The Kronos Quartet, a leading ensemble spotted at both high-end venues like Carnegie Hall and downtown spaces like Le Poisson Rouge, have further sealed their New York Times-ordained status as classical music “superstars” by nabbing both the Avery Fisher Prize and the Polar Prize for 2011. No other musician or ensemble has ever won both prizes.
The quartet has more than 45 recordings and has commissioned more than 700 works and arrangements for string quartet.
Kronos founder and violinist David Harrington spoke about the prize while on tour in Europe.
The quartet has been honored before with major awards, including a Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance (2004) and "Musicians of the Year" (2003) from Musical America. How are these latest awards different for you? Was this a surprise, especially as they came in such quick succession?
We first heard about these awards a short time back, and heard about them several days apart. It seemed like it was raining. It was kind of astonishing. We never expected anything like this from either of these organizations. To have it happen in sequence like this was a wonderful surprise.
Steve Reich’s latest work for Kronos -- WTC 9/11 -- premiered at Duke Performances on March 19, 2011 and had its New York premiere on April 30. The very next day, news that Osama bin Laden had been killed came through. What was your reaction to this?
I’ve always wanted our music and our concerts to bring more of the world into the concert hall. Events are continually happening that intersect with our music and intersect with some of the more obvious meanings of some of the pieces. That’s bound to happen. I think that as time goes on, WTC 9/11 will be seen as one of those works that has opened the door for all sorts of new issues to become a part of what we think of as a concert and a musical experience. So it’s very poignant that this piece premiered on Saturday evening in New York and [news of Osama bin Laden’s death] happened the next night.
Can you tell us a bit about WTC 9-11?
WTC 9-11 incorporates the voices of some of the first responders, some of the NORAD [North American Aerospace Defense Command] people. Later there are voices, like the sound of one person taking their kids to school. These were people where were right there, directly affected by that event.
Can you tell me more about the extent to which you have found musical inspiration in current events?
I started Kronos in 1973 in order to play Black Angels, which was written in 1970 during the war in Vietnam. I was a young musician and I was confused. All of a sudden on the radio in Aug 1973, I heard this piece. In that instant I knew exactly what I was going to do for the rest of my life. If something like that happens to you, it stays with you all the time. I want to try to provide moments like that for other people.
How did the name Kronos come about?
In 1973, after we had started rehearsing, my wife and I sat down with a bottle of wine and our Greek and Roman mythology dictionary and a great big piece of paper. We began writing down the names of gods and goddesses and elements from early western history. We were looking for a name that’s ancient but might be able to propel things into the future.
We came across chronos, meaning time and timelessness. But I thought the spelling would be more dramatic and bold with a K. Since music and time are so interlocked, it seemed a good name for the kind of thing I wanted to do.
Patti Smith has also been awarded the Polar Prize. How does it feel to be receiving the award at the same time that she does?
I’ve wanted to meet Patti Smith for years and this will be a great opportunity. I’m looking forward to that very much.
In light of these two major wins, what's your outlook now?
I think the way I react to any sort of news like this is I realize how much more work there is to do. I also realize how much I really want to continue exploring the world of music and just push the idea of what a concert might be and what a string quartet might be. Now, with these awards, I just want to keep pushing that more. I feel very encouraged to do that.
Interview has been edited for clarity.