Kronos Quartet: Now part of the canon

Photo by Zoran Orlic

The Kronos Quartet has won this year's Avery Fisher Prize for chamber music, and the significance is stunning. With one fell (though belated) swoop, the boundaries of the conventional canon are broadened, if not obliterated.

A little background: The Fisher Prize, set up in 1975 and awarded every three years since, is a conservative enterprise. Somewhat like the American Academy in the field of literature, it was designed to enshrine those who have ascended to the peaks through the established, long-trod paths. Past winners have included Lynn Harrell, Murray Perahia, Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, Richard Goode, Richard Stoltzman, Joshua Bell. . .you get the idea.

Now consider Kronos. The quartet was founded around the same time (1973), but its 1st violinist and music director, David Harrington, was intent from the outset on taking an altogether different path, at first focusing on the likes of George Crumb, Berg, and Bartok, then expanding to jazz and rock (its cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" was a wild favorite in the quartet's early years), then pulling out all the stops and spanning the globe, mainly through commissions, often by composers who are known only because Kronos discovered or revived them.

I well remember when Kronos first hit the scene. Concert-hall subscribers were shocked, shocked!, that these rebels dared call themselves a string quartet yet took to the stage in leather jackets and psychedelic vests instead of tuxedos. One snob I know sniffed that they couldn't be any good, certainly couldn't be serious, because they didn't play Brahms or Beethoven.

The music world has changed much since those times, in part because the world has grown smaller, its entire contents at our fingertips. Kronos has done much to accelerate this shrinkage, to facilitate the linkages, to expand the very definition of "string-quartet music"—or make that, simply, of "music."

And now even the board of the Avery Fisher Prize has recognized the shift. It's a heady day for 21st-century culture, all round.