KRONOS QUARTET’S MUSIC FOR CHANGE: PETE SEEGER @ 100
The FreshGrass Composition Commission
With special guests Aoife O’Donovan, Sam Amidon, Lee Knight, and more
Pete Seeger, who would have turned 100 years old this May, lived through the tumultuous 20th century as a force for kindness, humility, and good. His pursuits reflected the complexity of the times through the lens of music. For our 2019 FreshGrass Composition Commission, the iconic string ensemble Kronos Quartet will create a multi-artist exploration of Seeger’s musical legacy. The group will collaborate with composers like Jacob Garchik and a host of guest vocalists and fellow musicians, including FreshGrass Artist in Residence Aoife O’Donovan, Sam Amidon, and Lee Knight, to re-imagine the songs that Seeger popularized and celebrate his place in the landscape of American music. This special FreshGrass commission will launch at Kronos’ fifth annual Kronos Festival in San Francisco in May and then come to MASS MoCA.
For more than 40 years, San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet – David Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Sunny Yang (cello) – has pursued a singular artistic vision, combining a spirit of fearless exploration with a commitment to continually reimagine the string quartet experience. In the process, Kronos has become one of the most celebrated and influential groups of our time, performing thousands of concerts worldwide, releasing more than 60 recordings of extraordinary breadth and creativity, collaborating with many of the world’s most intriguing and accomplished composers and performers, and commissioning more than 950 works and arrangements for string quartet. Kronos has received over 40 awards, including both the Polar Music and Avery Fisher Prize, two of the most prestigious awards given to musicians, a Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance (2004) and “Musicians of the Year” (2003) from Musical America.
Kronos’ adventurous approach dates back to the ensemble’s origins. In 1973, David Harrington was inspired to form Kronos after hearing George Crumb’s Black Angels, a highly unorthodox, Vietnam War–inspired work featuring bowed water glasses, spoken word passages, and electronic effects. Kronos then began building a compellingly eclectic repertoire for string quartet, performing and recording works by 20th-century masters (Bartók, Webern, Schnittke), contemporary composers (Vladimir Martynov, Aleksandra Vrebalov, Sahba Aminikia), jazz legends (Charles Mingus, Maria Schneider, Thelonious Monk), rock artists (Jimi Hendrix, The Who’s Pete Townshend, Sigur Rós), and artists who truly defy genre (performance artist Laurie Anderson, visual artist Trevor Paglen, spoken-word poets from Youth Speaks).
Integral to Kronos’ work is a series of long-running, in-depth collaborations with many of the world’s foremost composers. One of the quartet’s most frequent composer-collaborators is “Father of Minimalism” Terry Riley, whose work with Kronos includes Salome Dances for Peace (1985–86); Sun Rings (2002), a NASA-commissioned multimedia ode to the earth and its people that features celestial sounds and images from space; and The Serquent Risadome, premiered during Kronos’ 40th Anniversary Celebration at Carnegie Hall in 2014. Kronos commissioned and recorded the three string quartets of Polish composer Henryk Górecki, with whom the group worked for more than 25 years. The quartet has also collaborated extensively with composers such as Philip Glass, recording an album of his string quartets in 1995 and premiering String Quartets No. 6 in 2013 and No. 7 in 2014; Azerbaijan’s Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, whose works are featured on the full-length 2005 release Mugam Sayagi; Steve Reich, whom Kronos has worked with on recordings of the Grammy-winning composition Different Trains (1989), Triple Quartet (2001), and WTC 9/11 (2011); among many other composers and arrangers.
In addition to composers, Kronos counts numerous performers from around the world among its collaborators, including the Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man; Azeri master vocalist Alim Qasimov; legendary Bollywood “playback singer” Asha Bhosle, featured on Kronos’ 2005 Grammy-nominated CD You’ve Stolen My Heart: Songs from R.D. Burman’s Bollywood; Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq; Mexican rockers Café Tacvba; the Romanian gypsy band Taraf de Haïdouks; the Malian griot musicians Trio Da Kali; and Iranian vocalist Mahsa Vahdat. Kronos has performed live with the likes of Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Jarvis Cocker, Zakir Hussain, Modern Jazz Quartet, Noam Chomsky, Rokia Traoré, Tom Waits, Rhiannon Giddens, Howard Zinn, Betty Carter, Van Dyke Parks, Caetano Veloso, k.d. lang, Amanda Palmer, Jherek Bischoff, The National, múm, and Lau’s Martin Green, and has appeared on recordings by artists such as Nine Inch Nails, Dan Zanes, Glenn Kotche, Dave Matthews Band, Nelly Furtado, Joan Armatrading, Don Walser, Angelique Kidjo, and Dan Wilson. In dance, the famed choreographers Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, Eiko & Koma, and Paul Lightfoot and Sol León (Nederlands Dans Theater) have created pieces with Kronos’ music.
Kronos’ work has been featured prominently in a number of films, including the Academy Award–nominated documentaries How to Survive a Plague (2012) and Dirty Wars (2013), for which Kronos’ David Harrington served as Music Supervisor. Kronos also performed scores by Philip Glass for the films Mishima and Dracula (a 1999 restored edition of the 1931 Tod Browning-directed Bela Lugosi classic), by Clint Mansell for the Darren Aronofsky films Noah (2014), The Fountain (2006), and Requiem for a Dream (2000), by Terry Riley for François Girard’s Hochelaga terre des âmes (2017), and by Jacob Garchik for Guy Maddin’s The Green Fog — A San Francisco Fantasia (2017). Additional films featuring Kronos’ music include La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty, 2013), 21 Grams (2003), Heat (1995), and True Stories (1986), among others. A Thousand Thoughts, a live documentary co-directed and written by filmmakers Sam Green and Joe Bini that features live narration by Green and live music Kronos Quartet, premiered in 2018 at the Sundance Film Festival and Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University and is touring the world.
The quartet spends five months of each year on tour, appearing in concert halls, clubs, and festivals around the world including Carnegie Hall, Disney Hall, Barbican in London, BAM Next Wave Festival, Big Ears, Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, WOMAD, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Shanghai Concert Hall, Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Sydney Opera House, Victoria Hall in Geneva, Switzerland, and Haydn Hall in Schloss Esterhazy.
Kronos is equally prolific and wide-ranging on recordings. The ensemble’s expansive discography on Nonesuch Records includes collections like Pieces of Africa (1992), a showcase of African-born composers, which simultaneously topped Billboard’s Classical and World Music lists; 1998’s ten-disc anthology, Kronos Quartet: 25 Years; Nuevo (2002), a Grammy- and Latin Grammy–nominated celebration of Mexican culture; and the 2004 Grammy-winner, Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, featuring renowned soprano Dawn Upshaw. In celebration of the quartet’s 40th anniversary season in 2014, Nonesuch released both Kronos Explorer Series, a five-CD retrospective boxed set, and the single-disc A Thousand Thoughts, featuring mostly unreleased recordings from throughout Kronos’ career. Kronos’ most recent releases include One Earth, One People, One Love: Kronos Plays Terry Riley, a five-disc, four album box set that included the new release Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector: Music of Terry Riley; Folk Songs, which features Sam Amidon, Olivia Chaney, Rhiannon Giddens, and Natalie Merchant singing traditional folk songs with arrangements by Jacob Garchik, Nico Muhly, Donnacha Dennehy, and Gabe Witcher; the collaborative album Ladilikan with Trio Da Kali, an ensemble of Malian griot musicians assembled by Aga Khan Music Initiative; vinyl re-releases of Pieces of Africa, Dracula, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain; and the collaborative album Landfall with the venerable multi-discipline artist Laurie Anderson. Music publishers Boosey & Hawkes and Kronos have released two volumes of Kronos Collection sheet music, featuring works by Terry Riley, Hamza el Din, Aleksandra Vrebalov, and Osvaldo Golijov.
In addition to its role as a performing and recording ensemble, the quartet is committed to mentoring emerging performers and composers and has led workshops, master classes, and other education programs with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, Kaufman Music Center’s Face the Music, Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and through the Embassy Adoption Program (a program of Washington Performing Arts and District of Columbia Public Schools), among other institutions in the U.S. and overseas. Kronos has recently undertaken extended educational residencies at UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances, Holland Festival, Texas Performing Arts Association at the University of Texas at Austin, New York University Abu Dhabi, and Mount Royal University Conservatory.
With a staff of 11, the nonprofit Kronos Performing Arts Association (KPAA) manages all aspects of Kronos’ work, including commissioning, concert tours and local performances, education programs, and a self-produced Kronos Festival in San Francisco. In 2015, KPAA launched Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire, an education and legacy project that is commissioning—and distributing for free—the first learning library of contemporary repertoire for string quartet. Designed expressly for the training of students and emerging professionals, ten new works (five by women and five by men) are being composed each year over the next five years. Scores and parts, as well as supplemental learning materials that include recordings, videos, performance notes, and composer interviews, are available on kronosquartet.org. Lead partner Carnegie Hall and an adventurous group of project partners, including presenters, academic institutions, foundations, and individuals, have joined forces with KPAA to support this exciting program, which, as of January 2018, has already seen the initial 15 scores be downloaded 6,000 times in nearly 70 countries worldwide.