kronos for the future

Kronos Quartet. From left: John Sherba, Sunny Yang, Hank Dutt and David Harrington. Photo by Jay Blakesberg.

In the summer of 1973, David Harrington initiated the San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet with a hidden agenda. The violinist longed to have a string ensemble audacious enough to tackle “Black Angels,” a 1970 work by George Crumb that was as distinctive musically (it augmented the string quartet setting with percussion and electronics) as it was thematically (the piece possessed a passionate anti-war stance).

“You have to remember the war in Vietnam was still going on at the time,” Harrington said. “Many people about my age had experienced going through the draft process. Our country seemed to be getting more violent. Things seemed to be falling apart in various ways. I heard that piece and life made sense for a minute. All of a sudden, I had my song.

“I think what has happened since then is there are a lot more songs that I’ve found. I don’t really know where the next experiences will come from for Kronos. Whatever it is we hear, whatever it is we do, we don’t know. Music can always change the next step, the next decision.”

In the ensuing 46 years, Kronos – which also includes violinist John Sherba and violist Hank Dutt, both longtime members, and cellist Sunny Yang, who joined in 2013 – has become perhaps the most daring and prolific ensemble of its kind. Working with a repertoire that stresses newly commissioned works, their music continually crosses genres, generations and cultures. The quartet has long championed such modernists as Philip Glass and Terry Riley, but also works by composers from Argentina, China, Latvia, Serbia, Mexico, Africa, Russia, Canada and Azerbaijan as well as pieces by such far-ranging American artists as Bryce Dessner (of the rock troupe The National) and guitar legend Jimi Hendrix. The group even cut the majestic “Black Angels” as the title work of a 1990 album.

That diversity has earned Kronos two Grammy Awards. It is up for a third at this year’s ceremony, which will be held two days prior to when the quartet returns to Transylvania University on Jan. 28. The performance, part of the Smith Endowed Series, is free, but all tickets have been distributed.

The program will feature a trio of jazz, blues and pop classics – “The House of the Rising Sun,” “Strange Fruit” and “Summertime” – that were inspired by decidedly non-classical artists (The Everly Brothers, Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin, respectively). But it also includes two modern works – the richly percussive “Zaghlala” by Egyptian composer Islam Chipsy and a new Dessner piece, “Le Bois.” Both compositions are part of “50 for the Future,” an online library of contemporary pieces made available for free to emerging string groups and artists.

“Groups from 92 different countries have downloaded ‘50 for the Future’ pieces and are playing them right now. We’ve got a concert here in San Francisco with 90 high school kids coming up and they will all be playing ‘50 for the Future’ pieces. So the spirit within the group itself is constantly being refreshed both from the experiences that we’ve had over many years but also from new opportunities.

“We’re just appreciating being musicians in this incredibly troubled time that we all are sharing now. I think that speaks to the value of music, the value of performing and being with an audience, whether it’s in a classroom, in Carnegie Hall or in Lexington, Kentucky.

“Wherever we might be, we are very proud to say this. When the immigration people ask what our occupation is, I’m incredibly proud to be able to say that I’m a musician. I think all of us in the group feel that way and want to further what that means, not only for us, but for others.”

Kronos Quartet performs at 7 p.m. Jan. 28 at Haggin Auditorium of the Mitchell Fine Arts Building at Transylvania University, 300 N. Broadway. The performance is sold out.

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