“Can I tell you something? Nobody knows anything about music. Let’s start right there. That’s one of the best things about it.”
This is what violinist David Harrington, founder of the internationally renowned Kronos Quartet from San Francisco, tells me recently on the phone. I had just informed him that he was one of the first musicians I ever interviewed some 25 years ago, before a concert at Stanford University. I thanked him for being kind to a young, inexperienced arts journalist who knew little about classical music, certainly not enough to talk to the founder of a group that, over the last 50 years, has become known for broadening and reimagining the string quartet experience.
“It’s a mystery. None of us own it,” he continues, laughing. “Like [Polish composer Henryk] Górecki once said to me, ‘How does it work?’”
Since the early 1970s, Kronos has been joyfully exploring this mystery by performing a wide variety of international composers’ work, as well as thousands of concerts worldwide, often touring five months of the year. They’ve released more than 70 recordings, winning over 40 major awards including three Grammys, and have worked with everyone from Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich to Laurie Anderson, Tom Waits, Allen Ginsberg, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Romanian gypsy band Taraf de Haïdouks, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh from Azerbaijan, and Bollywood singer Asha Bhosle; those are just a few, the list goes much longer.
Now Richmonders will get a chance to become part of a new Kronos Quartet recording when the group performs “At War with Ourselves – 400 Years of You” on Saturday, Jan. 21 at the University of Richmond, with powerful narration by National Book award-winning poet Nikky Finney, whose 2013 poem “The Battle of and for the Black Face Boy” inspired the libretto. The musical work “explores race relations, social justice, and civil rights in 21st century America” and also features a chorus (which will include nine local singers) conduced by Valérie Sainte-Agathe, artistic director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus; with music written by Michael Abels, composer for the Jordan Peele films “Get Out” and “Us,” who will also be in attendance. After the concert ends, the Kronos Quartet, Finney, Abels, and Janet Cowperthwaite, the longtime managing director of Kronos Quartet, will be involved in an audience discussion and Q&A.
Harrington says that “At War With Ourselves” has been performed around 10 times so far, having premiered in Texas – but each 80-minute performance takes on a different feel, partly due to its community participants.
“Also having Nikky right there in the center between the members of Kronos is such a powerful experience; to hear her words and the intonation of them and the way she varies that depending on the way we play,” he explains. “We might be playing the same pitches from one night to the next but the essence of the experience can be totally different. We are responding to each other in a really thorough way … But you feel good after this. Like, ‘I think we can do this.’ That’s what I get from it.”
The group’s handful of January concerts will also mark the final performances of Kronos cellist Sunny Yang, who has been with the group for a decade, and who is being replaced by cellist and composer Paul Wiancko in February. “As musicians, we’ve had the best time in the last ten years that you can imagine. John [Sherba], Hank [Dutt] and I feel that Sunny has brought Kronos so much poetry and happiness and really great rehearsals. We have not had a bad moment ever in the past 10 years,” Harrington says.
Although he doesn’t have an answer as to why it’s always been the cellist position, like the drummer in Spinal Tap, that keeps changing in Kronos over the chamber group’s long history. “Every cellist that travels has to have a ticket for their cello, and depending on where you’re going there’s all kinds of extra stuff involved with being the cellist [laughs] … I don’t know if that has something to do with it.”
A week after the Richmond performance and recording, Kronos heads to legendary Carnegie Hall in New York City for a concert that includes the work of Javanese singer, Peni Candra Rini, who Style recently profiled because she is a visiting Fulbright scholar this spring at UR and Virginia Commonwealth University.
The road to Richmond
Asked why Kronos was recording “At War with Ourselves” in Richmond for a potential album release (details are unconfirmed at press time), Harrington explains that this performance has been a long time coming for many reasons. “Being the former capital of the Confederacy was part of it, but for me, equally important is Paul Brohan, the director of the Modlin center. This piece and the idea goes back a long ways to an event marking the 150th year since the end of the Civil War [in 2015].”
Brohan is the former director of artistic initiatives at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, where he had a long relationship with Kronos, presenting them at least once a year, he says. “They were doing really intense and impactful community engagement with the university, the school of music, and the community, so there was a deep relationship there,” Brohan says. He learned that Harrington was one of “the most curious individuals on the planet,” and always open to new ideas.
Brohan originally partnered with Baltimore Center Stage for a national project to observe the 150th anniversary of the conclusion of the Civil War. One day over breakfast, he asked Harrington if Kronos would be interested in performing with a 500-person chorus on the Antietam National Battlefield. “He basically said, ‘sure’ [laughs],” Brohan remembers. “But that many voices was a little daunting, considering how it might overwhelm a string quartet.”
So while that idea didn’t float, Kronos remained interested and the project continued to take shape over the following years. In 2011, Harrington was up late one night watching TV and saw South Carolina poet Nikky Finney’s acceptance speech for the National Book Award in poetry, which he describes as one of the greatest American speeches he has ever seen.
“Tears were rolling down my face, it was so beautiful. It was so much about the problems we have in our country, and it seemed to me that she found the center of it, really, and spoke to that,” he recalls. “I had no idea of her work at that point, but I felt totally connected to her. There have been times when I’ve encountered something, could be a piece of music, like ‘Black Angels’ in 1973, or when I first heard Górecki or Howard Zinn, I didn’t have a choice. I thought, ‘I have to be in touch with [Finney]. We have to do something together – it’s too powerful. I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t a way of sharing that with my friends, our family and our audience. That’s really how it started.”
Because the entirety of “At War With Ourselves” piece took so long to formulate, Finney had already published her own poem, “The Battle of and for the Black Face Boy,” which you can read here.
Brohan describes her poem as the 400-year history of the Black male in this country from the Middle Passage to now. “We were in the midst of the first real wave of public scrutiny around police shootings of Black men in this country. I think this piece is amazingly timely, pertinent, and its message and spirit are important for Richmond and our country right now.”
Finney’s libretto for Kronos, based on her poem, had the unenviable task of condensing 400 years of history into 14 couplets. It begins with the horrifying imagery of the belly of a slave ship. “I start there,” she told NPR Music in a 2021 piece, “but I don’t stay there. Because the Black body is always seen, thought of, and pictured in this moment of brutality — which… it’s right. That moment is a right thing to understand. But what I wanted to go to was what it takes not to be annihilated.”
Kronos, however, still needed to find the right music for her words. Harrington says he first heard composer Michael Abels’ work on YouTube through a string quartet (“Delights & Dances”) that he had written for the Harlem String Quartet, performed by the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra in Detroit: “It was such a great piece, we had to track him down and meet him,” he says.
Meanwhile, Brohan had moved on from his former job, ending up at University of Richmond as executive director of the Modlin Center for the Arts – but the work never left him. “It’s always been a piece that I wanted to find ways to support,” he says. “In my current role, I’m able to bring it to Richmond and realize it here. Because of that long relationship and partnership, Kronos feels confident and comfortable that this is the place to record it.”
While Brohan has not yet seen “At War With Ourselves” performed live, he did hear a recording of it from the premiere at University of Texas. The choir at the Richmond performance should top out at about 28 to 30 singers, he says, noting that Dr. Jeffrey Riehl, head of the choral program at UR, has arranged to work with the local singers and will also be involved as a bass baritone singer during the performance.
Brohan emphasizes that this is a piece that speaks to “who and where and what we are right now in Richmond.” The post-performance discussion in the venue will also be recorded “for possible added value if the recording goes forward in the future,” he adds.
Regarding Kronos Quartet’s upcoming Carnegie Hall performance on Jan. 27 with Javanese singer, Peni Candra Rini, Harrington notes that she is one of the composers featured in “50 for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire,” an initiative created by the group’s nonprofit, Kronos Performing Arts Association. The goal of that project was to commission and distribute 50 new works for string quartet written by composers from around the world – and to put them online for free, so audiences could hear them and musicians could play them.
“It was an attempt to give an open source, free entry point for musicians all over the world. Right now, it’s very exciting for us, groups from every continent are playing 50 for the Future pieces,” Harrington says, adding that he is just now finishing the final mixes. “[Peni] is one of my very favorites, I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to that [concert].”
And there are other exciting future projects: Harrington say that he’s busy working on a Kronos album of music by composer and street musician Moondog, as well as an album of remixes of Sun Ra’s music.
He adds that he’s also got a new untitled album underway that involves a conversation between legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and writer Louis “Studs” Terkel – “it features them in conversation and Mahalia sings with Kronos on the album [using a recording, she died in 1971]. The album also features the song ‘Strange Fruit’ and the story of the ‘I Have A Dream Speech’ using the recorded voice of Clarence Jones, Martin Luther King’s former counsel and speechwriter.”
More recently, Kronos’ newest album, “Mỹ Lai,” was released on CD and vinyl, the latter Harrington agrees sounds best. The album is a recording of an opera written by Jonathan Berger about the horrific Mỹ Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, when the U.S. Army reportedly killed between 347 and 504 unarmed South Vietnamese civilians, many of them children.
Someone once asked Harrington what his ultimate goal was in music. He said to make music that was “bulletproof.”
“I said that because I want to find a way of making music so powerful that it is bulletproof,” he says. “As a grandparent, that’s my goal. However bizarre it may sound [laughs], that’s what I want to do. And I would say that ‘At War With Ourselves’ is getting closer.”
Kronos Quartet performs “At War With Ourselves” with poet Nikky Finney and a choir on Saturday, Jan. 21 at Camp Concert Hall, Booker Hall of Music at the University of Richmond at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are still available here.
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