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Kronos Quartet: For the Future and Beyond

Carnegie Hall celebrates its 125th anniversary by honoring the present and looking to the future with its 125 Commissions Project. Through this five-year endeavor, at least 125 new works will be commissioned from today’s leading composers, expanding upon the Hall’s history as the preeminent venue where music history is made. Fifty of the Hall’s 125 commissions will be part of the Kronos Quartet’s own initiative, Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire. Collaborating with many diverse partners, Kronos will co-commission 50 new works by 25 men and 25 women devoted to contemporary approaches to the string quartet, designed expressly for the training of students and emerging professionals. In a recent Carnegie Hall interview, Kronos first violinist and founder David Harrington discussed the importance of commissioning new works for future generations of musicians.

What inspired Kronos’ Fifty for the Future?
It was really inspired by some of the great composers of the past who have written amazing music for young players, sometimes even for amateurs. We want music that can give a sense of a wider musical world, to be a place to start and from which to grow. Every year for the next five years, we are going to be commissioning 10 composers, and these composers will be from a wide variety of countries, backgrounds, and experiences.

“We are trying to use the years of experience ... to create a body of work for the next generation.”

What prompted your interest in new works?
Since I was about 14, I noticed that all the composers whose works I had played and heard up to that point were by these four guys—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert—who all lived in Vienna. It seemed really strange when you think about it because there are a lot of other cities in the world and there are a lot of countries and different religions and languages. And there’s more than just men who can write music! There were all these things that were not represented in the basic foundation created by these composers. I think that’s one of the challenges that composers ever since have felt; they are daunted by this history and the works of the past.

How does Kronos and Fifty for the Future help to remedy that?
As part of Kronos’ Fifty for the Future, there will be works commissioned by five men and five women in each of the years. What we are hoping is that by the end of this five-year period, we will have an amazing 50-piece entry point into the world of Kronos and into the world of really modern string-quartet playing. We want to have all of the music available online, available from any place in the world, downloadable for free.

Photo by Chris Lee

Why is it important that you make these pieces available for free?
We are frequently asked to teach and coach young players—not only junior high and high school students, but also college musicians. Cost can always be a prohibitive factor, but one of things we have discovered is that so often they cannot locate the scores or the parts for a piece. There is just a lack of information, a lack of ability to access the world that Kronos is a part of. So it seems like one of the things we can do is find a solution for this problem. And I think Kronos’ Fifty for the Future will be that solution.

What is your goal with the 50 pieces?
I want each of the 50 pieces to be music that Kronos would actually play on any concert. We are not simply trying to pat young players on the head and wish them well. We want to inspire the next generation of musicians with music that is available, fun, interesting, and exciting. We are trying to use the years of experience that we have put into our own music to create a body of work for the next generation.

Kronos will lead a workshop for young musicians at Carnegie Hall this April. Will works from Fifty for the Future be a part of that?
The workshop will feature music from Kronos’ repertoire and also some of the Fifty for the Future pieces. So the young quartet musicians who are a part of the workshop will have a chance to not only work with us, but also have access to the program notes, the videos, and the recordings that we have made and the entire process of putting new pieces together. It should be an exciting experience for the younger players and certainly for us.

As a performer, how did you initially become involved with the composition process?
When I was 16 years old, I had the really great fortune to be involved with a composer who was writing a new piece. The group I was in got to rehearse with this composer as the piece was being written—we actually influenced the work and eventually gave the very first performance. I noticed that when I walked on the stage for the work’s premiere, I felt like I had this beautiful secret that only three or four other people knew about, and then I got to share it with the audience. So at age 16, I became addicted to that experience of being involved with a piece that nobody else had ever heard.

“... everything that enters your life gets to become a part of the work.”

What’s that experience like now during Kronos rehearsals?
In our rehearsals, we are truly the first people who get to hear some of these new pieces, which is really thrilling because you get to put your entire experience, your knowledge, your questions, your uncertainties … everything that enters your life gets to become a part of the work.

Do you ever have any hesitation when introducing a new work?
I have to say that every time we have ever done a new piece, there is always a point where I wonder if we can actually do it. So the uncertainty is a part of life, and it is a part of our work. Conquering that and hopefully inspiring a group of people around the music becomes part of the process.

Artistically, what’s the importance of commissioning new music?
I think the world is a better place if people are creative and if there is music from many different aspects of life. The Fifty for the Future composers have incredibly different backgrounds and beliefs and experiences. It helps us understand a little bit more about the mystery of being alive. There are a lot of people who think that maybe the world doesn’t need any new pieces, that the best ones have already been written. I think part of our work is to suggest that maybe the greatest pieces haven’t been written yet. My personal belief is that music doesn’t really have an ending point—it is always changing, always developing. It might be the 17-year-old composer you meet tomorrow who writes the next greatest piece in the world. What I hope for Kronos and the Kronos Performing Arts Association is that we are going to be ready and recognize a person of great talent and ability, and then provide a launching pad for him or her to excel.

What do you want to be the lasting impact of Kronos’ Fifty for the Future?
I would love if every young violinist, violist, and cellist wanted to play some of these pieces. That’s exactly what I am looking for because I think if you play one of them, you’re going to want to play another one. We are commissioning composers who want to create those kind of experiences for young listeners and young players. Fifty for the Future is a way for Kronos to help plant those musical seeds. We want these seeds to grow into incredibly wonderful huge sequoia trees that last for a long time.

Kronos Quartet
Saturday, April 2 at 7:30 PM
Kronos Quartet

The ever daring, never boring Kronos Quartet presents a program of exciting new works. Karin Rehnqvist’s All Those Strings! features the sounds of 54 strings—38 of them on an ancient Finnish zither called the kantele. There is also a new work by Fodé Lassana Diabaté, Mali's most gifted balafon (wooden xylophone) player. To complete the program, Kronos gives the world premieres of four new works from its Fifty for the Future project, which is devoted to the most contemporary approaches to the string quartet. As The New York Times has said, “the ensemble . . . has revolutionized the approach to string quartet repertory."

Kronos Quartet
Friday, April 15 at 9 PM
Kronos: Creating a New Repertoire

Kronos Quartet leads a weeklong workshop for young professional string quartets to explore new works commissioned as part of Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire, a major commissioning initiative devoted to the most contemporary approaches to the string quartet. The workshop culminates in this Zankel Hall performance, which also features selections from one of Kronos’ signature works, Terry Riley’s Salome Dances for Peace.

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