The Kronos Quartet

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New Moods for Moderns

A conversation with David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet

Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington is a native of Portland, Oregon, who grew up in Seattle and founded his ensemble there in 1973. For him, that time and place were crucial in setting the open-eared course of his globe-trotting Kronos, who have carved a unique niche for themselves as the most broad-minded and modernist string quartet in the entire world; their thrillingly eclectic endeavors have found them interpreting works by a vast and disparate range of composers and musicians including Anton Webern, Taraf de Haidouks, Tom Waits, Cafˇ Tacuba, John Zorn, Osvaldo Golijov, Harry Partch, Terry Riley and Henryk Gorecki.

BLUEFAT: What does it mean to be an artist from the West?

DAVID HARRINGTON: Well, itÕs interesting, I was talking to somebody about being an American musician the other day. The easiest way for one to notice oneÕs nationality is to go abroad. I feel most American when IÕm in Europe or Asia or South America. I donÕt really think about it that often, until IÕm somewhere else. We just played in New York the other day, and I really do feel somehow connected to the west coast. ItÕs hard to describe in a way that resonates correctly for me, but itÕs sort of like a desire to be available for possibilities.

I think that does fit with Kronos; itÕs part of living in San Francisco, and I think itÕs probably what attracted me to move back to the west coast from New York, where weÕd moved for a few years. It just didnÕt feel right to me being out there as a place for us to be centered. And it just seemed like San Francisco was pulling us.

IÕve always enjoyed the light there, I feel inspired by it, I feel the resonance of people like Alan Ginsberg and John Cage, Terry Riley, Pandit Pran Nath. ItÕs interesting that Ravi Shankar lives out there. And we were performing with Wu Man, who lives in San Diego, most recently at Carnegie Hall the other night. And of course John Adams and Charles Mingus are from there, Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana. There is something Š maybe itÕs in the water, I donÕt know! [laughs]

How much did the topography, the ambience, of the Western environment encourage your openness to music?

Well, IÕm from Seattle, and thereÕs a quality to the green of the Douglas fir trees that is unlike any green IÕve ever seen anywhere, and IÕve always just found it so expressive, so beautiful. And I started playing quartet music when I lived in Seattle, and who knows? I mean, those things are so deeply a part of us.

Can you describe the socio-political tenor at the time of your founding of Kronos? What was going on that mightÕve guided your artistic path?

The Vietnam war was still going on in 1973, it wasnÕt over yet. And for me, I heard music by George Crumb, Black Angels, heard it on the radio one night. And that experience, I mean, I think IÕd been looking for that music or something like it for a long time, and finally there it was. And basically, it was really simple: I had to play that piece. And in order to play that piece, I had to get a group going that would work hard enough to be able to do something like that. And so, a few days after hearing Black Angels, Kronos started rehearsing, and a few months later we were playing it.

Basically, I think IÕve been doing the same thing ever since, which is attempting to find the music that feels right to play given everything that I know is going on. And social events, societal issues, those kinds of things that IÕm aware of, do influence our work a lot. Certainly our most recent album, Flood Plain, the album began as soon as I was aware that Bush and Cheney and Condoleeza Rice and all those people were going to drag the country into another war in Iraq. And it took about six years for the album to get put together. These things do take a lot of time.

What is the process in putting an album together? Is there a lot of research and development involved?

A lot of times IÕm really interested in creating bodies of work, for example in Pieces of Africa, it started with one piece, and a few months later there might have been another, and then do another. And I began to notice that there was this kind of sound, feeling, in this music that was unlike any quartet music I knew about. Rarely do our albums start out as albums; they begin as individual pieces. There might be a piece that somehow relates. ItÕs not unusual for me to be working on 10 different kinds of projects all at the same time, and each one of them might be in a different state of completion.

Before Kronos, youÕd studied and played the music of the European serialists, and had drawn inspiration from Stockhausen, like many others. You were also touched by the non-traditions of California artists such as Cage, Partch, Harrison and Beefheart. In charting a course for Kronos, however, was there by chance a feeling that new music had become dried up and, oh, unsexy?

Actually, IÕve never felt that, and part of the reason IÕve never felt that is because when Black Angels became part of my life in August of Õ73, to me that piece was such a challenge and such a bold sonic and cultural revelation, and to me the string quartet as a medium was absolutely central to culture. I think that one piece basically revived the entire medium. If you compare that to any other string quartet ever written, itÕs very unique ŠŠ sonically, everything it demands of anyone who plays it. I mean, itÕs a very special aspect of American music.

Your ensemble has performed an incredibly broad range of musics. What draws you toward the pieces you choose to interpret?

IÕm very selective. It might seem like the Kronos does everything, but actually we donÕt. IÕm drawn to things that magnetize me, and I really trust my ears, and I follow them. And when I encountered Harry PartchÕs music, I remember hearing U.S. Highball, and I couldnÕt believe IÕd never heard that piece before, and it just seemed kind of shocking that that piece wasnÕt more well known. At a certain point it just seemed like, okay, I want to hear U.S. Highball, how are we going to do that? So I talked to Ben Johnston, who worked with Partch in the early Õ50s and who has written for Kronos and is a friend of ours ŠŠ we recorded his Amazing Grace quartet for our second album on Nonesuch ŠŠ and asked him if he would be interested in making a new version for Kronos.

In a certain way it was kind of selfish, because I just wanted to hear that piece and I wanted to share it with our audience, because I figured that if I hadnÕt heard it, most of our audience hadnÕt heard it live, soÉ

To take something like that and translate it into a piece that would work for string quartet mustÕve been very difficult.

Our version is not going to sound like Harry PartchÕs version, thatÕs all there is to it. But I feel that in any translation, whether itÕs a really fine translation of RiilkeÕs poetry or the letters of Van Gogh, anything that you can think of that is a major artistic statement, a really fine translation can get you pretty close. It can get you a lot closer to the experience than if you didnÕt have it. I mean, if you didnÕt speak Dutch and all you could do was look at the letters of Van Gogh, in Dutch, and not really understand much of anything, it would be much better to have a translation of whatever language you speak.

Any time you translate something for your instrument, youÕre creating something new.

And some people are going to talk about whatÕs lost and other people are going to talk about whatÕs gained. [laughs]

Can you talk a bit about Terry Riley?

IÕd love to talk about Terry Riley, heÕs one of my favorite friends and one of our greatest composers.

These newer pieces thatÕs heÕs done with Kronos are blowing my mind. And thereÕs something I was wondering about in his piece In the Cusp of Magic ŠŠ the rhythms are irregular, arenÕt they? TheyÕre personal rhythms.

The rhythm of the first movement is a pattern, itÕs like a hundred and something beats divided into expanding and contracting meters, and itÕs really cool to just step out of it and listen to the larger rhythm. It took me quite a while to be able to do that. [laughs] Now that weÕve recorded it I can kind of sit back and listen to the recording, and I really hear what heÕs talking about.

HeÕs giving you leeway, then?

In that case, the rhythm needs to be a precise beat. If I had the score in front of me I could tell you right away, but itÕs something like, he goes from 14 to 9 to 7 to 5 to 3 to 2 and it starts growing again. At first it just seemed complex. IÕm the one who creates the beat ŠŠ I play the bass drum and the peyote rattle ŠŠ and it took me a while first of all to get used to being a rhythm section. And I didnÕt realize how tough that was going to be, until just the first time we played it, then after 10 minutes of being the rhythm section, then give the cue for the second movement with my violin. [laughs]

YouÕve got a lot to keep track of.

It was quite a challenge to do that at first, and thenÉitÕs getting easier. [laughs]

What does it feel like to play Terry RileyÕs music? You canÕt drift off into the ether, you have to pay close attention.

Salome Dances for Peace, there are moments in there that are so incredibly beautiful and mesmerizing, and you can find yourself getting into this altered state that music can take you to. And IÕm thinking of The Gift, or The Ecstacy or Good Medicine or Conquest of the War Demons, or Cadenza on the Night Plane ŠŠ that is such an unbelievable piece; it is the first piece that I know of in the history of string quartet music where each member of the group has an actual solo, where theyÕre the central focus totally.

You know, for me Terry is just one of the most generous musicians, and I think the way he writes for us expresses that sense of generosity that he has.

Your focus onstage is rather awesome. But how much are you picking up on the vibe in the room?

To me, the audience is almost like an instrument. And however many sets of ears there are in that instrument, and theyÕre kind of willing the musical experience out of all the other instruments in the room, including ours, to me really affects the outcome. And itÕs a musical outcome that is so clearly felt and so hard to describe, but it has something to do with creating another inward sense of knowledge.

I guess that might be something about many of the musicians on the west coast that I find most attractive, this kind of searching for musical information from a wide variety of sources. ItÕs almost like if you gaze out at the Pacific Ocean and watch the sun going down, you wonder where itÕs going.