Kronos Quartet’s David Harrington talks ‘50 for the Future,’ Zellerbach world premiere

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“The thing about it is that once you make a sound that has a meaning for yourself or that is better than you’ve ever made before, then that becomes the standard,” David Harrington, founding violinist of Kronos Quartet said. He doesn’t mince his words. With an expansive career and hugely impressive discography of 50-plus albums and counting behind him, he shouldn’t feel the need to. Acknowledging his achievements simply and directly, he continued: “Nothing less than that will do. So the bar keeps getting higher the more you play. That’s what I’ve found.”

In some ways, Harrington’s already succeeded in setting the standard far too high. Over the course of more than 43 years, Kronos Quartet is on the shortlist of the most profoundly adventurous music groups of our time. Currently composed of David Harrington, John Sherba, Hang Dutt and cellist Sunny Yang, Kronos Quartet has been a beacon for both the experimental and classical music communities for over four decades. The sheer mass that comprises its body of work is a staggering testament to its prolific output.

Kronos Quartet has long been known for its uncompromising approach to music-making, sourcing from a wide range of composers and collaborating with artists of many genres from all over the world. Part of that lies in Harrington’s own steady yet mercurial tastes. “We try to follow our ears wherever they might lead us,” said Harrington. “Just think, ‘Wow, what music would I like to play? What music do I need to play right now?’ ”

This often leads to incredible feats of genius. Kronos Quartet’s most recent project ‘50 for the Future,’ has it looking toward posterity. Kronos, over the course of recent years, has begun to comb through the gamut of young current composers in order to perform and make accessible 50 brand new pieces of the quartet’s work.

Harrington is definitely focused on longevity with this project. “Over many years, we’ve realized that our music is so often not in public libraries or in conservatory libraries,” he said. “It’s just very hard to get a hold of. Sometimes when people are able to get a hold of it, it’s still hard to get accurate information about the composers.”

His plan, then, is to create a repertoire of pieces that the quartet can have at its disposal to play worldwide, making these 50 total compositions accessible for free online through its website. Harrington, honing in on the difficulties of getting a hold of his work, decided to solve the problem himself.

This Saturday, Kronos Quartet will be performing a featured selection of works from the project at Zellerbach Hall, along with several other major pieces of note in Kronos’ musical repository. Among the works commission for “50 for the Future,” three have been selected for Saturday’s performance: Serbian-born New York-based Aleksandra Vrebalov’s “My Desert, My Rose,” Dublin-born Garth Knox’s “Satellites” and indie-famous Brit Anna Meredith’s “Tuggemo,” the latter of which will receive its world premiere at the Zellerbach Hall showing. Harrington has UC Berkeley, in part, to thank for the realization of “50 For the Future”; UC Berkeley is one of Kronos Quartet’s key partners for the “Future” project.

Other highlights from Saturday’s impending concert include a rendition of Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit” — a piece Harrington was only too eager to lay claim to being at “the solar plexus of the continuing problems that exist in (American) culture” — as well as Mary Kouyoumdjian’s “Silent Cranes,” a chilling piece of music first performed in Yerevan, Armenia, last year and originally composed in honor of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian genocide.

In spite of Kronos Quartet’s wide-ranging musical palette, Harrington’s vision is crystal clear. “What I want is music that will bring new words into our vocabulary, new musical colors, new sensibilities and new ways of looking at life,” he said before pausing, allowing his weighty words to sit heavy in the air. Then, laughing warmly, he acknowledged his own magnitude: “Now that’s a Herculean task.”

Be that as it may, Harrington has time and again proven his ability to expand our musical and cultural lexicon in this very way. With Saturday’s performance and the world premiere of Anna Meredith’s “Tuggemo,” he just might do it again.

Justin Knight writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on building identity by consuming culture. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @jknightlion.