Kronos’ adventurous approach dates back to the ensemble’s origins. In 1973, David Harrington formed Kronos after hearing George Crumb’s Black Angels, a highly unorthodox, Vietnam War–inspired work featuring bowed water glasses, spoken word passages, and electronic effects. Kronos then began building an eclectic repertoire for string quartet, performing and recording works by 20th-century masters (Sofia Gubaidulina, Alfred Schnittke, Anton Webern), contemporary composers (Sahba Aminikia, Nicole Lizée, Vladimir Martynov, Aleksandra Vrebalov), jazz legends (Charles Mingus, Maria Schneider, Thelonious Monk), rock artists (Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Sigur Rós), and artists who defy genre (Laurie Anderson, Trevor Paglen, Tanya Tagaq).
Integral to Kronos’ work is a series of long-running, in-depth associations with many of the world’s foremost composers and musicians. One of the quartet’s most frequent collaborators is Terry Riley, whose work with Kronos includes Salome Dances for Peace (1985–86); Sun Rings (2002); and The Serquent Risadome (2014). In 2015, Kronos’ longtime label Nonesuch Records released One Earth, One People, One Love: Kronos Plays Terry Riley, a five-disc, four-album box set dedicated to Riley that included the new release Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector: Music of Terry Riley. Kronos has worked with Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man since the early 1990s on projects such as Tan Dun’s Ghost Opera and Terry Riley’s Cusp of Magic, both released on Nonesuch Records. In 2009, Kronos and Wu Man created an evening-length staged work, A Chinese Home. Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov has written more than 25 pieces for Kronos, including Pannonia Boundless (1998), …hold me, neighbor, in this storm… (2007), and Beyond Zero (2014). The quartet has also collaborated extensively with Philip Glass, recording an album of his string quartets in 1995 and premiering String Quartets No. 6 (2013) and No. 7 (2014); with Azerbaijan’s Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, whose works are featured on the full-length 2005 release Mugam Sayagi; and with Steve Reich, whose string quartets, Different Trains (1989), Triple Quartet (2001), and WTC 9/11 (2011), were written for and recorded by Kronos.
Kronos has shared the stage with numerous artists from around the world, including Azeri master vocalist Alim Qasimov; legendary Bollywood “playback singer” Asha Bhosle; Mexican rockers Café Tacvba; tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain, Romanian band Taraf de Haïdouks; Iranian vocalist Mahsa Vahdat; and Trio Da Kali, an ensemble of griot musicians from Mali. Kronos has performed live with the likes of Paul McCartney, David Bowie, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Jarvis Cocker, Modern Jazz Quartet, Rokia Traoré, Tom Waits, Rhiannon Giddens, Howard Zinn, Betty Carter, Van Dyke Parks, Caetano Veloso, k.d. lang, and The National, and has appeared on recordings by artists such as Nine Inch Nails, Dan Zanes, Glenn Kotche, Dave Matthews Band, Nelly Furtado, Joan Armatrading, Don Walser, Angélique Kidjo, Dan Wilson, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus. In dance, the famed choreographers Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, Alonzo King, and Eiko & Koma have created pieces with Kronos’ music, along with countless others.
The quartet spends five months of each year on tour, appearing in concert halls, clubs, and festivals around the world including Carnegie Hall, UCLA’s Royce Hall, Barbican in London, BAM Next Wave Festival, Big Ears, The Arts Center at New York University Abu Dhabi, Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, WOMAD, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Shanghai Concert Hall, Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Sydney Opera House, and Haydn Hall in Schloss Esterhazy.
Kronos’ work has been featured prominently in a number of films, including the Academy Award–nominated documentaries How to Survive a Plague (2012) and Dirty Wars (2013), for which Kronos’ David Harrington served as Music Supervisor. Kronos also recorded complete film scores by Philip Glass for Dracula, a 1999 restored edition of the 1931 Tod Browning-directed Bela Lugosi classic; Clint Mansell for the Darren Aronofsky films The Fountain (2006) and Requiem for a Dream (2000); Terry Riley for François Girard’s Hochelaga terre des âmes (2017); and Jacob Garchik for Guy Maddin’s The Green Fog (2017). Most recently, the quartet was featured in the soundtracks for Zappa (2020) and Users (2021). Additional films featuring Kronos’ music include Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty, 2013), 21 Grams (2003), Heat (1995), and True Stories (1986), among others. A Thousand Thoughts: A Live Documentary with the Kronos Quartet, written and directed by Sam Green and Joe Bini, features live narration by Green and live music by Kronos. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018.
Kronos is prolific and wide-ranging on recordings. The ensemble’s expansive discography on Nonesuch includes collections like Pieces of Africa (1992), a showcase of African-born composers that simultaneously topped Billboard’s Classical and World Music lists; the ten-disc anthology Kronos Quartet: 25 Years (1998); Nuevo (2002), a Grammy and Latin Grammy–nominated celebration of Mexican culture; and three Grammy-winning albums: Terry Riley’s Sun Rings (2019), Landfall with Laurie Anderson (2018), and Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw (2003). In celebration of the quartet’s 40th anniversary season in 2014, Nonesuch released both Kronos Explorer Series, a five-CD retrospective boxed set, and the single-disc A Thousand Thoughts, featuring mostly unreleased recordings from throughout Kronos’ career. Kronos’ recent releases include Folk Songs, with Sam Amidon, Olivia Chaney, Rhiannon Giddens, and Natalie Merchant singing traditional folk songs; Ladilikan with Trio Da Kali; Clouded Yellow, a collection of works written for Kronos by Michael Gordon; Placeless with Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat singing original songs composed by Mahsa Vahdat set to poems by Hafez, Rumi, and others; and Long Time Passing: Kronos & Friends Celebrate Pete Seeger with Sam Amidon, Maria Arnal, Brian Carpenter, Lee Knight, Meklit, and Aoife O’Donovan. Kronos’ classic recordings Requiem for a Dream, Pieces of Africa, Dracula, The Fountain, and Different Trains/Electric Counterpoint have all recently been re-released on vinyl. Music publishers Boosey & Hawkes released two volumes of Kronos Collection sheet music, featuring works by Terry Riley, Hamza el Din, Aleksandra Vrebalov, and Osvaldo Golijov.
The quartet is committed to mentoring emerging performers and composers and has led workshops, master classes, and other education programs with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute, Kaufman Music Center’s Face the Music, Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, and San Francisco Conservatory of Music, among other institutions in the U.S. and abroad. Kronos has recently undertaken extended educational residencies at Oakland School for the Arts, UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances, Holland Festival, Texas Performing Arts Association at the University of Texas at Austin, New York University Abu Dhabi.
With a staff of six, the nonprofit Kronos Performing Arts Association (KPAA) manages all aspects of Kronos’ work, including commissioning, concert tours and local performances, education programs, and an annual self-produced Kronos Festival in San Francisco. In 2015, Kronos launched Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire, an education and legacy project that is commissioning—and distributing online for free—50 new works for string quartet designed expressly for the training of students and emerging professionals, written by composers from around the world. Scores and parts, recordings, and other materials are available on kronosquartet.org. Fifty for the Future continues to grow, with tens of thousands of scores downloaded in more than 100 countries and territories around the globe. Lead partner Carnegie Hall and an adventurous group that includes presenters, academic institutions, foundations, and individuals have joined forces with KPAA to support this program.