Interview: David Harrington of Kronos Quartet -By: Niki Kaos

Written by on January 20, 2023

The Kronos Quartet – Dazzling Experimentation that Pushes the Boundaries of Classical Music

The Kronos Quartet is legendary for an innovative and emotionally expressive approach to the classical music genre. With over 1,000 collaborations with composers from all corners of the globe, Kronos has their ear to the ground and their hearts open to the sounds of the universe. The Capital Region welcomes them to Universal Preservation Hall on January 29th, at 7pm in Saratoga Springs, where a program of new and favorite works will be performed in the beautifully refurbished, state of the art music hall. 

I have the pleasure of interviewing founding member of Kronos, David Harrington, who shares with me what is in store for the Saratoga Springs show, some of the history about how Kronos was born, and what is happening with the future of new classical music and original compositions. 

RRX: I looked at your program for the show that you are bringing to us, and you’re kicking it off with two songs from your 50 for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire series, which according to your website “was designed to guide string quartets in developing and honing the skills required for the performance of 21st-century repertoire.”

I’m interested in learning more about that project, which you launched in 2015. How’s it been going? Were there any unexpected successes and challenges? And what caused you to pick those two songs for the UPH show?

DH: 50 for the Future is a long-term project that Kronos has been intimately involved with for eight years. Even longer when you think of how long it took to get it going. It started out because we were involved in coaching young groups and whether it was a conservatory or a music school, a high school – you name it – people were having a lot of trouble finding our music. The scores and the parts to play the work that we had commissioned. It was, you know, we’re going to find a way to solve this problem once and for all. So, with a lot of very enlightened commissioning help from Carnegie Hall, and music festivals from around the world, and individuals, it became possible for us to do this. And to make the music available 24 hours a day, anyplace in the world you can download the scores and parts to the 50 composers that we chose. 

And the ideal that we had was to try and give other groups a sense of some of the variety of work, and personalities, and notation styles, and sonic realms that we inhabit. And these 50 composers have made some unbelievably wonderful additions to the string quartet repertoire. And we thought we would open our show with two of our favorites. And we could have played 48 other ones.

We decided that Peni Candra Rini, from Indonesia, made a piece unlike any other string quartet that exists as far as I know. Maduswara. We find it so beautiful. When we come to Preservation Hall, we’ll be doing the solo quartet version, like you can hear on our website. It involves an environmental sound that starts with the sound of frogs. And there’s a storm. But also, it’s kind of like when Kronos went to Bali and played there. We played outdoors. And the sounds of nature were a part of all the music we played. It just seemed like something that most people in the United States never get to experience. So, we thought, okay, let’s find a way to bring it into the concert hall. So, that’s what Peni did. 

Now for the Aleksandra Vrebalov piece, My Desert, My Rose, we’ve heard groups from many different countries playing this piece. Most recently we were coaching groups in Canada. And it’s so much fun. It starts out very calmly and grows in passion and then gets totally wild. (laughs) So by the ending it is just nuts! So that’s how we’re starting our show.

RRX: Very Cool. Now I noticed you also do a lot of work with a trombonist, who was from San Francisco originally, and then relocated to NYC, Jacob Garchik. To the person who might not be as familiar with some of the classical compositions, you’ll be doing arrangements for the songs “All Along the Watchtower” and “Strange Fruit”, more recognizable melodies to any person out there. 

What’s it like working with him? It seems you’ve been collaborating with him for a while. Do you almost always use music from him? Or is that just happening this time? 

DH: Well, first of all, I should tell you that I first met Jacob when he was about seven. He went to grade school with my kids. 

RRX: No kidding!

DH: Yeah. So I watched him grow into a master musician. Which is thrilling. And he tells a story, they had a party over at their house once, he was about 11 or 12 at that point and I found out that he was playing music. And he wanted to compose music, so I said, you should write a string quartet. (laughs) So, anyway, Jacob is now in his 40s and we’ve been working closely together for nearly 20 years now. And he has an uncanny instinct for making fabulous, I would call them translations, for us. 

And so, for example, in my opinion, Strange Fruit. You know, I’ve said this before, but nobody’s asked me, but I’ll tell you anyway. I think it should be our National Anthem. To me, that song, and the words of that song. And Billie Holiday’s version just said so much about what has troubled our country for so long.

RRX: That’s a really powerful thought.

DH: And there are two performances by Billie Holiday, and I’ve listened to as many I could possibly hear of hers, and there were two that just struck me. I said Jacob, can you imagine making a version for Kronos and combine these two versions that Billie Holiday recorded? And that’s what he did. I remember when we played this once, one of the music reviewers said, it’s almost like hearing late Beethoven. And for me, that was a big complement. That this song, when you take the words out, and basically, you remember the words – but they’re not part of the performance, they’re part of what you’re remembering as you’re hearing it. It can take on a quality unlike almost any other song. That’s why we did it and why we’re bringing it to you. 

Basically, it is the same with Hendrix’s version of Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower. I think it was Bob Dylan who said that after he heard Hendrix playing, well he’s actually the composer. He said something like that, I don’t remember his precise words. As an arranger, Jimi Hendrix is unequaled. And so that was a big challenge for Jacob, as our arranger. Say, okay, how are you going to take a song as interpreted by Jimi Hendrix and make it a piece Kronos can play. So that was a big compositional challenge, and you’ll hear the results. 

RRX: I know I’ve heard the results at least once in person, so I have a feeling it will be an excellent experience for all who go.

DH: Oh, cool. 

RRX: And what you said about Strange Fruit really resonates with me. I found it interesting the way you describe a song where people know the words, but the words may not be sung out loud during the performance. And you have that in your mind, but at the same time you’re being absorbed by the music in the room. 

DH: Right.

RRX: It is a very interesting experience. One that immerses you in a different way. I find that attractive as a listener. So that’s exciting!

Now I’m going to dig into some backstory here. You started Kronos, in essence it was inspired around 1973, after you heard George Crumb’s Black Angels. But then I also want to know, what were you like growing up as a child musically? I’m sure you must have started somewhere as a musician. And you’ve spent a lot of your career inspiring young musicians of today. So, what was it like for you, navigating that? What was that moment when you had that inspiration and said, I have to get this group together and make it happen? 

DH: I was very lucky. I started playing violin at age 9. In the public schools of Seattle, I had a very nice teacher for a few years. And then I got into the Seattle symphony at about age 11. And that’s when I joined the Columbia Record Club. 

RRX: The one that sends you those things in the mail?

DH: Yeah!

RRX: I was in that club too.

DH: Were you?

RRX: Yes, I was!

DH: Here was the thing then. I don’t know what it’s like now, but age 11, so for me, that was 1960, right? Well, the Budapest Quartet had just recorded the Beethoven Quartets, and one of the offerings, if you joined the Columbia Record Club, was a first of the late quartets of Beethoven. Opus 127. The E flat major quartet. And I was reading a biography of Beethoven at that point, and I read about the late quartets. Well, what’s a late quartet? You know? And so, I sent in my penny. And choose five LPs and one of them was that recording. And a week or two after sending off my penny and my choices, the Opus 127 arrived. 

And the sound of that opening chord, those opening chords, created the strongest impression for me. And I just kept playing it over and over. I loved it! I absolutely loved it. And I can hear that sound of that E flat major chord right now as I’m talking to you. There was a particular way they balanced the chord that just seemed perfect to me. I didn’t really have a choice. I had to learn how to make that sound. 

You know, what I did is I went to the Seattle Public Library. Checked out the music score and the parts. Called up three friends from the Youth Symphony. And we got together. And I’ll never forget that first – that opening chord – for about a 10th of a second, it sounded like the record. And ever since that moment I’ve believed in the absolute primacy of 10ths of seconds in life. They can move you one way or another, and it can be a fork in the road. For me, that was a BIG fork in the road. And I got addicted to playing string quartets at age 11.

And then by age 16 or so, I started playing new music. I had a composition teacher. I got on stage, did a world premier, and that was fabulous. Nobody in the room knew the music except those of us on stage, and I felt like I was in on the secret before anyone else. And so, a further addiction happened. And that was new music and unplayed things I got to help shape. 

Then, fast forward to 1973, and in August of ’73 on the radio I heard Black Angels, from George Crumb. I’d never heard of George Crumb. Never heard of that piece. I never heard of an amplified string quartet. But all of the sudden, so many things that I loved came together in one place. So if you could imagine, hearing this piece, and there’s… it sounded like the wildness of Jimi Hendrix feedback. There’s an element of Shubert in Black Angels. There’s Renaissance music. There’s bowing crystal glasses. The God Music section is so beautiful. All sorts of chanting and shouting, but most importantly, in addition to bringing my world of music together. It felt like a response to the war in Vietnam. And so I didn’t really have a choice, again. I had to get a group together and play that piece. 

So Kronos, on September 1st 1973 is when we started rehearsing. And eventually, that first season, we played Black Angels. And we’ve been playing it ever since. 

RRX: That’s amazing. I love that these forks in the road have led to you such extraordinary experiences that amplified across the globe. Across a lot of listening audiences. The work that you do is really inspiring from a musician’s perspective. 

Once you launched as a group there were a number of collaborations you’ve had the ability to work on. I would describe it as dizzying. How do you decide who you work with? What are some of your favorite projects? And what are those instincts, what are those forks in the road, that led you to jump into something?

DH: Well, we’re bringing two of them to Saratoga Springs. Terry Riley. Meeting Terry in 1978 at Mills College was a very big moment for Kronos. I had heard his music for years. And then, all the sudden meet him. And then, I just had this… this sense – this man has to write for us. I like him so much. I just got such a great feeling from him. I wanted to have that feeling on stage and share it with our audience. So it was about 1979 when Terry started writing for Kronos. And we’re bringing one of our favorites of his pieces, and we have a lot of favorite Terry Riley pieces, but Cadenza on the Night Plain is particularly wonderful. It has this large shape to it. And each member of Kronos has an extensive solo. There’s interlocking rhythms that are so much fun. Such a huge challenge to play, but they end up sounding so beautiful. So, Terry Riley is a big fork in the road.

And another is the music of Nicole Lizée from Montreal. Now I was doing an interview exactly like you and I are doing right now with a journalist from the Irish Radio and at the end of the interview he said, you know, there’s this composer you really ought to check out. And she’s from Montreal, and her name is Nicole Lizée. Well, I never heard of Nicole. And I got her email and was in touch, and immediately we just hit it off and she started writing for us. Zonely Hearts is her most recent piece for us. I can’t even imagine having more fun on stage. It’s a huge challenge. And we take the listener to many places – Twilight Zone-ish sorts of ambience, shall we say.

RRX: That’s very cool. 

So I’m going to dig into one of my favorite questions I love to ask, because as a musician, I like to ask other musicians… I always like to learn about your favorite practice routines. But for you, my specific question is, how do you balance the technical practice with the emotional elements of performing music? When I think of classical music, I think of people being really dedicated to a lot of time practicing technical skills, but then Kronos brings a deep emotional expressiveness to the performances. So how do you balance the technical side with the emotional side of your playing?

DH: Wow – I mean, I think of our rehearsals as something… well, I have three other teachers. And then I’m taking Pilates. And my Pilates teacher, ever since my violin teacher died, my Pilates teacher sort of became my violin teacher in a way. You know, we’re dealing with our bodies. And how do we make our bodies make the kinds of sounds we hear inside of ourselves? 

And it’s fascinating to talk to somebody who is not a musician and talk about the kind of technical aspect of playing a violin or playing in a quartet. I’m not answering your question, because I don’t know what the answer is.

RRX: That’s okay.

DH: It’s kind of like…I take one note at a time. 

I can tell you one thing. The very last lesson I had with my long-term teacher, she was my teacher for 30 years, Veda Reynolds. She lived in Paris. And Kronos was going to be recording, and there was a certain sound that I needed to find. And we spent four hours working on one note. Trying to get the sound that I could hear inside, and I could not make my body do it. (laughs) But, by the time we recorded, a few months later, I was a little closer. And you know what, that’s all you can…you know, if you can get a little closer to what you’re really going for, every day, every time you take your instrument out of its case. Every time you get to touch it and make a note. That’s your job. Try to do a little bit better. 

RRX: I love that. Because I think, at least I can say from my own experience, especially when I hear things I’ve recorded, and they don’t sound the way I heard them in my mind, it’s sometimes hard to be okay with what happened. But it happened. And that is the important thing. But then there is a – you have to dedicate that work for the muscle memory. 

DH: Right.

RRX: Which I call the practice side of it – making sure you’re working toward that muscle memory so that when you get there it flows as best it can.

DH: Right.

RRX: Before you go – My hit list of people I would love to see you to work with is Regina Spektor, Wilco and Meredith Monk.  

DH: Well, Meredith wrote a quartet for us. And Wilco, we’ve performed with Jeff and his drummer Glenn Kotche.

RRX: Well, I’ll have to go find those. I’ll keep my eyes out. And Regina Spektor – you guys would be a perfect match!

DH: Okay. Cool!

RRX: Thank you so much. Thank you kindly. 

DH: My pleasure.

RRX: Don’t miss this exciting opportunity to see the Kronos Quartet perform at Universal Preservation Hall on Sunday, January 29th at 7pm in Saratoga Springs, NY. Tickets can be purchased online here.

Current track