A conversation with David
Harrington of the Kronos Quartet
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
and Henryk Gorecki.
BLUEFAT:What does it mean to be
an artist from the West?
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
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.
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]
much did the topography, the ambience, of the Western environment encourage
your openness to music?
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.
you describe the socio-political tenor at the time of your founding of
Kronos? What was going on that mightÕve guided your artistic path?
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.
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,
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.
is the process in putting an album together? Is there a lot of research and
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
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?
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
ensemble has performed an incredibly broad range of musics. What draws you
toward the pieces you choose to interpret?
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.
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.
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
take something like that and translate it into a piece that would work for
string quartet mustÕve been very difficult.
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.
time you translate something for your instrument, youÕre creating something
some people are going to talk about whatÕs lost and other people are going
to talk about whatÕs gained. [laughs]
you talk a bit about Terry Riley?
love to talk about Terry Riley, heÕs one of my favorite friends and one of
our greatest composers.
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.
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.
giving you leeway, then?
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]
got a lot to keep track of.
was quite a challenge to do that at first, and thenÉitÕs getting easier. [laughs]
does it feel like to play Terry RileyÕs music? You canÕt drift off into the
ether, you have to pay close attention.
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
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
focus onstage is rather awesome. But how much are you picking up on the
vibe in the room?
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.
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.