Aged 14, studying the globe in his family home in Seattle, David Harrington – now known as the founder of the intrepid ensemble Kronos Quartet – had a revelation. It struck him that all the string quartet music he’d so far heard had been written by just four composers, all hailing from a tiny dot on that geographical orb – the city of Vienna. As he tells me from Abu Dhabi, where he’s completing a series of performances and teaching engagements, “I thought to myself, ‘There are a lot of other cities in the world, a lot of other countries, languages and religions, and what do they contribute to the world of music?’” 

Kronos Quartet © Jay Blakesberg
Kronos Quartet
© Jay Blakesberg

Since their formation in 1973, Kronos has been characterised by a commitment to performing not only works from across the globe and from a plethora of styles outside the Western classical tradition, but works of which they are the first performers. With around 950 pieces having been commissioned for the group during its lifetime, they decided to check their privilege and ask why the wealth of new music they’d enjoyed bringing to audiences across the world couldn’t be picked up by younger, up-and-coming ensembles. “Where do you get the music of Terry Riley, or the music of Steve Reich or Sofia Gubaidulina?” asks Harrington. “You get it from publishers, but frequently it’s very expensive. You can’t go to a library, like I did when I was 12, and check out that music and play it with your friends.” To redress the issue, the quartet and its nonprofit Kronos Performing Arts Association formulated Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire, a project that aims not only to commission new work by 50 composers (split equally between male and female) over a 5-year period, but to make the scores, parts, recordings and instructional videos available for free online. Consequently, if an amateur string quartet in Russia or a group of high school students in Chicago wants to widen its repertoire with brand-new music created by artists working at the forefront of contemporary classical, experimental, folk music and beyond, they can do so without having to fork out for expensive scores.

Kronos performing with Fodé Lassana Diabaté at Carnegie Hall, 2017 © Evan Neff
Kronos performing with Fodé Lassana Diabaté at Carnegie Hall, 2017
© Evan Neff

The sheer breadth of genres and disciplines pulled together by the works in Fifty for the Future is staggering, made even more impressive by the fact that the curation is controlled solely by the quartet – “This is what I spend the entirety of my waking life thinking about”, says Harrington. Contemporary classical giants like Philip Glass (whose piece for the project premiered a few weeks ago) rub shoulders with outlier electronic artists such as Jlin, along with Korean folk musicians, occultist art-rockers, Indian classical virtuosi and more. A contributor of particular importance to Harrington is Fodé Lassana Diabaté of Trio da Kali, the Malian troupe whose collaborative album with Kronos, Ladilikan, came out last year. The idea for having Diabaté, who plays a kind of wooden xylophone called a balafon, as a composer in the first year of the project came out of the recording sessions for the album: before each take, he would perform a mood-enhancing improvisation, “a perfect musical gem”, as Harrington says. Diabaté went on to compose a work specifically for Fifty for the Future called Sunjata’s Time, having the sections transcribed and arranged by Kronos collaborator Jacob Garchik. But a surprise came when the quartet actually came to perform the piece with its composer: “I had thought these pieces were probably [more] improvisations,” says Harrington. “Actually, they’re fully composed pieces. Lassana played every single note with us. So the idea that composed music exists only as notated music was disproved at that moment.”

Connecting with artists from outside the Western classical tradition has always been part of Kronos’ modus operandi, but in making scores, recordings and other learning materials readily available, Fifty for the Future has the potential to broaden the stylistic and practical horizons of many other ensembles. Harrington enthuses about hearing a New York high school group performing a piece by the Indian classical violinist Kala Ramnath, and how a piece by tabla master Zakir Hussain will soon be available with accompanying recordings, allowing quartets to “play with” the virtuoso – “a high experience of the beauty of rhythm”. In translating the work of musicians from outside the orchestral arsenal – such as the guttural growls and overtones of Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq – Kronos want to throw young musicians in at the deep end of experimental techniques and exploring the potential of their instruments: “The fact that you can make your instrument sound like Tanya Tagaq is empowering. It gives you confidence and belief in the future, that you’re able to do something that you never thought your instrument could do.” Similarly, Kronos’ strings-based approximation of the wild keyboard sounds of Islam Chipsy – purveyor of the Egyptian “wedding rave” style electro chaabi – may well leave violinists who want to expand their instrumental language salivating. “I can’t wait for it to get out there for other groups to play”, says Harrington of the piece. “There’s nothing else like it in the world of the string quartet, it will be very beautiful and vital addition to music.” 

Uptake for the Fifty for the Future materials so far has apparently been positive, with 7000 downloads by groups in 72 countries since the project launched in 2015, according to Harrington. Meanwhile, the compositions and materials are “beginning to have a life that is much beyond anything we could have imagined,” with some pieces already having been adapted for string orchestra and saxophone ensembles. The pedagogical aspect of the project is something that the Kronos Quartet are keen to highlight: in addition to the instructional videos, they offer mentoring sessions for ensembles who want to get inside the pieces. “If we happen to be in their area we will find a way of making time”, says Harrington of prospective learners. The eclectic nature of the contributing composers seems to necessitate a move beyond traditional learning, with Harrington recalling a recent composer’s class he gave at NYU Abu Dhabi, which used Fifty for the Future as an entry point to learning about different forms of notation. “We’re beginning to realise that there are a lot of possibilities for using this resource in very constructive ways,” he says. Referring to a work contributed by Irish composer-violist Garth Knox which uses alternative bowing techniques, Harrington admits, “We worked really hard to learn that, and then we were coaching this high school group on it. They had the music for about 2 or 3 weeks, and they just played the hell out of it! What we thought was really hard was not as hard for them as it was for us… The last thing anybody should do is underestimate what people will be able to do in the future.”

Kronos Quartet © Jay Blakesberg
Kronos Quartet
© Jay Blakesberg

For Harrington, it seems Fifty for the Future’s aspect of cultural exchange has a particular significance in our politically unstable times. “In the current environment we have it’s very easy to get subsumed into a negative vortex of awful energy,” he says. “But then you can step back and see that things have changed – now there’s music from China that every group in the world can play, and from Mali and Egypt. We’re very proud of that and we want it to be the most vital body of human information that we can possibly make it.” There is more on the horizon. This year’s batch of contributing composers will include a cosmically-minded artist with whom Kronos’ relationship is well-documented: “Terry Riley, from his amazingly flexible imagination… We always feel like we learn new things about life and music working with him.” Meanwhile, the group are looking for ways to help the project live beyond its final year, after the remaining works are released in 2020. For Harrington, this all comes down to his wish as a young performer to expand the string quartet repertoire beyond the confines of a stifling Austrian heritage: “When I was starting out in high school, there was no such thing as African string quartet music, it did not exist… People are gaining tools to have access to things that they never thought they’d get access to.”