Posted January 14, 2013 by Jeff in Tunes

Kronos is a new music quartet that rocks the planet


Founded in 1973, Kronos Quartet has been dubbed the most famous new music ensemble in the world and amassed hundreds of works. It’s crossed over into the pop and rock worlds, too, playing music from avant garde singer Laurie Anderson and classic rockers Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. As the group was about to embark on a short U.S. tour, we talked to its founder, violinist David Harrington, about the ensemble’s legacy and what to expect from the current set of tour dates.

When Kronos first formed in 1973, what was the initial impulse? What did you intend for it to become and has that changed over the years?
I started Kronos in September of 1973 just a couple of weeks after I first heard George Crumb’s Black Angels on the radio. The damaging effects of the American war on Vietnam was littered all over our culture and the consciousness of many, many people, especially people my age at that time. On the radio that night, I heard a musical answer to the creative quandary I was in. All of a sudden, I heard music I had to play. It felt like the right way and the right direction. In order to do that piece, I had to have a group. I grew up playing quartet music from age 12 and knew that I was going to be a musician. In 1973, that got reconfirmed and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. It wasn’t even a question. I didn’t have any choice. All I’ve wanted to do since then is to try to make my involvement and the involvement of Kronos with the world of music something that feels vital and tangible and that responds to life and our society and hopefully provides some sort of musical answer or direction, at some moments certain elements of comfort and warning. I think of the string quartet as this incredibly vital force in human expression. I want to be sure that we’re passing on to the next generation of music lovers something that is some sort of testament of what it’s like to be alive right now. That’s all. It’s real simple.

In the case of someone like me, to feel like I’m truly alive in this vast world of music, there’s a lot to do. I will never run out of things to do. I can tell you that. That’s not even possible.

Do you think it’s because of that philosophy that the group has been able to crossover so much into the pop and rock realms?
I don’t feel like we’ve crossed over anywhere. There aren’t dividing lines in music. If you go into a record store, there’s the opera section and the death metal section and pop this and pop that and world this and world that. I don’t hear music that way. There are not these little fences. It’s not like being 30,000 feet in the air and looking at all the ranches in the Midwest and everything is divided with these fences. To me, that’s not how music works. We encounter things as listeners that magnetize and strike us in one way or another, depending on what’s happening in our lives. It’s like moths being attracted to light. We have to go to the music that pulls us, and that changes from time to time. In the case of someone like me, to feel like I’m truly alive in this vast world of music, there’s a lot to do. I will never run out of things to do. I can tell you that. That’s not even possible. Every day there are more cool things that I can’t wait to try. So far, I don’t think they’ve made days any longer. At least I haven’t found a way to do it.

You have an international perspective when it comes to music. Has that grown over time or was that the case from day one?
My perspective has gotten much more completely international than it ever has been. That’s partly due to access to information. When I was in in high school, and I first encountered music from Ghana, that was a total revelation and I just couldn’t believe it. One day, I hoped I could make my instrument sound like what I was hearing on the old 78 recordings at my high school. There was a record store right near my high school and that’s where I first heard Thelonious Monk and Charles Ives. My perspective has just changed. Of course, with the touring that we get to do and the musicians we’ve been able to meet, work with and collaborate with, everyone has a favorite piece of music and I get suggestions all of the time. I’ve always thought the best way to learn new things is from suggestions from your friends. I keep a running list of things to listen to and that list is getting longer rather than shorter.

I remember how groundbreaking it seemed at the time when you did a rendition of “Purple Haze.” What inspired you to want to take on Hendrix?
A couple of things. The initial entrance into performing the music of Hendrix was really simple. In about 1979 were playing a new version of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” at Mills College. This is for quartet and piano. I was thinking, “What’s going to happen if we have to do an encore after ‘Rite of Spring’? What could we possibly play?” The only thing that came to my mind was “Purple Haze.” I just couldn’t think of anything else. That’s how we got into it. As it turns out, I’m from Seattle and my wife is from Seattle and she went to Garfield High School which is where Hendrix went and I was listening to him in the ‘60s. That’s part of the fascination with Black Angels. When I first heard it, I thought it sounded like Hendrix. As far as I’m concerned, the incredible virtuosity and imagination of Jimi Hendrix has been part of my world since the late ’60s. It feels very natural to be performing his music.

So what will the sets be like on this tour?
We’re playing the music of Steve Reich, his “WTC 9/11,” Bryce Dessner’s “Aheym,” Laurie Anderson’s “Flow” and we’re doing a premiere by Dan Becker who’s a composer from San Francisco; it’s called “Carrying the Past.” We’ll also do music from Omar Souleyman from Syria. Lots of things.  It’s a big tour for us. Every show is different. At this point, I don’t feel we ought to be repeating ourselves and we have a lot of tools in the toolbox these days.

Tour Dates 










MIM Music Theater, Phoenix, AZ

MIM Music Theater, Phoenix, AZ

Valentine Theatre, Toledo, OH

Gartner Auditorium, Cleveland, OH

Southern Theatre, Columbus, OH

Kay Theatre, College Park, MD

Kay Theatre, College Park, MD

Lam Research Theater at YBCA, San Francisco, CA

Lam Research Theater at YBCA, San Francisco, CA



Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].