Kronos Quartet brings the future to Austin with weeklong residency

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For more than 40 years, Kronos Quartet, a string quartet based out of San Francisco, have proven themselves as one of the most celebrated and influential contemporary classical groups of our time.

The Daily Texan spoke with David Harrington, Kronos Quartet’s artistic director, founder and violinist, about their weeklong residency in Austin. 

The Daily Texan: What is Fifty for the Future, and what are its primary goals?

David Harrington: Fifty for the Future is a program that we began last year. The idea is that over the next five years we will commission five men and five women every year, so at the end of the five years, there will be 50 new pieces. We are trying to create a mosaic of our work and make it available online free of charge so that any musician in the world that wants to play our music can download the scores and the parts, as well as all kind of background materials about the pieces. We want to create doorways into our work for other musicians.

DT: What inspired you to create Kronos Quartet? 

DH: As I was growing up and in high school and then later in college, I gravitated toward playing music by friends of mine. In addition to the traditional string quartet music that I was hearing from groups touring around at the time, I got interested in the most recent music. And then one night in 1973, I heard on the radio “Black Angles” by George Crumb and for me, that piece changed everything. I realized that I had to get a group together that would be able to play that piece because for me, it answered so many questions. It provided certain answers, but it asked a lot of questions as well. It was absolutely fascinating music and it brought together what I knew about Schubert and Jimi Hendrix and avant guard sounds. All of a sudden, I had my song and in order to play that piece we had to get a group together that would rehearse everyday and be really dedicated to making a quartet that would be able to play that piece.

DT: What are the main qualities you look for in a collaborator or composer?

DH: I am always looking for someone who is in touch with that inner music that none us can hear — something that’s private and totally individual. I feel that the ability to find that inner music, that inner voice, is what distinguishes the people that write for Kronos. 

DT: As part of the Fifty for the Future initiative, Kronos will be doing a weeklong residency here at the Butler School of Music. What do you hope to achieve during that time?

DH: I am hoping that there will be a lot of direct contact with all the students that are playing group music, whether they are saxophonists or wind players but especially string players, because that is what we know best. I am also hoping we will get to work with all of the composers here, student composers as well as faculty composers. We’d like to get to know them, hear their music and see if there are ways we can work together in the future. I love the fact that we can share so many things. To be able to tell another musician what it’s like to rehearse with Henryk Górecki or Astor Piazzolla is really fun and I am looking forward to everything that we get to do in Austin. 

DT: How do you approach your role as a teacher?

DH: No matter what I’m doing in music, I try and be a listener. I have never thought that I know any more about music that the next person. I’ve personally benefited from so many teachers during my lifetime. The role of giving advice is taken very seriously by me and all members of Kronos. A word or two can actually make quite a difference.

DT: While you often work with contemporary classical composers, you have also done adaptations of Jimi Hendrix songs, and you have recorded with Nine Inch Nails. What is unique to Kronos that makes it so versatile?

DH: There are no boundaries to music itself. When I look around, I don’t see any fences around people’s ears. The way music arrives to us is sometimes very mysterious. We don’t know where the next musical experience may come from. It could be from any corner of the musical world, and I want Kronos to be ready, at any moment, to be able to pivot from where we are to where a fabulous adventure might exist. 

DT: Rhiannon Giddens is one of the artists you chose for the Fifty for the Future project and she is playing with you on Friday. How did you first meet Rhiannon?

DH: Well, I knew her work when she was in the Carolina Chocolate Drops. In London we did this concert and one of the artists that we got to work with is Rhiannon and we just had so much fun and her music is so beautiful. She’s such a wonderful singer. We really felt inspired by her.

DT: What is the best advice you could give to young musicians? 

DH: Listen to a lot of music, go to many different kinds of concerts, be very observant of every aspect of a musical experience. Listen to music that pulls at you the most, which you want to hear again and again. For me, every day is
another opportunity to explore the world of music and I encourage others to do the same.

Kronos Quartet is playing Tuesday and Friday night at the McCullough Theatre with Rhiannon Giddens.