Frost Amphitheater


Kronos Quartet’s Bold Initiative Comes to Stanford

By Thomas May


Thanks to its untiring, consistent commitment to new music, San Francisco–based Kronos Quartet has been reshaping how we think about the string quartet itself—in both senses of the term: as a composition for a particular medium and as the ensemble of musicians who perform this type of piece. But while commissioning and championing new works for string quartet was already embedded in Kronos members’ DNA, in 2015 the group launched a project intended to make a mark on an entire new generation of quartet players and their audiences.

Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire is a five-year-long “legacy project” that, with ten compositions being released each year, by 2020 will have created a whole new repertoire of fifty pieces by living composers. But bringing such a treasury of new music into existence is just one dimension of this hugely ambitious, generously conceived adventure. The pieces themselves address a spectrum of issues involved in quartet playing, at varying levels of difficulty, and are meant to guide emerging ensembles in developing their skills. And accessibility is a key component of the Fifty project: Kronos is making the essential ingredients available free of charge in a kind of living archive on its website. Anyone can go there to find digital versions of the complete scores and Kronos’ recordings of each piece they’ve released to date, along with interviews, background information, and educational materials.


"What we want is for composers to make something that feels like themselves—something that feels like they are defining their creativity, their work."
—David Harrington, Kronos Quartet


Kronos has long been engaged in coaching young groups in conservatories and other venues around the world to pass on its experience with contemporary quartet music. “One issue we kept noticing is that these groups were having a lot of trouble locating scores and parts to play,” says David Harrington, violinist and founder of Kronos. “It’s so different from when I started out [in the early 1970s in Seattle] and could just go to the library and find the score and recording,” he adds, referring to his epiphany triggered by discovering Beethoven’s quartets, which first opened up Harrington to the unlimited potential of this art form. “Especially for young people who might come to our shows and want to do similar things, Fifty for the Future might be able to have a similar effect.”


“Eclectic” is far too pale an adjective to convey the array of composers Kronos has chosen to participate. Some names are famous—Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, Zakir Hussain (all of them with scores already released) and Terry Riley (whose piece is in the works)—and quite a few should be famous (serendipity is a guaranteed delight for anyone who delves into the Fifty for the Future materials). Besides being evenly divided between women and men, these fifty creative figures range widely in age, cultural background, and aesthetic. “Hopefully this will result in a mosaic of not only musical and cultural and instrumental issues but also notational issues,” Harrington points out. “We are hoping to give other players real entry points into the art from a variety of places.”


Composer Jacob Garchik’s score for The Green Fog will be performed at the Bing.


Given such diversity, what guidelines does Kronos set? “What we want is for composers to make something that feels like themselves—something that feels like they are defining their creativity, their work. The music should be what it needs to be,” says Harrington, whose fellow Kronos members include violinist John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Sunny Yang. For Kronos, commissioning is a very active process. It’s not about waiting for a perfected score to arrive but a process that involves close collaboration with the composers. And sometimes that means the members of Kronos have to reach beyond their strings and add another instrument to the mix. The Korean composer Soo Yeon Lyuh’s Yessori, for example, adds a part for “a small gong, metal pot, or similar object.” Harrington explains, “We recorded it with a Korean gong, but when we play it in concert, we use a beautiful-sounding kitchen pot since we don’t own a Korean gong. Whatever is needed, we’ll add it.”


For the April 6 program at Bing Concert Hall, Kronos is bringing examples of the unfolding Fifty for the Future rep to Stanford for the first time. Both of these works, by Canadians, were initially premiered in 2016. The composer and sound artist Nicole Lizée’s Another Living Soul—which she describes as “stop-motion animation for string quartet”—requires the musicians to play whistling and gravity tubes as well as large desk bells. Tanya Tagaq, who was born in the High Arctic in Nunavut, is, characteristically for Kronos, a category-defying creative musician who practices the art of Inuit throat singing and has collaborated with Björk. “I love the way sound can embody your history, the way smells can,” she says. In her Sivunittinni (“The Future Ones”), Tagaq hopes “to bring a little bit of the land to future musicians through this piece.”


Composer and Intuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq has collaborated with Björk.


The multi-instrumentalist and composer Jacob Garchik, who has been involved in collaborations with Kronos for years, arranged Tagaq’s music for the quartet and is doing similar work for other pieces in the project. His own score for Kronos will be featured in the second half of the ensemble’s program: music he wrote, applying “the Kronos aesthetic,” to accompany filmmaker Guy Maddin’s The Green Fog–A San Francisco Fantasia (made with co-directors Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson), which offers a “parallel-universe version” of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film Vertigo using entirely original assemblages of Bay Area footage. Seen at last year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, The Green Fog was co-commissioned by Stanford Live to celebrate the festival’s 60th anniversary.


The string quartet is often considered one of the most daunting forms in classical music for composers and musicians alike—the music meant for connoisseurs. Despite such associations, Harrington hastens to underscore the key role of youthful inspiration and the energy of those at an early point in their careers, or even just starting out. During a visit to the Esterházy Palace in Austria—where Joseph Haydn was employed for a large part of his career and wrote the works that helped define the classical idea of the string quartet—Harrington chanced upon an assignment young Beethoven had undertaken: “It was his own copied-out version of one of Haydn’s Op. 20 quartets. Already Beethoven was eager to learn, and this is how he studied. He didn’t wait to become a ‘mature composer.’ Waiting is not something I recommend!”

—Thomas May is a frequent contributor to Stanford Live magazine. He blogs at



Related Event: Apr 6
Kronos Quartet
The Green Fog: A San Francisco Fantasia

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