Paul Wiancko
Paul Wiancko | Credit: Charina Pitzel

Paul Wiancko has joined the Kronos Quartet this month as a performing member of the vanguard ensemble, having already contributed, in 2021, as a composer to the ensemble’s “50 for the Future” repertoire. Wiancko replaces Sunny Yang, departing after 10 years with Kronos “to pursue other projects.”

Born and raised in San Clemente, Calif., Wiancko, now 40, trained on cello at USC and the Colburn School while operating a studio out of his dorm room and producing string arrangements for various SoCal punk bands. In 2007, he tied for second prize in the Witold Lutosławski International Cello Competition and then performed that composer’s Cello Concerto with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Two years later he moved to New York City and joined the Harlem Quartet.

Wiancko went on to appear with other chamber quartets and new-music ensembles, while also evolving as a composer of chamber, solo, and orchestral music and music for film. He’s been commissioned by the St. Lawrence, Parker, and Aizuri Quartets, among others, has served as composer-in-residence at various chamber festivals, and has hosted numerous workshops for young players. His genre-jumping has also had him collaborating with Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Etta James, and Norah Jones, the last of whom recruited Wiancko and his partner, violist Ayane Kozasa, for Pick Me Up Off the Floor, her 2020 Blue Note Records release. The cellist spoke with SF Classical Voice by phone while stopping off in Palo Alto for a musical celebration of the late St. Lawrence Quartet violinist Geoff Nuttall at Bing Concert Hall.

Kronos Quartet
Kronos Quartet | Credit: Lenny Gonzalez

While you’re in the area, have you been seeking out a San Francisco home? You’re starting off a tour with Kronos, but you’ll be back performing with the quartet at Zellerbach Hall in April.

It’s a tricky situation. Ayane and I have vacated New York City, where we were living, for Cincinnati, where Ayane just became the newest professor of viola at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. And Joan Jeanrenaud [Kronos’s former longtime cellist] is letting me stay at her house in the Bernal Heights neighborhood [of San Francisco] whenever I’m in town to rehearse. Somehow it seems very fitting to stay at Joan’s place. Kronos has been for so long why I’m allowed to be doing what I’m doing, you know what I mean?

How far back do they go for you?

Back to my first hearing Black Angels [Kronos’s 1990 Nonesuch album, titled for the composition by George Crumb]. I was a preteen. It scared the shit out of me! [Chuckles.] And I’m not alone. All of my generation of musicians had the same moment with that record.

Did there come a point where you thought, I wish I could do that?

That came later, in middle school and high school, discovering Kronos’s other records and what their identity was, the rules they were breaking, at the same time I was learning about those rules on a very traditional classical education path. But I’d been performing at a very early age and sneaking in improvisation sessions when I should have been practicing.

Paul Wiancko
Paul Wiancko | Credit: Dario Acosta​​​

I was trying to guess your ethnicity from your surname.

Half Japanese and about half Polish. My father, Gene Wiancko, was a documentary filmmaker, explorer, and cartographer, a very creative man.

Was it him who started you on cello at age 5?

No, that was mostly my mother, Hiroko. She’s an amateur violist.

How did you end up on such a big instrument when you were so young?

[Laughs.] Well, Marika, my oldest sister, sang and played the piano, and my middle sister, Michi, started violin when she was 3 and is now a very well-known violinist and composer and artistic director. So my mother and sisters had all the components to make some great chamber music, except for the low end. And my mother had noticed, when she had sight-reading parties at the house when I was a baby, that I’d sleep better when the music was more cello-centric.

Your Wikipedia bio says you were composing at age 8. But your higher education was in performing. What changed for you?

It was when I was in the Harlem Quartet and we were invited to go on tour with [jazz pianist and composer] Chick Corea, getting to watch him improvise and to improvise with him and talk with him about composing. He had such a breadth of influences that were in no way relegated to just jazz. He talked a lot about Mozart and [Béla] Bartók. Then we were in residence at the Blue Note in New York for his birthday, and he knew that I loved “Round Midnight,” the Thelonious Monk tune, and he had an incredible string arrangement that the Harlem played with him. There was a cello solo, and I was about to wrap it up when he gave me the sign to keep going. That meant, “You’re really on fire!” And something changed in my brain chemistry, to be creating my own music. I parted ways with the Harlem, and it felt like a huge gamble. But part of my father’s advice to me had been to not get stuck doing just one thing. My first-ever commissioned concert work was for the Grammy-winning Parker Quartet. I was in the middle of working on that piece and living at home, at my parents’ house in San Clemente, helping take care of my father during his final days. And I decided to go for it, to try to make a piece about him, based on themes from films he had produced. The piece I wrote is called Strange Beloved Land.

Paul Wiancko (bottom right) with his quartet collective Owls

How did that work for you?

It ended up being a good decision. I’d known what it was like to pour my emotions into a performance, to feel the catharsis of the moment onstage when you’re expressing what can’t be expressed with words. But as a composer it’s a completely different story. You have to look inward and figure out a language that equates with your feelings in the harmonies and the rhythms.

And how did it feel at the premiere?

When I heard it, by the Parker Quartet at the Great Lakes [Chamber Music] Festival, I knew right away that this was what I was meant to be doing. And of course, seeing the Quartet give themselves so completely to this piece was one of the great honors of my life. In the healing stage, in the mourning process for my father, it was completely cathartic, the most therapeutic musical process I could possibly imagine. The feeling that this would happen even if I weren’t in the room was a total revelation. But there were also audience members coming up to me afterward and sharing how the piece had made them feel connected with family members and friends they’d lost. I’ve been writing steadily since then, as much as time could possibly allow.

When folks Google you now, on the way to your website, you show up as “Paul Wiancko — Composer & Cellist.” Has that reflected the order of your priorities?

I’ve structured my life to accommodate that, composing more and more and never thinking I’d join a string quartet again and being OK with that. Up until the Kronos appointment, my life was becoming more mobile-friendly. As long as I had a quiet place to think and write music, I could work from anywhere. Ayane, if she needed to move around for work, I was able to move with her.

And there was plenty of work and inspiration for you?

I’ve been lucky to have some truly wonderful people commission me. There’s never a shortage of something I need to express or work out through music. But I’m not writing 50 pieces a year. I wish I could be a Haydn; that guy was so efficient. With the loss of Chick Corea [two years ago], it hadn’t occurred to me to write a piece about him. But I was working on a piano trio recently, which premiered on Jan. 20 with the Brooklyn Chamber Music Society and the Gryphon Trio, and I knew it was all Chick! [Laughs.] His influence had been on my mind so much, and his voice, I felt, was filtered through mine.

I assume being tapped for Kronos’s “50 for the Future” must have blown your mind.

Yeah! David Harrington called me out of the blue and said, “I’m so embarrassed, I just heard about you recently. I can’t believe it took me so long to discover your music.” And I was like, “What do you mean? Nobody knows who I am. How did you find me?” I’d only written for the Parker and three or four other pieces for small chamber ensemble. It really caught me off guard.

That’s very David. He’s so marvelously modest.

David is always searching, always listening. It was such an honor.

And now, to be summoned by Kronos back to performing.

Joining the Kronos Quartet certainly wasn’t part of my career plan. [Chuckles.] It was a huge surprise. … But this opportunity comes up with these guys I feel I owe so much to and who’ve made my life, the way it is, possible.

Will your performing be symbiotic with your composing self?

Absolutely. One of the most potent side effects of composing is that it instantly changes the way you play everything. Of course, we want to superimpose our voice and interpretation as performers. But now, if I play a piece by Haydn or Clara Schumann, I only care about what they would have wanted. I put myself in Clara’s shoes, thinking, how do I get players 200 years from now to do the articulation I want, the phrasing? What do I write on this page to make it clear? And that has changed everything in my approach and the way I play.

CD cover
Kronos’s 1990 album Black Angels​​​

Your insight on composing brings something to Kronos.

I don’t think they’re composers. They’d have no time to compose.

Though in addition to their commissions, they have wonderful arrangers.

Oh yeah, like [Jacob] Garchik and [Stephen] Prutsman. I’ve been getting a kind of crash course in Kronos’s greatest hits. And that includes Black Angels. What scared the bejesus out of me and made my skin crawl now almost moves me to tears as I run through that piece with them. We’ll be performing it in Australia in a couple of months. I can’t even explain to you the crazy, swirling mess in my head when I’m sitting there learning Black Angels with them and I spot something in the score. And I can’t keep my mouth shut. I say, “Want to try it a different way?” And they say, “We’ve never done it this way before!” It’s a living, breathing thing, and they’re still willing to get under the hood with it.

That’s what keeps them so perennially vital.

And it’s such a thrill for me to get in there and shake things up a little bit.

Will Wiancko compositions end up on Kronos’s programs?

I believe we’ll be playing the piece I wrote [Only Ever Us, for “50 For the Future”]. But that’s certainly not a priority for me. It’s that it’s a piece Kronos is giving to future generations.

I notice that you’ll be continuing your educational work with the St. Lawrence Quartet, with its summer chamber music seminar.

And I’ll be at Banff with their “Evolution: Classical” program.

What about the Owls quartet?

I’ll certainly be retaining a performing schedule with them. They specialize in my music, and it’s a very open, free, creative space, and I depend on that sort of artistic scratch pad to maintain my sanity. It’s also a good part of my touching base with Ayane; it has us performing together.

Your website is a delight to visit. Your homepage has a giant smiling illustration of you with long, flowing hair and beard.

That’s a pretty fair representation. Someone once called me “the Hagrid of cello.” I know I’m going to kick myself for telling you that because it’ll be hard for you not to use.

It’s all a matter of context. There’s also a pull quote from NPR there comparing you to Haydn, whom you’ve mentioned a couple of times in this interview.

That’s one of the biggest compliments I could possibly receive, though my music sounds nothing like Haydn’s. But Haydn was cutting-edge in his time, and he expressed so much through the format of the string quartet, so much emotion and humor and variety and verve. And my one rule when I’m composing is to write music I would want to listen to. I prioritize, over myself, the musician experience and the listener experience. And I think that aligns with Haydn’s sensibility.