Interview with David Harrington, violinist and founder of the Kronos Quartet

The Kronos Quartet is one of the most innovative and influential chamber ensembles in contemporary music. The quartet was formed in 1973 to play George Crumb’s Black Angels. From 1978 until 1999 the line-up included the violinist and founder of the group, David Harrington, along with John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Joan Jeanrenaud (cello). After leaving the group to devote herself to solo projects, Jeanrenaud was replaced by various musicians; currently, the role of cellist is held by Paul Wiancko. During these incredibly intense 50 years of activity, the Kronos has literally revolutionized the genre of string quartet, exploring the most diverse and adventurous directions, opening it to new contaminations with the fields of jazz, pop, rock, and world music, and inviting the most important contemporary composers (from Henryk Gorecki to Astor Piazzolla), as well as several emerging authors, to create works that could speak to listeners of our time. Among the most fruitful and lasting collaborations that the Californian quartet has established over the years, there are those with Terry Riley ‒ whose innovative writing, as well as giving us masterpieces such as (among many) the Salome Dances for Peace (1985-86), helped shape the very sound of Kronos ‒, Philip Glass, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Aleksandra Vrebalov, and Steve Reich. The Kronos Quartet has played countless times around the world, commissioned over 1000 works and arrangements, received several prestigious awards and honors. Kronos is also prolific and wide-ranging on recordings. The ensemble’s expansive discography consists of more than 70 recordings ‒ mainly (but not exclusively) for Nonesuch Records ‒ of extraordinary depth and creativity, among which we can mention: Pieces of Africa (1992), which reached number one on the Billboard charts of classical and world music; the anthological box set Kronos Quartet: 25 Years; the monographic box set One Earth, One People, One Love: Kronos Plays Terry Riley (2015); and the most recent Songs and Symphoniques: The Music of Moondog (published in 2023 by Cantaloupe Music and soon to be reviewed on our website). A couple of months ago we had the privilege to talk (via Zoom) with the founder of Kronos, the violinist David Harrington. With him we talked about the origins of Kronos, his (and theirs) attitude towards music, art, society, and the two most recent projects involving the Californian quartet, namely 50 for the Future and Kronos Five Decades. Harrington’s answers reveal a rare and precious curiosity and open-mindedness, along with an enthusiasm and confidence for the present and the future that are truly contagious. Lastly, a thank you to Steven Swarz and Nikolás I. McConnie-Saad who made this interview possible. We can only wish you a good read!

Interview by Filippo Focosi and Marco Paolucci

Here you can find the Italian Translation

Let’s start from the beginnings: please tell us something about your experience of listening to George Crumb’s quartet Black Angels in 1973, at the age of 23. An “epiphanic” listening that started the Kronos Quartet adventure.

In August 1973, all of a sudden, in radio came this music, and I’ve never heard anything like this before. Someway, it was a musical response to American war in Vietnam; we were looking for music that felt right in that moment, and all of the sudden there was! I had no idea of who George Crumb was, and I felt that the works of Schubert, early music, experimental music, Jimi Hendrix, they were all brought together in one single piece of music. Around that time, Pierre Boulez said that the string quartet was dead; indeed, Boulez said that a lot of things were dead! [Laughs] I knew before I heard Black Angels that he was wrong, but when I heard Black Angels, he was REALLY wrong!
So, the next thing I did was to find who was George Crumb, who published his music, because I had to find the score as soon as possible. A few days later, I received the score by email, and it was very clear that, in order for me to play that music, I had to have a group who would dedicate itself to learn how to do music like that. We couldn’t start with that piece, because we needed crystal glasses, gongs, and we still had to learn how to play it, so in our first rehearsal we played Webern’s Six Bagatelles, Bartok’s Third Quartet, and music by my composition teacher, Ken Benshoof. That’s how it started on 1st September, 1973.

1979 – Kronos Quartet at Mills College – photographer unknown

How did the word “Kronos” Quartet come about?

I was about October 1973; there was a concert that we had to play in November, and we still didn’t have a name! My wife and I got out our Greek and Roman mythological dictionary, because what I wanted was a kind of ancient, but propelling things forward, name, so we wrote down some names that made sense for us, and she came across the word “chronos”, which had to do with “time”, “timeliness”, “chronological”, and things like that. I liked those ideas, but I thought that the spelling wasn’t quite dramatic enough, so we went for chronos with the k (i.e., kronos). What I didn’t know at that time is that it’s a totally different God!

In the booklet included in Kronos’ Nonesuch 10CDs box of 1998, there is a passage that claims that your music – that is, the music of the composers that you played and (often) commissioned (such as Glass, Sculthorpe, Reich, Golijov, and so on) – has changed (of course, for the better) the lives of many people. Is it something that you search for when you have to decide what kind of music would you like to play or which composer or musician would you like to engage with in your projects?

For me, being a musician is a fantastic opportunity to be able to listen. Every day I try to listen to music I’ve never heard before. The problem of music is that is time-based, and we only have 24 hours a day, and they go by quickly… Each one of us can know only a little slice of the world of music, and so what we need is a community of listeners to help. Fortunately, I have such a community of listeners that send me some of their favourite music, and I do the same thing, and my friends do the same thing, and sometimes total strangers are doing the same thing. It’s like there’s a great music-filtering system, and sooner or later you run into something – a composer, or a piece of music, or an experience – that is so wonderful, so beautiful, that you can just get magnetized. It’s not really a thought process: for me it has always been something like “I don’t’ really have a choice!”. I can tell you when I first heard, let’s say, the music of Henryk Gorecki. The first moment I heard Henryk’s Third Symphony I realized: “this man has to write for Kronos”. I don’t have a choice, and he doesn’t have a choice! And I felt the same way when I first met Terry Riley. I thought: “I want this guy’s life, experience, the way he thinks about things and about the world, be part of string quartet music”. And I can say this about every composer we ever worked with. For me it’s an extension of my own search. Trying to know more about the world of music is something that is a part of my everyday life as a musician.

2014 – Kronos Quartet performs Terry Riley’s ‘Sun Rings at Sacrum Profanum’ – Krakow, Poland – credit Wojciech Wandzel

As is well known, Kronos Quartet does not have musical “boundaries”; although your central field is the so-called contemporary classical music, you also play jazz, rock, and folk music. Moreover, while focusing on American music, you also performed the works of composers, as well as collaborated with musicians, from Africa, Mexico, India, and many other parts of the world. Do you consider this wide approach to the world of music also as something that could help people to communicate with each other, and share their culture and traditions? Does this attitude have a sort of cross-cultural value, as well as a purely musical one?

At this point, a person might think that I have planned this out and thought about this, but I never ever thought about that; for me it’s a matter of getting magnetized to another musician or performer. For instance, about Jimi Hendrix – by the way, yesterday was the anniversary of his death; and he was from Seattle as myself -, when I first heard him in the Sixties, I thought “this is an amazing musician”. If he were still alive today, I promise you that he would have written for Kronos. I would have figured out somehow. So, the next best thing for us was to say “ok, we’ll play the music he wrote or was involved in”.
I think you can say this for every piece, or song, we played. We started playing Purple Haze in 1981. At that time in the United States there was the fear that all the major cultural institutions, such as orchestras and museums, were all going bankrupt and dissolved. Hence, I though myself “oh, no, I’ve never played the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky”! So I called up a friend of mine who was a Stravinsky fanatic, and who studied all of Stravinsky’s works – his name is John Guy – and I said to him, “John, can you make a version of the Rite of Spring for Kronos?”. And he did it! We started rehearsing it – it was a piano quintet – and at a certain point I thought “ok, we’re going to play this in a few weeks; now, what if the audience wants an encore? What are we going to play after the Rite of Spring?”. And the only thing it came to my mind was Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze. That’s why we started playing Purple Haze! I have been accused of subverting the string quartet genre ever since then. But for me it was a musical decision.
You can mention anything that we have ever done, and I can tell you why – from a musical standpoint – we did it. A lot of times, it has to do with wanting to learn new things, wanting to bring a person’s musical voice into our world. For example, when I first met Hamza El Din – it was Terry Riley who introduced me to him -, Hamza played his oud, and sang, and I just thought, “this is so beautiful, we have to work together”. With Astor Piazzolla it was the same. This is what happens every time. And we will continue to do the same, because for me that’s why I do things, and that’s why Kronos does. When there is somebody who has a musical reference, or a shape, or a colour, that hasn’t been a part of our world yet, we try to find a way to bring it in, and see if we can learn new things. And maybe there is something for an audience’s members that never experienced. If you are lucky enough in life to be a musician – and generally we decide it when we are pretty young; I decided it when I was fourteen years old, “I will be a musician and the world will get used to it” -, you live with the consequences of that. However, it’s also a tremendous gift and opportunity that the world gives to us, because you have the opportunity to listen, and to actually be almost like antenna, like a radio towers in the world of music. How good is that?? To me, it’s absolutely great. Every day I can tell you it’s almost getting better! People are writing more and more wonderful music now than ever before in my lifetime, I think. This is a great time to be a musician.

Well, let us say that it’s a great time to be listeners as well, thanks to Kronos and all the musicians who are working along the same lines! A little curiosity about what you just said about the piano quintet version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that you performed in 1981: did you ever record it?

Yes, I did! It has been in the can for 25 years, but the publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, didn’t want to release it. They were afraid that if Kronos releases it, then everybody was going to do the “wrong” version of the Rite of Spring. We have the rights to release it in the USA and I think in Japan. One day I will push the Internet bottom and release the Rite of Spring played by Kronos, because I am very proud of that performance, I think it is one of our best.

Despite your longstanding and ongoing (and immensely valuable) effort to break the musical boundaries, it seems to me that most audiences are still a bit reluctant to leave their – so to say – musical comfort-zone, be it jazz, classical, rock, or even contemporary written music. What do you think about it?

I think that once people realize how much fun it is to learn new things, that fear of the new begins to fade away. That’s my opinion. We’ve been having so much fun over the years; when people come to our concerts and realize “Oh, I’ve never heard that before!”, “I’ve never seen an instrument from Korea”, “I’ve never heard a voice from Azerbaijan”, all of a sudden the texture of the experience becomes more wonderful and interesting. I guess I have a lot of confidence that, while unfamiliar things can be disorienting or can seem strange, ultimately learning new things is fun, and it is a human desire. I’ve seen the look of people’s faces when they learn new things, and it’s energizing, it [learning new things] makes you feel more alive; there is a bigger bounce in your step when you walk down the street after you learned something new!

Kronos Quartet – Musical Instrument Museum – credit Musical Instrument Museum

Let’s talk now of your most recent projects: could you tell us the genesis of “Fifty For the Future” – a free library of 50 works by international composers which is accessible online from the project website (and that can be listened to on soundcloud)? How did this idea come about? What is the main goal behind it?

What we are hoping with Fifty For the Future is that musicians all over the world can access music that Kronos plays for free, any time of the day or of the night; they can form their own groups to play various pieces. I challenge groups to play all the fifty pieces! There are so many different approaches to music and to sound, [which have to do with] what you do on your instruments, the way you relate to notation, the way you interpret what notation means… There are so many possibilities [you can find] here, we discovered that it would be a good thing if we could find a way to bring other people into the work that we do, because many times we heard people say things like “how do I get this piece?”, “I don’t have enough money to rent Different Trains for my group”, “I would like to play music like you do”, and the likes. We have coached young groups at universities and conservatories, and they couldn’t get a lot of the music we played. To find the work of composers like Schnittke, Lutoslawski, or Terry Riley, is not the easiest thing to do. I want to tell you one thing: there are few music libraries in the United States that have the score of George Crumb’s Black Angels. We just encountered an information gap, so we thought: “how can we solve this problem?”. And we realized: let’s put it online on the Kronos’ website, let’s make it available for free, download the scores and the parts, learn as much as you can from the composers. Thus, we tried to make this on the website; it could have been “five hundred for the future”, it didn’t have to be “fifty!” It was a microcosm; actually, I was inspired by Bartok’s Microcosms, that is, [by] how can you make a little book of possibilities for other people.

We read on the project website that “since the launch of 50 for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire, the initial scores have been downloaded 20,000 times in 98 countries and territories worldwide, and have been performed by ensembles of all ages, even on YouTube”. Are you satisfied with the results until now? What are the aspects of the project that make you particularly happy?

Well, I am not satisfied with those numbers; I would like to see 50 for the Future become standard class work in conservatories and music schools all over the world. That hasn’t happened yet. I think that there are hundreds, and maybe thousands, of groups around the world that could use this music, perform it at their concerts, and have a lot of fun! There a lot of people that have not heard about this yet. So, in terms of growing, as regards 50 for the Future, I think there are a lot of possibilities that have not yet been tapped. One of the thing that makes me happiest is hearing other groups play this music. Recently we have been in Amsterdam, where over two days all fifty pieces were played by several groups from Europe and United States (including Kronos). I was absolutely thrilled. The smile on my face was so big that it even hurt! It was so wonderful to hear our music in the hands of younger people, taking many different directions. This just proves that it’s not really “our” music; we don’t own it; we need to share what we learn. For me, that is the most valuable thing in 50 for the Future.

To celebrate the Kronos Five Decades, there are also 10 new works that have been commissioned and that will be performed by Kronos Quartet all over the world during the season 2023/2024. How did you choose the composers? Are you going to record some of these works? And… will you come in Italy to perform them?

Well, we haven’t been in Italy for a long time, and it’s time to go to Italy and play, definitely! With “Five Decades”, kind of following 50 for the Future in a way, I wanted to be sure that we were extending our own work, and so learning new things with several composers we never worked with, deepening the relationship with composers we have already worked with, and then find challenges for our own future and make experiences that we hadn’t been able to make before. I am conscious of what we have done already, and I am trying to radiate it out further. For example, talking of Michael Gordon [one of the “Five Decades” composers], one thing I noticed about the pieces he has written for Kronos it’s that every one of them has its own world of sound, and I thought “what would Michael do next for us?”, and that’s what started our conversation. Or, for example, [talking of] Peni Candra Rini, who is an Indonesian singer and composer, her 50 for the Future piece is so wonderful, and there is nothing like it in the world of the string quartet! So I asked to myself: “what would Penny do next?”. This led us thinking that she would be a perfect person to write another piece for us. In each case, there was a thought about our own work and on how we might extend it.

Kronos Quartet – credit Lenny Gonzalez

To conclude our conversation, for which we are very grateful, a very general but unavoidable question: how do you see the future of music?

I am always aware of how much there is to do in life and in music. As we all know, there are so many pressing issues that confront humanity: the threat of nuclear oblivion, the environmental concerns, the inequality of what people can experience because of money, and various social issues in every country of the world. So how do we find music that can bypass some of these problems and that can confront issues by the nature of the beauty, or the sounds, or the questions inherent in the work itself? How do we find that kind of works? That is what propels me into the future. I am seeing young people who in so many ways are rising up and accepting seemingly impossible challenges, and I am so thrilled and inspired by them. As an elder, I am cheering every minute of the day for the young musicians, young artists, young scientists, young philosophers and poets. Come on, let’s use all what we know and let’s go for it! Things can get better, step by step.

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