up—and she won’t let any of us give up.”
Tagaq, according to Harrington, has been one of Kronos’ favorite persons, musicians and forces since the quartet first started working with her. Her Sivunittinni has been performed by Kronos many places around the world and other groups are now picking it up. “It’s catching on. Once we figured out how to notate it, it’s fun to play.”
Sadovsak wrote Chernobyl for Kronos before they played in Ukraine and years before the invasion by Russia. “She’s been concerned about the folk songs of Ukraine and elders forced out of their homes by the Chernobyl explosion have returned, even though it’s a place where the wild dogs of Chernobyl have different DNA than other dogs on the planet and the elders face some real (environmental) issues.”
Ultimately, Harrington’s enthusiasm for music and discovering new voices begs the question, “What’s next?” He says the issues that Kronos confronted when it began continue. The discordant devastation war has and continues to have on societies, cities, communities, and individuals remains as tough and destructive as it has ever been. “Which means, let’s have more music. Let’s push our work as far as we can towards making those kinds of experiences that you just want to jump up and down. The depth of the vision and expression is clear and there are people doing it, in spite of the problems confronting us. So those of us who can, must. Empower people to jump up and down, move, think about the value of being able to do those kinds of things. Do I want Kronos to continue long after I’m gone? I do. You know, 50 years into this, sometimes it feels as if hardly a day has passed since December 1973.”