Sheer variety creates near-perfect balance at the three-day Kronos Festival (Thu/22-Sat/24 at SFJAZZ). This year’s delectable feast of diverse sounds and sights highlights the string quartet’s 50 for the Future repertoire. That remarkable project, unfolding over six performance seasons from 2015 to 2022, had Kronos reaching around the world—and making a significant contribution to the library of 21st-century string quartet music—to commission, record, and publish new works from 50 contemporary composers. Notably, Kronos and its nonprofit Kronos Performing Arts Association offers the scores, recordings, and supplemental materials free of charge to anyone. A selection of this all-original repertoire is featured in the festival’s three different programs and a Family Concert promising to lead kids and families on a globe-trotting musical jaunt.
Artists appearing or whose work will be performed at this year’s festival include Rhiannon Giddens, Philip Glass, Zakir Hussain, Angélique Kidjo, Terry Riley, and Wu Man. The three quartets joining Kronos are the Aizuri Quartet, Attacca Quartet, and Friction Quartet. Special appearances by solo guest musicians include Rafiq Bhatia, Soo Yeon Lyuh, Victoria Shen, and others.
Kronos was established in 1973 by violinist David Harrington, and has been a vital, towering force for contemporary music ever since. (The quartet’s complete history is well told on the website and a worthwhile, fun read.) Rounding out the quartet with Harrington are John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Paul Wiancko (cello), who replaced Sunny Yang in February of this year.
In an interview one week before the festival, Harrington says his face has finally recovered from a tour in early May during which he heard 40 out of the 50 for the Future pieces that Kronos and other quartets performed at the Muziekgebouw and Bimhuis in Amsterdam. “My face hurt because I had such a smile for two days. There were six groups from Europe and four from the US and the music felt like it had presence. It was being brought to life by these wonderful young groups and I could feel the art forming right in front of me.”
Harrington says that while he had been aware of the works’ sonic and cultural variety, listening to other musicians interpret the music during a condensed two days caused him to realize “there’s a reality you don’t know.” The music, he adds, bounced back to him in emotional, profound ways as each piece inhabited its unique musical and cultural space. The composers, speaking to the audience about their work, shared a natural eloquence that did not surprise Harrington, but impressed him by creating a unifying narrative thread. The young composers’ clarity of vision and ability to express it from the most diverse sonic environments, he suggested, is the essence of 50 for the Future.
Of course, balance is also achieved through meticulous programming. Harrington says, “The placement of music on a program is one of the most important things we do. We have the opportunity to give listeners at least one idea of what might make incredibly beautiful emotional sense to be next. For example, we open with (Beninese singer-songwriter) Angélique Kidjo’s joyful, amazing YanYanKliYan Senamido. And then, Guillermo Galindo is going to come on and teach us all how to activate our phones and download an app with four different recordings. The audience is going to play with us on (Galindo’s work) Remote Control. It’s thrilling and it’s a whole world of sound in just two of the festival’s works. I can’t wait.”
There will be plenty to keep Harrington busy while he “waits” for that festival moment. The very next day after our interview, Kronos was about to have their first group discussion and begin rehearsals with guest artist Shen, a sound artist, experimental music performer, and instrument-maker. The collaboration, Harrington says is “a fresco that’s not yet dried and is being figured out even as we speak.” All he knew was that Shen had made bows on the ends of which are wired styluses. “The bows are electronic and we’ll be using them like record player arms to play the records she will make on our turntables. She’s playing on one also.”
Shen in a separate interview, provides more information, describing a fascinating, complex process. “For our collaboration, I’m building turntables, bows with needles on them, and making the records we’re using from 50 for the Future recordings. I make facsimiles of the pre-existing vinyls and I hack them up in a controlled way using a jeweler’s saw. You can’t laser cut them because it creates a highly noxious gas. Then I take the vinyls and recompose them. For other projects in the past I have embedded things in them. But for this, I reproduced the recomposed vinyls—because of that reconstruction they become new compositions—and I reproduce them in small volume by filling a silicone mold with liquid plastic that allows me to make flexible resin copies.
“When the vinyl is spinning, you can see it is spinning because there’s a light inside the turntable. That projects through the vinyl and puts its colors onto the quartet’s faces and the walls. In the past I’ve embedded threads, notebook pages, my old German homework, a zipper, copper coils that turned my own vinyl (Shen’s LP Hair Birth) into a speaker itself, and other things, but for these guys, I didn’t. Why not? It seemed beside the point for this project, and any embedded things wouldn’t be seen from the audiences’ viewpoint anyway.”
Shen currently works at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford and the School of Visual Arts in New York. As a solo artist, she has performed under the name Evicshen nationally and internationally; and as half of the duo TRIM, she has toured throughout North America and the UK. Shen established a sizable following and extensivemedia attention with her “Needle Nails,“ acrylic nails tipped with wired styluses allowing her to “play” records. Shown on Twitter, the needle nails videos went viral.
Despite her career achievements and the growing groundswell of attention, Shen says the opportunity to work with Kronos is a milestone. “David is incredibly open-minded in that he’s interested in my process and where I am going with it. It’s rare that world-class musicians like Kronos are interested in someone like me. I’m largely a solo artist and do improv with bands. I’ve never composed for a string quartet.”
Shen has created a score that is like a roadmap that began with landmarked zones, to which she is now adding paths of interest. Movement and its possibilities offer the unknown to Shen, another aspect of the project she appreciates. “Even if you have music physically encoded onto an object I make, you don’t experience it unless it is performed in time. Time is a weird, dicey, philosophical realm, so having this piece as an allegory for time, for taking past and present and time as something we only experience while moving is exciting to me.”
Although there are definitely feminine imagery and motifs in Shen’s work—sound made with painted acrylic nails, combs moving through hair, and more—she says her music is also contextualized through minimalist and abstract aesthetics. “There’s no embedded agenda, although actually, everything personal is political. I’m sympathetic to that point of view, but I think it’s important to be challenged by work that’s not immediately interpretable. It’s up to the audience to renegotiate their relationship to the experience. Still, I can’t escape the baggage of authorship, being in this body with my personal history. It’s in this void, this interface between sonic abstraction and what I call the landfill, this mountain of meaning, where I try to exist and where we can derive value and figure out how we feel about art.”
Harrington would likely be intrigued to learn about Shen’s next project; a three-month residency in Omaha where she is making an organ using accordion reeds and air compressors. It is yet to be seen in what ways her participation in the 50 for the Future project will impact the work that is to follow, but Harrington has no doubt it will. “We’ve been hearing about outgrowths, let’s call them large mushroom patches with new roots systems that attach to the 50 for the Future’s body of work. When musicians hear each other in a festival setting, new things happen. I just came from three concerts we had in Germany and coaching young groups. Hearing other ways to play our music was so energizing. I came home feeling I was more of a musician than I’d ever been before.
“How music can fill you up is one of its beautiful mysteries.”
KRONOS FESTIVAL runs Thu/22-Sat/24 at SFJAZZ. More info here.