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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 17 August 2018

Kronos Quartet founder on the group's adventurous and educational spirit

The musical quartet will play three shows in Abu Dhabi - with each performance born out of collaborations with international artists 

David Harrington, second right, founded the Kronos Quartet in 1973. Courtesy NYU Abu Dhabi
David Harrington, second right, founded the Kronos Quartet in 1973. Courtesy NYU Abu Dhabi

After a successful debut run of shows last year, the celebrated American experimental-music group Kronos Quartet are returning to NYU Abu Dhabi.

Their series of performances in the capital begins with their For the Future concert, when they will perform songs born out of collaborations with international artists from Tajikistan to Egypt. The following night, the quartet will go even more global with their Around the World with Kronos programme, which includes various music styles, including folk songs from the Middle East. For those wanting the backstory on the group’s four-decade career, you can also watch a screening of their documentary A Thousand Thoughts, with the soundtrack performed live by the quartet, on February 22.

If the whole programme sounds hectic and rather unwieldy, this is just the way Kronos Quartet do things. “We are always interested in adventure and trying new things,” explains founder David Harrington. “Our Abu Dhabi experience [in 2015] was such a rewarding one. We met so many different people from across all cultures – it was a highlight of my career. We look forward to playing and engaging with this amazing audience once again.”

From Tajik composer Sirojiddin Juraev to Chinese pipa (a stringed instrument) virtuoso Wu Man, Kronos Quartet have always participated in eclectic partnerships. What does the group look for in collaborators?

We are very thoroughly involved with every composer we work with. Yesterday, for example, we were working with Sirojiddin and Wu Man. We’ve never worked with Sirojiddin before, and it was a fantastic experience. We’re forming the music together. I’m going to a rehearsal in a few minutes and we’ll get new arrangements. We’ll refine them today, and tomorrow we will do it again and find even more new arrangements. That’s how we do things with Kronos Quartet. It’s a slowly-but-surely process.

One of the tracks that we can look forward to hearing is a piece you composed with Egyptian chaabi singer Islam Chipsy. How would you describe its sound and style?

Its sounds are straight from the dance floor. It’s wild, electronic based and amazing music. We’ve recently recorded it and we’re in the process of editing it. Within a few months, every string quartet in the world will be able to play this piece, because we publish the scores on our website. Young players can download them day or night, from any place in the world.

Kronos Quartet began as an ensemble, but now it is a full-blown educational organisation as well as a touring group. Was that part of the long-term vision?

The funny thing is I started the group in 1973 just to play Black Angels by George Crumb. I heard it on the radio one night – this incredibly alarming, fabulous, disturbing, wonderful, beautiful, raucous music – and I realised I had no choice but to play this music. It felt like a response and like I found my music. Being a young musician, it was a very weird time in American history, with the Vietnam War, and a lot of the music of that era didn’t sound right to me.

So I started Kronos originally to play that one piece, and as a result, we played a lot of other music to get ready to play that one piece. Pretty soon, it felt like... well, this is what I’m going to do forever. Eventually, the education aspect came, and that’s been a very important part of our work. We’ve tried to create a body of music that is beautiful and responsive to life as we find it and events in the world.

Part of that journey has led to the group redefining what a string quartet can do, in that you also produce sounds that are powerful, violent and emotional, in addition to the more genteel work that string groups are often associated with. Was that factor important to you?

We need all of those qualities and many more, actually, to express life as we find it. That’s one of the reasons I love working with musicians from all over the world. What happens, if you do this kind of thing long enough, your vocabulary gets large. You have more words, more images and more music to work with. I just heard yesterday, since 1973 Kronos has commissioned 950 new pieces – and I feel like we’re just getting started.

With so much work produced, do you feel music-streaming services are beneficial for an ensemble such as yours, giving fans, both new and old, a big library of music to get lost in?

Yes. I’m delighted in the fact that I can hear the name of a composer, and on my computer I might be able to hear her or his work, no matter where they might live in the world – it is incredible. But for me, I need all the music from Kronos to have that feeling of reality; of vitality of renewal.

Kronos Quartet’s shows are Thursday, Friday and February 22 at NYU Abu Dhabi’s Arts Centre. For more information, visit www.nyuad-artscenter.org

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