5 Questions to Kronos Quartet about Music for Change: The Banned Countries

On March 21, 2020 at 8:00pm, Kronos Quartet will be presenting their program “Music for Change: The Banned Countries” as a part of the Celebrity Series of Boston’s Stave Sessions. They will be performing alongside Persian vocalist, Mahsa Vahdat. The idea for this program came as a direct response to the 2017 Executive Orders limiting travel to the United States by people from largely Muslim-majority countries.

Kronos Quartet has been leading the new music scene as an ensemble with an extensive history of non-profit projects, education, commissioning, and speaking up against injustice. Recently, they launched 50 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 composed by 25 women and 25 men. We asked them 5 questions about their upcoming Boston performance and their commitment to social justice. 

As an ensemble, how did you make the decision to take a stand on the Executive Orders that limit travel of people from largely Muslim majority countries to the United States?

Kronos was on stage performing shortly after Executive Order 13769 was issued. The program we were playing that night had music from four of the seven banned countries on it. Any edict marginalizing and discriminating against friends of ours, people we know to be wonderful musicians and true creative lights, is totally wrong and unacceptable. Our work over many years has taught us that the world’s music is held together by the immense variety of voices, instruments, and traditions each culture offers. We want to celebrate this human impulse to make music and bring the world of music into the string quartet form. Executive Order 13769 was a direct affront to the work we were performing.

Why is it important for artists to speak out on issues facing our society today?

How can every person not wish for a cleaner environment for our children, grandchildren, and friends? Doesn’t music need places free of violence to be practiced and absorbed? Will the true story of life be able to be told through music if some people are prevented from expressing the inner sound they hear? For music to thrive, there are certain things we need. We need our society to create opportunities for young people to encounter the wide expanse of the world of music. We need instruments for anyone who wishes one, and we need craftspeople to care for these instruments. We need inspiring teachers to show us ways forward. We could go on and on. These needs seem to frequently place us at odds with the society we live in. Music does not exist in a vacuum. We have no choice but to speak out.

Kronos Quartet--Photo by Jay Blakesberg

Kronos Quartet–Photo by Jay Blakesberg

How does :Music for Change: The Banned Countries” challenge your audience?

Through sound, we are trying to take all of us to many places we will be unlikely able to visit. We hope to make a musical situation that gives a sense of the pageantry of life and the miracle of music. We hope to leave our listeners with more energy than before, more in awe of what music brings and more appreciation for the sacred fragility of each of us, and the immense strength within us, as well.

Can you tell us about your collaboration process with Mahsa Vahdat?

When we encounter a composer, a performer, or a form of music we can’t stop listening to, then we know for certain we’ve found something Kronos has to be involved with. This happened to us when our friend composer Sahba Aminikia introduced us to the work of Mahsa Vahdat. Mahsa had recently moved to the San Francisco area. We were able to meet, and we decided on several songs to perform together. So began a friendship and a journey that we are taking together. Our feeling is that if something is good enough to do once, it should be encouraged to grow and continue. And that’s exactly what has happened with Mahsa and Kronos. We are expanding our work together and will continue to find musical and cultural areas of mutual inspiration.

Kronos Quartet and Mahsa Vadat--Photo by Evan Neff

Kronos Quartet and Mahsa Vadat–Photo by Evan Neff

What would you say to other chamber ensembles that also want to make their voices heard?

If other groups want to make their voices heard, we will paraphrase what Howard Zinn advised us during the first US invasion of Iraq in 2003: You can’t do anything by yourself. Gather a community around you. Take every opportunity you have to express your viewpoint, whether it’s in a conversation, an interview, or a purchasing decision. Realize that powerful people (at that time, the examples were Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush) are actually afraid of people like you because you can imagine alternative, peaceful, and optimistic solutions to vexing problems. Music and the arts are an attempt to make the world a better place.