Kronos founder recalls quartet’s early days in Seattle
Kronos Quartet’s first violinist and founder talks about discovering the string-quartet repertoire and the founding of his legendary new-music ensemble in 1973.
Seattle Times arts writer
Kronos Quartet’s first violinist and leader, David Harrington, is a bit vague on how Kronos’ first concert in November 1973 happened to take place at North Seattle Community College.
“I think they answered the phone when I called,” he says wryly.
The ensemble’s founding members were Harrington and Jim Shallenberger on violins (Shallenberger is now a freelance musician and teacher in the Bay Area), cellist Walter Gray (now with the Seattle Symphony, and a lively presence on our experimental music scene) and violist Tim Kilian (another SSO member, now retired).
Kronos stayed only two years in Seattle, and there was considerable turnover in personnel until the quartet settled in San Francisco in 1977, where the classic Kronos lineup — Harrington and John Sherba (violins), Hank Dutt (viola) and Joan Jeanrenaud (cello) — soon fell into place. (The current lineup is Harrington, Dutt, Sherba and Sunny Yang.)
Harrington talked recently with The Seattle Times about Kronos’ history:
Q: What was your first encounter with a string quartet piece? Was it live or a recording?
A: It was a recording. It was in 1961, and I was in the process of reading a biography of Beethoven. I was just at that point where the late quartets were being written … and right about that time, in the mail, the Columbia Record Club was offering a membership for a penny. So if you sent in a penny, you got to choose 6 recordings. One of them was a late quartet played by the Budapest Quartet. I chose that — and it turned out it was Opus 127, the E-flat major quartet. When the record arrived several weeks later, I put it on the record player and there were those unbelievable E-flat major chords. I just kept playing those over and over again, and probably wore out the record.
Q: When did you first play the piece?
A: I called up three of my friends (we were all playing in the Seattle Youth Symphony), and we got together in a practice room at the University of Washington. I’ll never forget: I gave the downbeat and we played the opening note of Opus 127 and I was hooked. None of us knew it was one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire, but it didn’t matter, because even as 12-year-olds, we were able to make that very first note sound pretty good. I got a chill in my back. And you know, when that happens a person gets magnetized. And I got magnetized.
Q: What was your first encounter with new music?
A: I was in a group that rehearsed several times a week, made up of members of the Seattle Youth Symphony. … The first world premiere I was ever involved with was when I was 16 years old at the University Unitarian Church. We played an all-Benshoof program [Seattle composer Ken Benshoof], and the new piece of his that we were the first people to ever play was his piano quartet. So I got hooked on string quartets at age 12 and I got hooked on playing new pieces at age 16.
Q: What triggered the start of Kronos Quartet in 1973?
A: I heard [George Crumb’s] “Black Angels” [for electric string quartet] on the radio in August of 1973. … It kind of brought together everything that I was interested in. In the middle of the piece there’s a quote from “Death and the Maiden”: Schubert. And of course it opens with this wild Hendrix-like distortion. I didn’t even know it was a string quartet at first. I’d never heard anything like it before. … There were all sorts of languages shouted and chanted, and then there were these mysterious high sounds that I later found out were bowed crystal glasses. I mean, it was an amazing experience. … Basically I didn’t have any choice: I had to play that piece.
Q: What was the response to Kronos’ first concert?
A: There were nine people in the audience, and five of them were my relatives. … It was the first string quartet my wife ever went to, and we were talking about it afterwards. She looked at the program and she said, “Where are the women composers?” And I looked and said, “You know — I don’t know any women composers.” … I made a list of a lot of things that I wanted eventually to be able to find a way of bringing into the realm of our work. And after that first concert, I definitely added women composers. And there were such ideas as: How come there’s no African music that I get to play? … There were so many things that could be done, that hadn’t been done. So it felt like there were immense possibilities.
Q: Is it true that Ken Benshoof wrote “Traveling Music,” Kronos’ first commissioned piece, for a bag of doughnuts?
A: That may be apocryphal because Ken doesn’t remember it that way. .. If it wasn’t for a bag of doughnuts, it was for a cup of coffee. There was absolutely no money to be had at that moment. …
Q: What’s the situation of the quartet now?
A: I feel incredibly optimistic now about the music of the future. … When you think about the more than 800 pieces that have been written for us, we have so much to choose from, it’s absolutely fabulous. And what’s going on right now is that young composers from every continent and many different cultures and backgrounds are writing some of their very best pieces for us now. … So we’re in the position now of enjoying this blossoming of possibilities for the future. I feel there’s never been as much energy as there is right now in the group. It’s really wonderful. I’m very happy.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org