Kronos Quartet takes a musical journey through genocide

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The U.S. premiere of Silent Cranes in Brooklyn, NY. Photo: Dominica Eriksen. Projection design: Laurie Olinder

The Kronos Quartet isn’t your average classical music ensemble. Though you’ll see a cello, viola and violins, the concerts aren’t filled with pieces by Beethoven or Mozart. Instead, they look to the future of music – and they take risks. Sometimes these risks are political or reference charged historical events, like when composer Steve Reich commissioned a piece for them called “Different Trains,” which is about a Jewish person riding trains across Europe during World War II.

This year, the group wanted to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in Turkey. To find the right work, they turned to an emerging young American composer, Mary Kouyoumdjian, whose family was directly impacted by the massacre.

“’Silent Cranes’ is inspired by the Armenian folk song ‘Groung (Crane)’ in which the singer calls out to the migratory bird, begging for word from their homeland, only to have the crane respond with silence and fly away,” said Kouyoumdjian. “Those who were lost during the genocide are cranes in their own way, unable to speak of the horrors that happened. It is the responsibility of the living to give them a voice.”

That’s what Kronos founder and violist David Harrington tries to do while performing this piece. “Silent Cranes” premiered this April in Armenia’s capitol of Yerevan.

“I think concerts are the perfect place to bring things together and focus attention,” said Harrington. “Governments frequently don’t mention things that need to be mentioned, and sometimes it’s up to citizens and artists and scientists and poets to bring things to the public that should not be forgotten.”

Harrington founded Kronos in 1973 after hearing composer George Crumb’s “Black Angel,” a piece written in 1970 during the Vietnam War.

“When I first heard that piece, it presented a musical answer to all kinds of issues and questions I had,” said Harrington. “If we know something to be the truth then we need to spread the word about what we know.”

The Kronos Quartet plays at Campbell Hall on Thursday, November 19th at 7 p.m.