I’ve rarely been quite as intimidated by the prospect of an interview as I was by the possibility of speaking with David Harrington. Violinist and founding member of the Kronos Quartet, Harrington’s musical legacy is simply so massive as to dwarf the imagination. Over the past thirty-eight years, the Kronos Quartet have been commissioned to perform somewhere in the region of six hundred pieces of music. During that time, they’ve exerted an influence over all facets of creativity across the globe.
Speaking purely in musical terms, the quartet have worked across every genre imaginable. Their repertoire encompasses work with minimalist classical composer Terry Riley, experimental pioneer John Zorn, drum’n’bass legend Amon Tobin, tango icon Astor Piazzolla, post-rock outfit Mogwai and countless others. Beyond musical terms, the quartet’s work can be linked to directors Darren Aronofsky and Michael Mann, postmodern author Kurt Vonnegut and poet Allen Ginsberg.
The composition the quartet will present at this year’s Melbourne Festival (and, later, Adelaide’s Earth Station Festival), Sun Rings, is indicative of their expansive oeuvre. Commissioned by NASA and composed by Terry Riley, Sun Rings combines the quartet’s performances with a choir, multimedia visuals and recordings taken from NASA’s own Voyager missions. In its blending of disparate styles of performance, innovative presentation and sheer unmitigated ambition, it is as close to a typical Kronos Quartet work one will find in their stunningly eclectic repertoire.
None of this was really why I was intimidated, however. I’d only once interviewed a classical musician of Harrington’s calibre before – composer Steve Reich – and, despite my enthusiasm, I ultimately embarrassed myself and, I fear, irritated him significantly. I really didn’t want to repeat the experience. Still, what I discovered was that I probably couldn’t if I tried. As a conversationalist, Harrington is perpetually cheerful, deeply passionate and always forthcoming. One gets the impression he actually very much enjoys talking about music.
Indeed, walking away from the conversation, that is the overall impression one has of the violinist – that of a man who utterly loves music and sound and the discussion thereof in any and every incarnation. If you skip to the end of the interview, you’ll see him discuss the piece of music that led to the formation of the quartet in 1973. It doesn’t translate in print but, honestly, his tongue almost tripped over itself he was so excited to discuss the piece – sentences coming through in fragments as he juggled his enthusiasm.
I expected, for better or worse, to be inspired by my encounter with Harrington. Strangely, what inspired me most was not his intellect or accomplishment. It was simply how much he loved music. Currently in his early sixties, he’s spent literally over half of his life in an industry perpetually defined in terms of disillusionment and frustration – and he still describes this era as the most exciting and stimulating period of his life as a musician. That’s more than a little life-affirming.
Matt O’Neill: Hello, David
David Harrington: How are you?
MO: I’m quite well. How are you?
DH: Very good, very good, thank you.
MO: How is life in the world of the Kronos Quartet?
DH: Oh, things are going really great. I’m actually on the way to San Francisco airport right now to make my way to Australia.
MO: How are you feeling about the Sun Rings show at the moment?
DH: We’re feeling great. We can’t wait to perform Sun Rings in Melbourne and Adelaide. It’s going to be something special for us, I think.
MO: Where did the piece come from? I know it was commissioned by NASA but, beyond that?
DH: Well, the piece was a result of several things. First of all, we got a phone call in 2000 from the arts program director of NASA. His question to me was could we imagine using sounds from the Voyager expedition in our concerts – space sounds. I told him I didn’t know there was such things and that I’d love to hear them.
Basically, they sent us a recording and, when I heard that recording, I realised I was hearing sounds of nature – a kind of nature I’d never heard before. I found it very beautiful and intriguing. The first person I thought of, out of all the composers I knew at the time, was Terry Riley. I talked to Terry about this idea and he was incredibly excited to hear the sounds. It wasn’t that much later that he decided he wanted to do a piece.
What happened was the piece just kept kind of growing. We started it shortly before September 11, 2001 and, of course, after that day, he stepped back from his writing and the piece took a totally different and much more reflective turn than it had initially, I believe. It was interesting because during the late fall of 2001 and the earlier half of 2002, the piece began to grow.
You know, at one point, he called me up and went – ‘you know, I think we’re going to need to have a large choir for this piece’. A couple of weeks later, he called again – ‘I’m imagining some sort of a visual for this piece’. Initially, he had some ideas but, eventually, we decided to bring in Willie Williams as the person who would provide the visual environment of the piece. We kind of created a team around the piece.
There was never, ever a director. We all kind of directed together. It was a lot of fun to put Sun Rings together.
MO: What dictates what the Kronos Quartet will do next? I’ve seen in various interviews that you have no shortage of people writing for you and you have no shortage of material. What prioritises one piece over another?
DH: Well, that’s interesting. For me, it’s totally intuitive. What I’m interested in is having the most creative and wonderful people write their very best pieces for us – and by us, I don’t just mean the members of the group, but the members of our audience as well. I feel that I get to spend twenty-four hours a day surrounded by music, not that I know anything more than the next person about it.
For me, I just decided at a very early age that I was going to be a musician. For me, all that really means is I just surround myself with it all the time. In that sense, I feel like, for those people who don’t surround themselves with music twenty-four hours a day, I need to be on the look-out for what feels to be the most special and wonderful new musical adventures to share.
At any point, there are probably twenty or thirty or even forty ideas that are in various stages of ferment. At a certain time, something will get completed and then we’ll begin to work on it. On this tour, we’re bringing four new pieces with us that we’ve never played. Hopefully there’ll be some rehearsal time in Australia and we can actually play some new material.
MO: I’m interested about the rules of the quartet. I’ve read a lot of interviews where you talk about the specific appeal of a string quartet but I also know that you’ve played in a lot of expanded configurations over the years. Are there any limitations the Kronos Quartet must adhere to?
MO: Well, is there a point you would not go to in regards to adding non-quartet pieces to your repertoire?
DH: Well, I’m more concerned about the experience than I am about any kind of restrictions or anything like that. Recently, for example, there have been some wonderful new pieces written for children’s choirs and Kronos. We’ve had some marvellous experiences with choirs in Scotland recently and also in New York. Later, some of these pieces will be done in various places in the United States and I think we’re going to be doing them in England as well.
That kind of thing for me is tremendously exciting. We have some new work with a wonderful Vietnamese musician who lives near us in San Francisco and that will also be a brand new exciting adventure for us.
MO: Are you surprised what Kronos Quartet has become – given that you started it in your early twenties and you’re currently in your…thirty-seventh year?
DH: This is the thirty-eighth…We’re on our thirty-ninth season right now. And, I have to tell you, I have never been so thrilled with the music that’s being written. The kind of fabric of the global musical community…It’s really a wonderful time to be playing music, to be performing concerts. I think it’s a great time to be a member of the audience.
There are so many exciting and wonderful new pieces that are available to experience. And new sounds. And new combinations of things. It’s really… I’ve never been as on fire as I am right now!
MO: Still, was the quartet envisaged to be a long-term thing?
DH: You know, when we first started, I think it was practically impossible. As a teenager, I decided I was going to be a musician. I was twenty-three when I started Kronos. By that time, once I’d got Kronos up and running, I decided that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I feel I’ve been very consistent about that since then.
I have to say, for me, I can’t even imagine any other activity that would make me as fulfilled as playing with John and Hank and Jeff. For example, we did a concert last night. It was all the music Steve Reich has written for us since 1988 – Different Trains, Triple Quartet, WTC 9/11 – and, during that concert, I was kind of looking at everyone in the group and I was just so thankful to be able to play music with them. And very proud of the body of work that has been established with Steve Reich.
We’re able to do that with Terry Riley’s music, too. Our friend Wu Man will be joining us in Adelaide and we first worked with him in 1992 – so nearly twenty years ago. A lot of our…In fact, most of our relationships are long-term relationships. Well, actually, they’re all long-term relationships! We’re not going to start something with someone – whether that’s as a composer or a guest artist or a visual artist – unless we feel we’re going to be able to do it for as long as we possibly can.
MO: On that note, do you think about the concept of retirement much? You’ve been doing this a long time. Are you conscious of your age as a performer?
DH: Um…You know? It’s not something I’m worried about at all. I’m going to do this until…Well, until I can’t [laughs].
I was just with my grandkids, my daughter and my wife and… Well, I think everybody that knows me knows that I’m incredibly happy being a musician and being a member of Kronos and the work that we’re being able to do. The idea of not doing it is not something that appeals to me at all.
MO: Well, I think we’re approaching our time limit, so I’ll just leave with my own personal relationship with the Quartet. I read that Black Angels by George Crumb was the piece that made you form the Kronos Quartet…
DH: That’s right.
MO: When I ran a radio show in my little home town, the only piece that ever got a complaint was when I played Black Angels from your Black Angels album in its entirety.
DH: That got complaints?
MO: Yep. That was the only time, too. I deliberately forged that radio show to irritate as many people as possible – and the only piece that ever actually got a complaint was the string quartet. I had someone ring up and demand to know whether I was on drugs or not.
DH: [laughs] Well, I have to tell you, when I first heard it, it was the summer of 1973. Of course, our country was still involved in the war in Vietnam and I was a young person trying to figure out what to do with my life and how to express myself. All of a sudden, when I heard that music, life became very clear. I knew exactly what I was going to do. For me, that piece expressed so much of what I felt.
When you listen to Black Angels, most of it is a very quiet piece. There are punctuations of incredible distortion and volume but most of it is very quiet and introspective. In 1973, I’d never heard anything like it. It was so different. I’d grown up playing, you know, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven Schubert and later encountered Bartok, Charles Ives and Xenakis and Thelonius Monk and all those amazing musicians… and, eventually, Jimi Hendrix.
So, when I heard Black Angels, it was like, for me… Everything was brought together. There was even Schubert! And there was early music and there was the distortion that I loved in the work of Hendrix – and the sonic variety! Plus, it felt like there was a statement about the war we were involved with! I just felt there was so much to work with… You know, I just love that piece. It’s too bad that listener didn’t give the piece a little bit more of chance.
Still, the thing about music is that it’s so personal that everybody has their own response. I appreciate that. The fact that that response was strong enough to include calling you up to me suggests something about the power of the music itself.
MO: Well, that was the piece that got me into what you guys were doing. I’d heard you on the soundtrack to Requiem for a Dream and I was trying to decide what album to get and I heard the opening lines of Black Angels and I knew I had to start there.
DH: Great. My advice to anyone that’s going to listen to that is turn out the lights and turn it up loud. That’s how I heard it.
The Kronos Quartet performs October 18 at the Melbourne Recital Centre as part of the 2011 Melbourne Festival. Further details»
Top Right – The Kronos Quartet. Photo – Jeppe Gudmundsen Holmgreen