At the final scene change of Kronos Quartet’s 50th anniversary celebration in November 2023, nearly four-dozen people materialized onstage at Carnegie Hall. An air of jovial chaos pervaded as they rushed from their velvet-upholstered seats toward the stairs at either end of the stage, eventually finding their spots. Kronos would cap their sold-out Carnegie performance with Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector, one of the works that launched the quartet’s decades-long relationship with Minimalist titan Terry Riley. Here, nearly 50 friends and collaborators past, present, and future would superimpose their improvisations over the four instrumental voices that Riley notated.

When the quartet played their first concerts in 1973, they broke ground on a model of chamber music that looked to the future rather than the stodgy past—career suicide, said many. But Kronos flatly ignored the naysayers, embarking on an unprecedented campaign of commissioning, touring, and educating that has brought the humble string quartet format into dialogues it had never before known. Five decades later, against conventional wisdom, Kronos has nurtured their forward-thinking niche into a genre, ensuring a future for many of tomorrow’s musical innovators.

At Carnegie, the scene seemed to embody that reality. The members of Kronos sat center stage, in the four seats they’d occupied when opening the concert with a blistering Mexican banda song. The motley crew surrounding them was a testament to the large, diverse community that Kronos has built. Virtuosi of the Korean bowed haegeum, the Chinese plucked pipa, and the Indonesian struck gendèr sat among members of today’s hottest boundary- pushing string quartets, the latter among the heirs apparent to the Kronos throne—Attacca, Aizuri, PUBLIQuartet. Strewn throughout were Bang on
a Can’s stalwart All-Stars, while more recent avant-garde darlings Sō Percussion occupied an upstage “percussion land,” (so dubbed by a stage plot posted on Instagram by Kronos founder and first violinist David Harrington). Next to “percussion land,” stood two throngs of composers young and old, jamming with their own battery of handheld percussion.

“It was like we were in a massive living room,” Curtis Stewart, the first violinist of PUBLIQuartet, recalled a few days later. “We were like kids on a playdate, smiling, laughing, just having fun.” The “Sunrise Jam” that ended the evening’s two-and- a-half-hour performance was one for the ages. It surged forward with the head-bopping groove of its inspiration, Kronos’s 1985 recording, but as the sounds of the various instruments began to layer, a wall of vibrant noise got built. Each riff contributed to a composite energy that, at its climax, sent chills radiating up my spine and into my fingertips.

Even without four dozen co-conspirators, the Kronos energy is unique. Onstage, the quartet seems unstuffy and nonchalant—a refreshing contrast to the mostly buttoned-up string quartets of even 25 years ago—yet they play with a theatrical gravitas that grips from first note to last. It’s not a matter of selling the music; rather, Kronos seems to suggest that what they play needs no sales pitch, that the music itself is the drama.

When the quartet played their first concerts in 1973, they broke ground on a model of chamber music that looked to the future rather than the stodgy past— career suicide, said many.

No single piece was a greater emblem of the Kronos mission than the one that inspired their founding: George Crumb’s amplified string quartet Black Angels, a cryptic 1970 protest against the American War in Vietnam. The quartet still plays the piece regularly, and each performance takes a stance for its moment. Their 1990 recording pairs the work with, among other things, a reading of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet that quivers with the fresh wounds of a Cold War in denouement—Shostakovich wrote the piece shortly after he reluctantly joined the USSR’s Communist party.

“Kronos has played Black Angels during every war that our country has seen in the last 50 years,” said Harrington four nights before the Carnegie bash, in the lobby of Manhattan’s Iberostar hotel, as children in Halloween costumes trick-or- treated in the background. “And it feels as pertinent today as it did then.” It was at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall that they played their first Black Angels after Crumb’s 2022 death, a performance that mined a different, but equally devastating sorrow.

In many ways, Harrington is the face of Kronos, even though two of his fellow first-decade members, violinist John Sherba and violist Hank Dutt, remain in the ensemble’s ranks (cellist Paul Wiancko joined in 2023, replacing Sunny Yang). Reflecting on the group’s founding philosophy, Harrington said, “I wanted a quartet whose life’s energy and curiosity would be focused on trying to find the next step,” he said. “We were taking advantage of the powerful foundation that the string quartet rests on.”

As with most countercultural phenomena, Kronos met vocal opposition from the very start. Kronos manager Janet Cowperthwaite, who began as the ensemble’s first part-time assistant in 1981, recalled many not-so-polite suggestions that the quartet pad their new works with standard repertoire. WNYC’s Brooke Gladstone, who is among the quartet’s go-to interview moderators and liner-note contributors, said over the phone that many conventional critics “threw up their hands” when Kronos started using Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” as an encore. Journalist Fred Kaplan (Gladstone’s husband, who was on that call) remembered Lincoln Center executives spouting canon-hugging rhetoric—“They’re not serious, they don’t play the repertoire”— when he interviewed them for a 1987 Kronos profile in The Boston Globe.

Back then, the newspapers couldn’t agree about Kronos. Several 1985 San Francisco Chronicle reviews cited Kronos as fine technical players, yet bashed their newest commissions as “weak.” A New York Times review from later that decade began, “Say what one might about the Kronos Quartet’s deficiencies in ensemble polish and tone, and there is much to be said on those matters,” before praising Kronos’ programs as “inventive, varied, and exotic.” But most critics mentioned their “trendy clothes and hair styles” with an implied sneer, even while conceding that the quartet had uncanny pull on audiences outside the classical sphere.

The Kronos Quartet performs George Crumb's Black Angels in Guadalajara, Mexico. Photo: Nación Imago
The Kronos Quartet performs George Crumb's Black Angels in Guadalajara, Mexico. Photo: Nación Imago

That devoted following began to grow soon after Kronos moved from Seattle to San Francisco in 1978. That year, the ensemble secured a residency at the storied Center for Contemporary Music at Oakland’s Mills College (which is now at Northeastern University). On their selection panel was Terry Riley, the Minimalist forerunner who had joined the Mills faculty to teach and to research Indian classical music. “I was blown away by their audition tape,” said Riley, speaking via WhatsApp from Tokyo. Sure enough, once Kronos started their residency, Harrington knocked on the composer’s door to commission a quartet. After ten years of learning ragas by ear, Riley wasn’t sure he could go back to notes on a page. Yet when Harrington ran a surreptitious newspaper ad for a concert featuring the new work, Riley’s hands were pretty much tied. Those first two pieces Riley wrote for Kronos, G Song and Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector, both in 1980, would launch a fruitful collaboration that has so far included six full-length albums and commissions from the Salzburg Festival and NASA. “I’ve never worked with another group as thoroughly as I’ve worked with Kronos,” said Riley. “In the early years, I felt like a fifth member.”

“I wouldn’t be speaking to you today without Terry Riley,” Harrington declared. In the years since, Harrington has consistently kept his ears open to new collaborators, and these long-term relationships have undergirded Kronos’s career, especially as the ensemble began to cycle 20th-century chestnuts out of their repertoire in the late 1980s. Since their inception, Kronos has had an open mailbox, and often, random submissions turn into deep associations. “David Harrington religiously listens to everything that he receives,” said composer Aleksandra Vrebalov. Soon after emigrating from the now-Serbian part of former Yugoslavia to pursue a degree at San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Vrebalov sent a cassette of her first string quartet to Kronos’s headquarters. Harrington wrote back and asked to meet. Since that spring of 1996, Vrebalov has written more than fifteen pieces for Kronos, the most recent of which received its premiere this past September.

Harrington traces his insatiable musical appetite back to Kronos’s very first commission, Ken Benshoof’s ambling Traveling Music, from 1973. “When Kronos went out onstage, we realized that there’s something here that nobody else has ever heard, except the composer in our rehearsals,” Harrington recalled. “We had an impact on the composition—the way it sounded, the interpretation— and that exhilarating feeling has generated hundreds of other pieces.”

Of the dozen or so observers and collaborators I talked to, no one could quite pin down the inflection point that took Kronos from indie experimenters to global phenomenon. Most placed it sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s, and some speculated that it had some- thing to do with their fruitful record deal with the Nonesuch music label, which has developed an important following of its own. Then-Nonesuch president Robert Hurwitz signed them soon after taking over in 1984, and Kronos has recorded more than 40 Nonesuch albums since their eponymous 1986 Kronos Quartet. In an interview, Hurwitz recounted the Carnegie Hall performance at which he first encountered the quartet: “David Harrington and I met the next day, but by the time I had heard them perform, I had already made up my mind. They were sensational.” Kronos’s early Nonesuch recordings expanded not only the string quartet repertoire, but also the format for a string quartet.

“There’s the string quartet before Kronos, and the string quartet after Kronos,” said composer Steve Reich. “I don’t see how you could be a string quartet today and not react to Kronos.” In 1988, new-music benefactor Betty Freeman commissioned Reich for a piece intended for Kronos; as it happened, that was the year Reich had discovered the sampling keyboard. In “Different Trains,” Reich chopped up heartbreaking testimonies of European World War II survivors, along with recollections of a 1940s Pullman porter and his own childhood governess, using each spoken sample’s pitch contours as the basis for a melody. The piece, a profound rumination on Reich’s own fortune as an American Jew during WWII, was the quartet’s first experiment (of many to come) with live electronics—and in some ways, it can be considered the distant ancestor to the thousands of silly Auto-tune experiments that litter TikTok today. (Not coincidentally, Michael Gordon based a movement of gfedcba, one of Kronos’ 50th-anniversary commissions, on an Auto-tuned cat lapping at a spoonful of milk.)

Kronos Quartet Photo: Lenny Gonzalez
Kronos Quartet Photo: Lenny Gonzalez

Soon, Kronos would push the repertoire beyond what any quartet had done before, and their ideas affected more than just the classical music universe. Before the quartet’s 1992 album Pieces of Africa, few African composers had made it into the Western art music mainstream. Suddenly, the seven composers Kronos commissioned for that album (among them Nubian composer and oud master Hamza El Din, and Ghanaian drummer and dancer Obo Addy), shot to the top of Billboard’s world music charts—and stayed there for 29 weeks.

An acclaimed foray into the former USSR followed in 1994, and a deep dive into China, featuring pipa player Wu Man, who has become a consistent collaborator, a few years later. Kronos has since ventured into Indian Bollywood, Mexican banda and ranchera, Malian griot songs, and musical styles from many other corners of the world. At their Carnegie celebration, the quartet played one movement of a piece still in progress, Segara Gunung (Ocean-Mountain), composed by Indonesian virtuoso sinden singer Peni Candra Rini, a master of gendèr (a type of metal xylophone); it is among several 50th-anniversary commissions meant as responses to the effects of climate change. Candra Rini told me that the ramifications are dire on her native island of Java, where most of the 150 million people live in coastal cities that have experienced record high temperatures; in the piece, her voice’s pained cries convey that urgency to the audience.

Kronos has long kept a finger on the world’s activist pulse. Pieces of Africa featured a quartet arrangement of “White Man Sleeps,” a work by a White South African composer, Kevin Volans, that took a direct shot at the country’s apartheid regime by “Africanizing” Western European art music. (The piece’s original version tuned harpsichords and viols in systems native to Africa.) A hard-hitting 2019 celebration of Pete Seeger’s centennial, which featured vocalists, banjo players, and third-graders from the San Francisco Unified School District, sounded newly relevant in the contentious third year of the Trump administration. And in 2006, Kronos provided music throughout two episodes of historian, writer, and theorist Howard Zinn’s long-running radio program Alternative Radio, which gave airtime to information and views otherwise ignored or distorted in mainstream media.

Harrington had called Zinn for advice at the cusp of George Bush, Jr.’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. “What can a normal person do?” Harrington asked, disgruntled after days of protesting. Zinn’s succinct answer still echoes in the violinist’s ears: “Warmongers are afraid of people like you. You spend all your time solving problems and finding a result that feels good—and that can move things forward.”

“There’s the string quartet before Kronos, and the string quartet after Kronos. I don’t see how you could be a string quartet today and not react to Kronos.”
Steve Reich

These days, Kronos’s investments in younger composers often start long before a first Zoom call or handshake. Composer Mary Kouyoumdjian fondly remembers blasting Kronos’s albums throughout her teenage years, especially on long car rides up the California coast. She said that the quartet changed her life when they selected her for their “Kronos Under 30” project, which was a call for young composers’ scores, in 2013. “I had two recordings to my name—there was barely anything to submit,” said Kouyoumdjian, who played a banana- shaped shaker at the Carnegie “Sunrise Jam.” “But I think about all the creative and professional choices I’ve made as a result of having a very established group say, ‘I believe in you.’ And the other people on the Carnegie stage, they all had the same story.”

This year, Kronos are the resident ensemble of Luna Composition Lab, the program for young female, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming composers that Missy Mazzoli and Ellen Reid began in New York in 2016. At the end of the season, the six Luna Lab fellows will fly to San Francisco to participate in the annual Kronos Festival, culminating in professional recordings of their new string quartets. “Kronos has always had this holistic, long-range view of what the industry needs not only to survive, but to thrive and improve,” said Mazzoli. “To them, the education of teenagers is just as important as playing a solo show at Carnegie Hall.” (In fact, those two activities collided when the teenage Luna Lab composers joined Kronos onstage at Carnegie for “Sunrise Jam.”)

Kronos is paving the way for a next generation of performers, too, to develop within a fresh environment. From 2015 to 2021, they commissioned 50 composers for pieces with which to build a vast learning repertoire called 50 for the Future. Many of the composers mentioned above—Missy Mazzoli, Peni Candra Rini, Terry Riley, Aleksandra Vrebalov— contributed short works, whose sheet music, program notes, and recordings are freely available on a well-designed website. It’s a functional canon that bucks the elitism and gatekeeping that problematize so many of its historical antecedents. “50 for the Future is our building,” said Kronos’s Cowperthwaite. “It is the thing that will remain, and we’re so proud of it.”

Most of all, Kronos is building the next generation of new music listeners. The group’s 1987 Sesame Street clips remain among the most charming and effective tools for teaching young children about the string quartet. The quartet’s associated nonprofit, the Kronos Performing Arts Association, continues to fund initiatives in San Francisco’s schools. Its free radio station, Radio Kronos, has been syndicated nationwide. And before every piece, David Harrington still pauses to give the audience a minute or two of program notes and anecdotes in his mellow, deliberate tone, breaking down the walls of obscurity that so often surround new music.

“That’s the great thing about music. My viewpoint about Black Angels is just as valid as Crumb’s,” Harrington told me. “And whoever hears it, their viewpoint is just as valid as mine. That’s something we should celebrate: that humanity created something that can be shared by every person, and nobody else can hear it the way we can.”

About the Author
Winner of the 2022 Rubin Prize in Music Criticism, Emery Kerekes has contributed to Early Music America, San Francisco Classical Voice, and Opera News, and Which Sinfonia, of which he is a founding editor.