"I could live to be 500, and I don’t think I’d run out of things to do in music." - David Harrington
Unlike rock bands such as the Rolling Stones or The Who, a 50th anniversary isn't unheard of in the world of string quartets. The Emerson Quartet just played its final shows after 47 years; the Juilliard Quartet is still going strong well into its ninth decade (though without any of its original members.)
So, on its surface, Friday night's concert at Carnegie Hall celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Kronos Quartet wasn't really remarkable. Until you stop to think about all that they've accomplished in that half-century: some fifty studio and soundtrack recordings, more than 1,000 commissions of new works, countless performances across six continents (including 43 at Carnegie Hall alone), collaborations with everyone from Steve Reich to Sigur Rós.
"They have changed the way we see string quartets, and altered the course of music history, forever." WNYC host John Schaefer declared during his onstage introduction.
Founded in Seattle in 1973 by first violinist and artistic director David Harrington (whom I interviewed backstage at the Big Ears Festival back in 2015), Kronos added John Sherba (violin) and Hank Dutt (viola) after moving to San Francisco in 1977. All three remain, along with cellist Paul Wiancko, who joined the quartet earlier this year, replacing Sunny Wang. Paul has somehow already made it into an updated version of Sam Green's Kronos documentary "A Thousand Thoughts," an excerpt of which was screened. The film sought to explain Harrington's ceaseless crate digging, his never-ending quest to find the next novel sound, regardless of genre or background.
"We haven't yet found the bulletproof piece of music that can wrap itself around us," he said in a voiceover. "But I think it's possible, and I spend every minute of my waking life trying to find it. That's our job."
Lasting nearly three hours, Friday's concert brought back several of Kronos' most celebrated collaborators, including virtuoso pipa player Wu Man, fearsome Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq, and performance artist Laurie Anderson ,who performed a haunting excerpt from 2018's Grammy-winning Landfall. Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon, who has composed numerous works for Kronos over the years, offered gfedcba (2023), which felt more silly than substantive, accompanied by videos of flowers and a cat slurping milk.
Despite the time limitations, I was surprised by what Kronos left off their set list. I can't really fault them for avoiding some of their heavier repertoire - George Crumb's Vietnam elegy Black Angels; Steve Reich's Different Trains or WTC 9/11 - but where was their arrangement of Jimi Hendrix' "Purple Haze", which made them a household name in 1986? What about Clint Mansell's penetrating music for the films Requiem for a Dream or The Fountain? And, where were the hypnotic, indelible quartets of Philip Glass, most of which have been premiered by Kronos? (For their part, Nonesuch just released their 1995 recording of Glass' quartets on vinyl for the first time.)
It's a testament to Kronos' ever-forward ethos that they chose instead to focus on music by younger composers, many with an environmental agenda. Gabriella Smith's "Keep Going", part of a larger quartet she's writing for Kronos, filled the hall with electronic birdsong and a haunting voiceover about the climate crisis and loved ones who've died. Javanese gamelan singer Peni Candra Rini performed part of her work in progress Segara Gunung ("Ocean Mountain") which ominously foretells the day when "Mother Earth will clean house, burning us up and washing us clean. Ready or not." And Ariel Aberg-Riger offered a visual history of climate activist Rachel Carson while Kronos played Hamza El-Din's ecstatic Escalay ("Waterwheel") from their 1992 best-selling album Pieces of Africa.
Arrangements also played a prominent - if distracting - role on the program, including Black folk music (Jake Blount), Bollywood composer R.D. Burman (Brian Carpenter and Jacob Garchik), and the eccentric NYC street musician Moondog (Carpenter and Garchik, along with haegum player Soo Yeon Lyuh).
To close out the evening, Kronos returned to its freewheeling roots with a jam version of Terry Riley's Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector (1981). Riley, 88, has written more music for Kronos than any other composer - including 2019's Grammy-winning Sun Rings - but Sunrise was their first collaboration, written when Kronos was still, according to Riley, "a very young group." Beforehand, the bearded and bespectacled Riley appeared in a taped video from his home in Japan to apologize for not being there in person and to wish Kronos and everyone well. "I can't wait to hear it!" he said, warmly.
The Stern Auditorium stage was filled with fifty (get it?) musicians, including all of the evening's performers, plus SO Percussion, the Bang on a Can All Stars, and three of today's most dynamic young quartets: the Aizuri, Attacca and PUBLIQuartet. A dozen or so others - many of them composers commissioned by Kronos, including Missy Mazzoli, Ellen Reid, Angélica Négron and Mary Kouyoumdjian - played whatever percussion instruments they could get their hands on, including maracas, rattles and tambourines. The music, which like Riley's In C is half-improvised, grew slowly, with the stage lights growing brighter as the music built to an ecstatic, sunny crescendo. With Kronos seated in the center, surrounded by musicians like disciples around their guru, all felt right in the world.
It's hard to imagine a world without Kronos, though at some point, Harrington, Sherba, Dutt and even Wiancko will come face-to-face with the inevitable. But, as we've seen with Juilliard, Takács and others, string quartets aren't necessarily limited by the participation of individual members.
"I can imagine this group continuing on and on," Harrington told the NY Times. "I want it to be the most activist, energetic, energizing ensemble in the universe. If we can make it that way, I don’t think it should be restricted by my own lifetime.”
Meanwhile, Kronos will continue playing, creating, agitating, and advocating wherever and whenever they can.