Before he founded Kronos Quartet, before the ensemble would go on to stretch the notion of what a quartet could be, before they would collaborate with some of the biggest names in classical music (earning 11 Grammy nominations along the way), violinist David Harrington heard a piece of music that would change everything.
It was August 1973, and Harrington says when he heard Black Angels by George Crumb, he knew right away that he had to play it himself. "And in order to play that piece, I got a score and I looked at it and I realized, I'm gonna have to get a group together that's going to be rehearsing every day and really taking this seriously," he explains.
So Kronos Quartet was born.
Crumb's Black Angels is not what you might call an easy listen. Electrified instruments and unprecedented playing techniques create a radical soundscape. Critics have described it as both "radiantly beautiful" and "searingly horrific." For Harrington, it was just what he needed to hear in the anxious era of the Vietnam War.
"People my age were dealing with the draft into the army, and many of us just didn't know what to do with ourselves and how to express the feelings that we had," he says. "So when I heard Black Angels, all of a sudden it felt to me like the music I'd been looking for."
Kronos Quartet's recording of Black Angels, mvt. 3.
Beyond echoing the troubled zeitgeist of the Vietnam Era, Crumb's piece opened Harrington's mind to what a string quartet could really be. "It brought together a lot of music that I already knew about and loved, including music of Schubert and music of Jimi Hendrix and Bartók," Harrington says.
He was also drawn to the quartet's unusual sounds. When he first heard the piece on the radio, he wasn't even certain it was a string quartet playing. "All of a sudden two violins, a viola, and a cello became much, much larger in terms of its possibilities than anything I'd ever heard before."
Kronos have built their career on the notion of what might be possible— through their defiance of any one genre, through unconventional collaborations, and their continued support of new music and young composers. Now, the story of the quartet is coming to Oz Arts Nashville, and it is, of course, being presented in an unconventional format.
Billed as a "live documentary," A Thousand Thoughts looks back at the four-plus decades of Kronos's career, with the ensemble playing live music and narration by filmmaker Sam Green. It's been retrospective for Harrinton, who has both lighthearted and contemplative thoughts about the experience.
"It is interesting ... having the audience see what you look like forty-some years ago," he says with a laugh. Then he adds: "I am taken back to a lot of earlier moments, but also I feel challenged to continue finding future moments."
There’s real joy in Harrington’s voice when he talks about the past, about the hundreds of meaningful experiences he’s had collaborating with talented musicians and composers. Some are highlighted in the documentary, like iconic collaborations with Philip Glass and Terry Riley, and more recent work with performers like Canadian Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq.
And while there’s pleasure in looking back, Harrington is most excited about what’s to come. "The greatest piece has never been written yet, in my opinion. It's a continual search, and I certainly have not made the best notes that I'm capable of making. I know that," he says. "And the job of every musician in the world is to try to make music that reaches further and further into our imaginations and our beings."
For Kronos, it’s search that continues as they approach half a century of pushing the musical envelope.
The audio version of this story contains excerpts from Kronos Quartet's recording of George Crumb's Black Angels, "The Water Rises," part of a Grammy-winning collaboration between Kronos and Laurie Anderson, and Philip Glass's String Quartet No. 3 ("Mishima").