December 1st, 2009 | Interviews

amy hagemeier

Stream: Kronos Quartet “Nihavent Sirto”


(from Floodplain out now on Nonesuch)

Kronos Quartet connect the severe to the serene with four sets of strings and a preternatural sense for ceremony and resonance. They will be performing several shows this month including work by Harry Partch, Frank Zappa and a commissioned piece by film composer Tom Newman called “It Got Dark.” This interview by Dan Collins.

You just played with Terry Riley at Disney Hall last month, but he actually wrote an album for you a few years earlier, right?
David Harrington (violin): The Cusp of Magic. That’s a piece that Terry wrote for Kronos and the great pipa player Wu Man. And it’s a marvelous amazing piece of music. The pipa is the most classical of all Chinese plucked instruments, and I think Terry found a way of fusing the sound of the Chinese pipa and the sound of Kronos in such a magical… it kind of turned Kronos upside down because the first movement starts with me being the drummer! I’ll never forget the very first time we played it in concert. It was so weird to be in the role of the drummer, and I play a bass drum with a foot pedal and I have a shaker—a big peyote rattle. So I really am using both arms and legs. And then in the second movement, I suddenly pick up my instrument after kind of controlling the pulse for ten minutes, and I saw how different it is to be a drummer and a violinist because I had to be both on the same piece! And then a couple of the movements of The Cusp of Magic use kids’ toys. I’ll never forget when Terry came over to my home—my granddaughter was about one year old at the time and we sampled the sounds of a bunch of her toys, and they ended up becoming part of the piece. And then to do it live, we needed some of those toys—ha ha! Though I did promise her recently that she’ll get her toys back sometime.
Kronos Quartet has worked with a lot of rock acts. You recorded a piece for David Byrne’s film True Stories. And you did a cover of Television on the Elektra Rubaiyat compilation. And you did a Dead Kennedys song, ‘Moon over Marin…’
David Harrington: We never covered the Dead Kennedys. We did ‘Purple Haze.’
Oh, I’m thinking of ‘Marquee Moon’—I got my moons mixed up! But you certainly did a lot of covers. Is that how you made your mark? When did you know that you’d arrived?
David Harrington: Oh, I don’t know that we’ve arrived. We’re still in the process of getting where we’re getting. It’s one of the things I love about music—there’s so many things that can be done, and that it’s possible to be part of. I love the fact that nobody owns music. None of us own it. We just get to participate in it and share it. And that’s about all I know about it. I’m just one of those people who’s really happy being a musician.
I hope so—you guys have been together for thirty-six years! But for the last few years, you’ve been woman-less in your quartet. Is it a different dynamic?
David Harrington: Well, Jeff has been in Kronos since the last five years. I mean, when the group first started in 1973, it was four guys. And then Joan Jeanrenaud joined in 1978. So for the first five years, it was all guys. Or the first four years I guess—there were several changes of membership initially. It’s definitely different. And it’s interesting—Jeff Ziegler grew up hearing Joan play in Kronos, and Jeff and Joan are friends now. She’s a marvelous person. As a matter of fact, Joan is going to join us in a couple of weeks. We’re doing a quintet piece by a magnificent Russian composer named Vladimir Martynov. Vladimir has written a piece for Kronos plus an extra cellist, and I wanted to do something with Joan again—so this is it!
One of my favorite experiments I’ve heard from you guys recently is a piece you did on your 2009 album, Floodplains. It’s the piece from Kazakhstan, ‘Kara Kemir.’ It starts off sophisticated and intricate, and then gets simple and driving, folky—almost punk rock. It sounds genre-bending to my untrained ears.
David Harrington: That’s another great thing about music. However it sounds to you is the way it sounds. It’s like everybody has their own vocabulary with music—their own personal relationship. Everybody’s their own expert.
What was the name of that composer again? Kuat Shildebaev?
David Harrington: I can’t remember his name at the moment, but I first heard that piece on this very obscure recording that was made in Hungary. And at that point, the album didn’t even have the name of a composer on it. So it took some research to find out who had actually written the music.
The Green Umbrella showcased Gyorgi Ligeti’s Aventures and Nouvelle Aventures last year around this time. Have you ever performed any Ligeti?
David Harrington: We did the Hungarian premiere of Ligeti’s first string quartet, actually—that was written in 1950, I think. It was not played in Hungary until we did it in the eighties. We’ve played both of his string quartet pieces.
But you’ve done the opposite side of the spectrum, too—you’ve played with the Dave Matthews Band. Why would you do that?
David Harrington: You know what? He called us up and he knew all of our albums and he was incredibly conversant with our music. He’s a very good musician. We got into the studio, he knew exactly what he hoped would result, and we just really liked the music and the group, and we had a very good time.
Have there been some artists that you thought about working with and you eventually decided ‘maybe this is just not right for us?’
David Harrington: People decide that kind of thing all the time. Fortunately, there’s enough music in the universe, so there’s plenty that’s going to feel great. What I’m finding is how many things there are that I really can’t wait to do in the world of music. For me, the days just aren’t long enough. I’ve been a Sigur Ros fan since the first time I ever heard them. I just think they’re a wonderful group. We’re working with Bryce Dessner who’s in the National, and I think that’s a tremendous group. I mean, it’s interesting—for me, it’ll take me a few hours to tell you all the music that’s in my iPod! There’s a wonderful group that’s coming over from Sweden called Hurdy-Gurdy. We’re bringing them over for our perspectives concerts at Carnegie Hall in March. This is a group of two guys who play hurdy gurdy. And they make this music unlike anything I’ve ever heard before—beautiful, wonderful, fascinating… awesome!
What’s the most mind-blowing collaboration you’ve ever done?
David Harrington: Probably our most recent collaboration, a week ago. We just did our next piece with Wu Man—we premiered a piece called ‘A Chinese Home,’ and it featured an amazing video by Chen Shi-Zheng. And I spent several years getting the music together for this piece. There were a lot of amazing different instruments that we all played—basically, it was a theater piece! We were also acting. The whole piece explores the idea of home, and homeland, and it was inspired by a visit to a 300-year-old Chinese home that was brought piece by piece to the United States. Everybody that saw the show in New York said it was the most mind-boggling thing they’ve seen us do.
You’re still based in San Francisco—but what’s the one thing L.A. has hands-down better than San Francisco?
David Harrington: They definitely have a better baseball team!