Imagine you are an undergrad composer just home from a rehearsal, sick and exhausted, and the answering machine light is blinking. The voice that comes over the speaker belongs to Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington offering you a commission. You might think the medicine was getting to you. For Alexandra du Bois, who has been awarded the first Kronos: Under 30 commission, it was a happy reality. “I was really sick with the flu and David had called me,” she says. “I heard the message and I was pretty much blown away by the prospects of working with them.”
A junior at the Indiana University School of Music, du Bois began her training as a violinist and added composing at 15. She saw the call for scores for the Under 30 Project (a collaboration between Kronos, the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College, and the American Music Center) and decided to go for it. “I’ve followed Kronos for years. I’ve always been a huge fan of theirs,” she admits. “I never could image that they would chose my music, but just their breadth of work really inspired me to apply. It was kind of a shot out of the blue for me. I’ve never had quite an opportunity like this.”
Finding that kind of young composer with potential and establishing a connection with them was precisely what Kronos set out to do with the Under 30 Project while celebrating their own 30th birthday. In all, more than 300 submissions arrived from 32 countries. Harrington says the quartet found the whole process very inspiring. “It felt like we were beginning to get in touch with another generation of composers. And there were all different kinds, almost every imaginable style. In that sense it was really interesting to listen to all the music.”
About half way through that process, working his way through a bag of the submitted CDs and tapes while traveling, he discovered du Bois’ music. “I was just riveted to the piece and at that point I didn’t know anything about her. I didn’t even have a score with me. I began listening and just thought that there is something really special here.”
Over the next few weeks the members discussed their favorites, a process he says was “just a wonderful way to think about music.” In the end, however, only one composer could be selected (though Kronos won’t be forgetting about a few of their other favorite composers). “You know, it’s impossible to make an absolute judgment about anything,” Harrington admits. “All you can do is follow your instincts and your ears and that’s what we did—just like we always do. This is the same process that I’ve used for the last 29 years, really. I listen to music and some of it I feel magnetized to and that’s what leads me to the next adventure and that’s what we did in this case as well.”
Du Bois submitted a piece called Requiem for the Living, which Harrington characterizes as “very focused.” The piece is in part a response to September 11, and its care in dealing with the subject matter impressed Kronos. “Here’s someone who’s thinking of her music in a very personal way and expressive way and using the art form to find connections,” Harrington explains. “And I had the feeling that the piece of hers was kind of a breakthrough piece and I’m always interested in those kind of things.”
Du Bois says the piece really represents her. “All of my music is very dark and unrelenting and [the Requiem] captures the sorrow in the world right now and in this country especially. It was for strings and I just felt that it covered my entire language.”
Though she’s been developing that voice since she was 15, she was initially headed towards a career as a violinist. But then providence changed its mind. “I’d always planned to be a violinist. A few years before college, I got a piano and I immediately started writing little piano pieces and then started spending all my time writing music. I still play the violin but this was something beyond me. I just found myself doing it more and more every day and now it has taken over.”
Though she declined to comment specifically about her ideas for the Kronos commission, she did say that “to work with an ensemble that can basically play anything with their eyes closed is very liberating as a composer. I don’t worry very much about performance practice, but with Kronos—they can do anything.”
Harrington reciprocates du Bois’ confidence. “The only reason we would ever do anything is because we think there might be the possibility that something really beautiful would come of it and I think that our association with Alexandra du Bois is something that will continue for a long time and I’m very happy about that. I feel like we’ve found a new composer for us and I hope that she will feel the same way.
“Commissioning a new piece is something that you try to be there at the right time no matter who it is,” Harrington says. “You want to be there when they’ve got the best string quartet in them, or whatever, and you just use your instinct. You feel connected and it’s kind of inexplicable. I have a feeling that the new piece Alexandra will write will somehow explain the feeling that we had.”
Kronos’s Under 30 Project will continue for at least two more rounds, but Harrington says he could imagine doing this for a long, long time. The next call for scores has already gone out. “I’m sure there are a lot of people that we haven’t heard yet and I would welcome that opportunity. I’m hoping that some of the theater musicians and alternative rock composers and people that invent their own instruments, that those kinds of people hear about this and send stuff next time too. For me, if you listen to the work that we do and have done, there’s room for a lot of different voices in our future.” And from the sound of it, it’s unlikely that he or Kronos will ever tire of the search.