Kronos Quartet – David Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Sunny Yang (cello) – has been at the forefront of modern classical music for forty years. Through collaborations with artists as diverse as Philip Glass and Tom Waits they’ve managed to not only remain relevant but expand their audience and push the boundaries of classical music. I talked over the phone to David Harrington (far right in image above) about Kronos’ newest venture, Fifty for the Future.
Could you tell us about Fifty for the Future?
“We want to create a repertoire of exciting, exploratory music for ourselves and for other groups, especially young and emerging groups. Scores and parts can be downloaded free of charge from the website. You can go onto the website and stream the first 20 pieces. The program involves Carnegie Hall and many concert halls, individuals and festivals. Also, we’ve encouraged all the composers to provide a video. For example, Garth Knox gives a world-class lesson in how to make a huge variety of sounds using the bow in untraditional ways. We are thrilled with the variety and the different approaches to sound.”
How did you pick the composers for Fifty for the Future?
“We’re in the process of picking them. Every year for five years we’re choosing five women and five men from many different corners of the world and the musical world in terms of style, background, and cultural issues. We’re hoping to make a mosaic of possibilities and musical colours. So far it’s going great. Since the American election of Nov 16 more than 5,000 downloads of the scores and parts have happened worldwide from groups from 62 countries. So it’s beginning to take off. Recently we had a wonderful concert in San Francisco with 160 high school students. They played several of the pieces from Fifty for the Future. It was this pageant of musical possibilities played by public high schools kids, a thrilling moment in our work.”
When you say cultural issues, could you give an example?
“Sure. (Songwriter/composer) Rhiannon Giddens wrote a song about the American slave trade, something that had not really been brought into the world of classical string music before. Also, in our first year, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh wrote one of her very best pieces for us. Franghiz is the foremost Muslim composer in the world, whom we’ve been working with her for nearly 30 years. She did such a great piece. We’ve now heard it played by groups who’ve never encountered music like that before or played music from a composer with that background.
“The very first year also had ( Mali composer) Fodé Lassana Diabaté’s fabulous piece “Sunjata’s Time”. It took 20 years to establish a small repertoire of African composers for Kronos, which ultimately resulted in the album Pieces of Africa. Now, with Fifty for the Future and some of the other work we’ve done every group in the world can play a piece from Africa free of charge. It’s right there, it’s beautiful, there’s nothing like it in the string world. I’m very proud of that, I have to say.”
From the website, I understand Fifty for the Future will be a kind of travelling program?
“Yes, and we’re evolving that even as we speak. We had a wonderful meeting yesterday with the dean of the San Francisco Conservatory. We’re trying to incorporate Fifty for the Future as an actual curriculum in music schools. We’re doing the same thing with the School of the Arts here in San Francisco and we’re developing a program for high school kids.”
It sounds like this is a work in progress?
“It is! We’re trying to make something that is very flexible and useful. Useful is the key word here. When I started out my adventures in string quartets, I was 12 -this would have been in 1961- and I heard Beethoven’s E flat major Quartet Opus 127. And I was so taken with those opening chords; I wanted to make that sound myself. I was playing in an orchestra, I went to the Seattle public library, checked out the parts and the score and then I called up three other player friends. And a couple of days later we were trying to play that piece.”
At twelve years old.
“There are kids all over the world that want to play quartet music! And it’s really hard to get. If you want to play anything from Kronos you have to jump through all kinds of hoops to find sheet music. I began to realize there’s no library that has most of our music. So nobody can do it. We began to think what can we do to solve that? Imagine you’re a 12 year old who wanted to play that music. How would you do it? So now there’s a way.”
I was watching the video for (Chinese composer Wu Man’s) piece “Four Chinese Paintings” where the composer explains the difference between the written part and the way she intends the piece to be played based on the pipa ( a traditional Chinese stringed instrument). It demonstrates the difficulties of notating some of these pieces.
“Well, recently we played “Four Chinese Paintings” as a quintet with Wu Man on the pipa. It was so much fun! We’re going to get a notated version of the pipa part so that other pipa players can join other quartets. Also, I’m very excited about this, you’ll be the first to hear about it-I think it would be fabulous as a guitar, oud, as a banjo quintet! We’re going to try to create a plucked instrument version of this piece. We’re noticing that each piece has different possibilities. For example “Sunjata’s Time” has been played by a sax quartet, so we’re going to release a version on our website for a sax quartet. The other day on the streetcar I ran into an oboe player who wants to play some of the pieces with her oboe quartet! So we’re opening this up to string orchestras, quartets of all kinds… I just feel so lucky to get to work with John, Hank and Sunny every day. Together we get to make this handmade music and I want to spread that music as far as possible. We’re not limiting Fifty for the Future to string quartets, but I wouldn’t be talking to you today if it wasn’t for Haydn and his job at the Esterhazy palace (ed. Note: Google it!)
Find out more about Fifty for the Future here: http://www.kronosquartet.org/fifty-for-the-future