To say that the Kronos Quartet have been influential in contemporary classical music would be an understatement; they have defined the genre since their founding by violinist David Harrington in 1973. Over their incredibly successful career thus far the San Francisco-based quartet have sold over 1.5 million records, won two Grammy awards, have had over 900 works written for them, and even appeared on Sesame Street.

What characterises Kronos is their commitment to performing works from outside the European classical tradition and of which they are the first performers, from composers from Malawi to the Congo to Israel. They also reach a global audience; I speak to Kronos’ founder and Artistic Director David Harrington fresh from a sound check in Detroit.

He is friendly and gracious and immediately puts me at ease over the phone, as I was nervous, having been a massive Kronos Quartet fan for years. I ask him about his vision for Kronos, and whether it has changed over the 40 years spanning their career.

Famously the founding of the quartet was catalysed when Harrington heard George Crumb’s Black Angels, which is considered by many to be an anti-war piece, and the quartet was founded with the backdrop of the Vietnam War.

“What I’ve noticed is there have been other wars since the American war in Vietnam, and it seems like my country just tends to get into conflict. The experience of hearing Black Angels was extraordinary having grown up playing Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven and Schubert. That was the music I knew about and then around age 15 I heard Bartok for the first time and the next year I started playing music by living composers. The backdrop to all of this was the war that was going on and it was on our television every night. At a certain point every young man my age had to deal with the draft.

“Do you know the story of why we didn’t record Black Angels for 16 years? The reason we didn’t record it is that I always wanted Black Angels to be the first piece on an album. In those days you couldn’t just go onto Spotify and hear whatever you wanted; I wanted people to have to confront that piece; to not be able to get away from it, to have no preparation, just like when I heard it. I just turned on the radio and a moment later there it was; I wasn’t ready, I had no idea what it was I was hearing, it just grabbed me. It was so physical.”

I question whether Harrington thinks that music has a different energy or meaning during wartime, especially music that was composed around the time of the Vietnam War for Americans.

“One thing that you need to know is that when I called George Crumb (the composer of Black Angels) before our album came out, I wanted the programme notes for that piece to be in his words. I explained to him that for me this was an anti-war piece and I said, “in your opinion, is this what it is?”. And he would not say that. That taught me that music belongs to each one of us and the way we interpret it is very personal and yet it is just as valid as what the composer thought. If you look in the score it does say “in tempore belli” (in the time of war). I asked him if this was his response to the Vietnam war and he would not say yes or no; what he said was “there were strange things in the air”.

We moved on to the topic of why music compels Harrington and he brings up a quote that stuck with him from composer Henryk Gorecki:

I remember when I was twelve years old; we went out on a school visit to Auschwitz. I had the feeling the huts were still warm. (this was in 1945)… The paths themselves—and this image has never left me—the paths were made from human bones thrown onto the path like shingles. We boys—how to walk on this? This is not sand, not earth. We were walking on human beings. This was my world. The only way to confront this horror, to forget—but you could never forget—was through music… The world today, it’s the same. Also a nightmare, crushing us. Somehow I had to take a stand, as a witness and as a warning… The war, the rotten times under Communism, our life today, the starving, Bosnia—what madness. And why, why? The sorrows, it burns inside me. I cannot shake it off.

Harrington reflects on this.

“This experience shaped his entire life and the only thing he could do as a response was music. I think there are these moments in life that are so huge that we don’t recover from them; we absorb them, we deal with them, we listen to them and I kind of think that is what musicians do. Is that our job? I’m trying to figure out what my job is every day!

“What is the purpose of music? What is it for, what are we doing; what is a musical experience? For me these are fluid questions and the answers keep changing and perhaps each new piece is an answer to that.”

Kronos are notable partly for their collaborations with musicians from all around the world; one of my favourite albums of theirs is Pieces of Africa, which features African composers from across the continent. I ask Harrington how he decides on his collaborations and what makes them successful.

“I’m interested in learning new things about music and there are so many people in the world that can teach us things that we don’t know. I heard marvellous recordings when I was in high school from places in Africa; and I just noticed a feeling and I realised that I’d never heard a violin or viola or cello have that sound and I filed that away and realised that someday, I wanted my instrument to sound like this. And eventually it became clear that my instrument is not the violin; it’s the string quartet.

“It’s thrilling and amazing to be able to participate in music from cultures that we’ve never had a chance to physically visit but through our imaginations we can go there at will.

“Someone asked me once, “How can you do this? What do you know about African music?” and I remember saying: “I didn’t go to Vienna, Austria until I was about 35 and I grew up playing Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, who all lived there. They all were of the same religion, they spoke the same language, they were all white guys. I was from Seattle, Washington; what do I know about Vienna?”

“Music is an imaginative thing; it’s a way that we humans have figured out to share information with each other and to express things about our lives or cultures. So much can be embedded in music and none of us own it; we just get to share it for a little while.”

Kronos Quartet in Krakow, 2014 © Wojciech Wandzel

One of Kronos’ most important new projects is Fifty for the Future, an educational venture of unprecedented scope in the contemporary music world. They have commissioned fifty new works from 25 female and 25 male prominent and emerging composers from around the world, designed to guide young professional string quartets in performance of 21st-century repertoire. All of the scores and recordings are available free to use for anyone around the world, and Kronos performs at least one of these works in all their concerts.

I ask why there such a need for it, and why young string quartets are not playing more 21st century music.

“When I was 12 years old, I joined the Columbia Record Club; you sent in a penny and got five or six LPs. I was reading a biography of Beethoven and I read about the Late Quartets, and that month one of the offerings was the first Late Quartet. I put on the recording and the opening E-flat major chord just wiped me out. I thought it was the most incredible sound I had ever heard in my life and I wanted to learn how to make that sound. So what I did was made my way down to the Seattle public library and checked out the score and parts. I called some friends and a couple of days later we were in a room trying to play that piece. For a split second that opening chord sounded like the record! It was really a split second but that’s all you need to give you the confidence to show you that you can do this, that you love this, that you want more of this. That’s what happened to me.

Years later whilst coaching we realised that no one could get hold of the music we were playing, and the music schools were asking Kronos to send Xerox copies of the parts of published music. We can’t do that; it’s illegal, and we began thinking how can we solve this problem. The idea of Fifty for the Future happened naturally out of this.”

I ask Harrington how he had the idea and got the quartet up and running.

“I was not such a good student; I had trouble learning. I went to the University of Washington – this was in the time of the Vietnam War. I studied poetry, and latin for a little while, and at this point I’d stopped playing violin. I had to work so hard to learn latin that it got me back into the discipline of being able to play violin. I went back into the music school and there were these very wonderful high powered European male teachers, and I couldn’t learn a damn thing from them. They all had one set way of doing things, and I shrank. At age 21, I ran into the woman who became my teacher for the next 30 years, Veda Reynolds.

“Veda became my teacher and her approach to the violin was so beautiful and individual. She studied with Carl Flesch, had all the training she could have, and this made her infinitely flexible, not rigid, as a teacher.

“We had the most magnificent lessons. In our final lesson, there was a sound I wanted to make and I couldn’t make my body do it and we had a four or five hour lesson on this note, and the last thing she ever said to me was “the great thing about music is it can always be better”. That was her approach; you find a way, you use your imagination, you think about imagery.

“I was about 21 and I thought the US army was going to draft me and I decided I was not going to be part of that war. I would not; they could put me in jail, do whatever they want. I found out that the Victoria Symphony in British Columbia had an opening for the violin, so I auditioned and got the job. In the meantime I had my draft board appearance and the US army didn’t want me! But by then I’d signed a contact with the Victoria Symphony so we went to Victoria for a year and the conductor knew I loved playing quartets so one day he asked me if I would like to be involved in setting up a series of chamber music concerts at the Provincial Museum. So I got my first training in setting up concerts and organising musicians in Victoria.

“We came back in the summer of 1973 and a few weeks later was when I heard Black Angels on the radio, and a week later than that was when Kronos had its first rehearsal. Everyone I talked to in the music business in Seattle said this will never work. In the first two years of Kronos we played in countless different venues; from classrooms to ferry boats to art galleries. At a certain point we realised Kronos was a West Coast group so we moved to San Francisco; we didn’t know anybody, but we decided that was the place we needed to get our energy from.

“That first year I went to a concert of a very prominent American string quartet; they even played Beethoven Op. 127 (the first Late Quartet), and I was invited to the party afterwards. I was talking to one of the members, and I said that I hoped one day that my group will sound like you and have the kind of ensemble you guys have. He put his arm on my shoulder and said “don’t worry kid, you never will”. That pissed me off so much!”

I remarked that they had the last laugh…

“No, it still pisses me off! This is part of music education, and that was the underlying feeling I was getting from so many of the authoritarian figures in the world of music at that point. A little pat on the head, maybe someday you’ll sort of get it right…

“I have never ever wanted Kronos to be part of that conversation and that approach to music, that exclusive club of those who can and the rest of us that can’t. For me music is something we get to share with each other; the sound of the string quartet is one of the magnificent creations of humanity and the impact that it can have is something I want to celebrate. I want more of the world into this sound, that Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert created the foundation for and I think a great way of celebrating them is for this art form to be more and more vibrant. “

Kronos Quartet present Sight Machine at the Barbican on 11th July.

Kronos Quartet & Trevor Paglen: Sight Machine is part of the Barbican’s 2019 season, Life Rewired, which explores what it means to be human when technology is changing everything.