Music and Beyond: Kronos Quartet offers 50 new compositions for the future of chamber music

The Kronos Quartet will play some Canadian pieces during their show at Music & Beyond. From left: Sunny Yang (cello), Hank Dutt (viola), David Harrington (violin) and John Sherba (violin). Photo: Jay Blakeberg

When the legendary Kronos Quartet performs in Ottawa, music by two Canadians will be on the programme.

Works by the Montreal-based contemporary composer Nicole Lizée and the Polaris Prize winning Indigenous performer Tanya Tagaq will be performed on July 5 as part of an eclectic mix of music from across the spectrum of modern creation.

The two Canadians’ pieces are part of an ambitious venture by Kronos called 50 for the Future.

“The idea is that Kronos is trying to make a mosaic of the musical possibilities that exist now,” says the quartet’s founder David Harrington in an interview. “We are trying to inspire composers to write the most amazing, interesting pieces that they possibly can for us and that we would want to play in any of our concerts around the world.

“The idea also is that we have to make this music available for other players interested in extending themselves, doing things they never thought possible.”

This project is aimed at younger players, but not only, he says.

“We have heard from amateur groups. There is one in Sweden that’s been together, as a society, for more than 100 years. And they are interested in playing some of our 50 for the Future pieces.”

Since November, musicians from 51 countries have downloaded the scores and recordings Kronos has made, Harrington says. Anyone can go on their website and get the material for free.

“We are trying to get this music out there.”

The 50 for the Future project is a natural extension of Kronos’ musical mission. They are always looking for a new sound, always looking to push the repertoire of chamber music into new places.

The connection with Nicole Lizée is an example of that. Ottawa audiences know her recent work with the National Arts Centre including Bondarsphere, part of the Life Reflected quartet of compositions and her score for Ballet BC’s performance of Keep Driving, I’m Dreaming during the Encount3rs series of new ballets.

Lizée has written three full length string quartets for Kronos in addition to two 50 for the Future pieces. She has also written a concerto for Kronos and and the Toronto Symphony.

“I was doing an interview with a music journalist from Ireland,” Harrington said, “and he said ‘There is this composer I think you should know about. Have you heard of Nicole Lizée?’ and I said, ‘No I haven’t.’

“And so he put us in touch and basically we have been friends ever since. This was 10 years ago.”

Harrington discovered Tagaq’s sound on a flight over the Atlantic.

“The first time I heard her, it felt like she had a string quartet inside her throat. By the time I got off the plane I must have listened to the track 30 times. This is how I know for sure that Kronos has to do something. If I can’t get away from it. If it magnetizes me, I don’t have any choice.”

This compulsion began in Harrington’s youth. He was a different kind of kid.

“I first heard string quartet music when I was 12. I was reading a biography of Beethoven and I was right at that point when he was writing the Late Quartets, but I had never heard a late quartet. At the time, in 1951, the Budapest Quartet had just released all of Beethoven’s quartets. This happened as I was becoming a member of the Columbia record club. I became a member because you could send in a penny, make some choices and your parents got stuck with all these records.

“One of the choices was Beethoven’s (String Quartet No. 12 in E-Flat Major, Op. 127). A couple of weeks later I got the record in the mail. And I put that on and the opening chords just knocked me out. And they continue to knock me out.

“It’s the sound, I can hear it inside as I am talking to you. And I wanted to make that sound. So I went to the public library in Seattle and got the music. I called up a couple of friends and a couple of days later we were practising, trying to play that piece.”

At 14, he had another epiphany of sorts.

“By then I had been playing Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. We had a globe in our house and one day I was looking and I spotted Vienna and I had one of those moments. I realized all of the string quartet music that I knew about then was written by four guys who basically lived in or around Vienna.

“That struck me as really weird. I wondered what music made in other cities sounded like, by other composers. There were all kinds of things to explore. From that age the idea that there are a whole lot of other things that can be done just became a central part of my life.

“I have always felt better when I’m learning something new, something I didn’t know about before.”

It’s the innate curiosity that led to Kronos in 1973, sparked by the composition Black Angels by George Crumb.

“The world is incredibly fascinating I find. I try to read newspapers every day and keep track of stuff. I talk to scientists and  activists and poets … there’s lots to do.”

In this age of Trump (Harrington calls him, like many in the U.S. ’45’ as he is the 45th president), he believes that being open to the world has prepared him to confront an America that is closing its doors.

Several days after Trump’s first immigration ban, the annual Kronos festival in San Francisco featured music by an Iranian, an Afghan choir and a Syrian.

“It almost seemed like our concert was a counterbalance to 45. That’s what musicians all over the world are involved in. Like the concert Ariana Grande did in Manchester, England. I was so proud to be a member of the musical community when I heard about that concert. I just thought this is part of the answer. All of us in musical community felt lifted by what she did. Musicians take strength from each other. I notice the community getting stronger, demanding more from our own work and more from our composers.”

Harrington and Kronos are always searching for the new. But that doesn’t mean, he emphasizes, that they have abandoned the old.

“We have been accused of turning our backs on the foundation of the repertoire.” But it’s not true, he says.

“I take a lot of strength and energy from the foundation that I became aware of at 14 … Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. … What I have wanted to do is bring as much of the rest of the world as possible into this medium.

“You experiment. You hear something and take that to another level. It is playing, messing around that’s a really important part of music making.”

For Harrington, when a new piece of music comes into Kronos, it is like Christmas “every day of the year. That’s how it feels.”

Kronos Quartet
Music and Beyond
When: July 5 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Dominion Chalmers United Church

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.