On Inheriting Oral Traditions
Mar 12, 2019

On Inheriting Oral Traditions

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When Kronos founder and artistic director David Harrington first began dabbling in chamber music as a teenager, there was no music by an Inuit throat singer for string quartet. There was no music by an African composer for string quartet, no sheet music from Asia or South America. Browsing the public library, he found that there was so much music that was missing from the repertoire. Kronos’ 50 for the Future—and indeed Kronos itself—was born out of a desire to fill in some of these blanks. “If you keep your ears open long enough, you’re going to find things that are incredibly interesting,” Harrington says. “The genius of the string quartet form is that it can sound like so many different things. From the very first rehearsal, I wanted Kronos to be able to maneuver from this musical form to that musical form, and to try to create a mosaic of possibilities.”

Following your ears means you will often come across music and sounds that are not notated in a classical sense. Fifty for the Future composers Fodé Lassana Diabaté, Aruna Narayan, and Tanya Tagaq, for example, descend from long lines of oral traditions, inheriting their musical crafts from person to person sans written intermediates. Because the way musicians receive music necessarily shapes the way they impart creativity into their work, Kronos often asks composers “to sing for us so we hear their voices”—the quartet’s own practice of oral transmission. “We ask them to move to their own music so we see how their body responds to the rhythms and experiences they’ve made.”

A large part of Kronos’ work with living composers, then, is in itself an exercise in bridging the gap between the many oral traditions of the music world and the string quartet form, one that has existed almost exclusively as a written tradition. With the help of arrangers—essentially musical translators—like Jacob Garchik and Reena Esmail, we are working to make a small but valuable part of these traditions accessible around the world, propagating not only their fruits, but also the practice itself. In exploring a vast range of cultures that would otherwise never come into contact with the string quartet canon, Kronos hopes to encourage a constant movement of musical ideas, and through that movement, a wider-eyed curiosity about the world we share.