EXCLUSIVE: Q&A with David Harrington of Kronos Quartet on 'Fifty for the Future' Premiere

By Steve Nagel on Mar 28, 2016 04:13 PM EDT
David Harrington of Kronos Quartet David Harrington (second from right) and Kronos Quartet (Photo : Photo by Jay Blakesberg / DotDotDotMusic)

With so many innovative composers now edging into the mainstream, navigating the forms and structures of the new musical landscape can seem a daunting task, for listeners and young composers alike. To be sure, modern works have enjoyed an increase in visibility, but while there is no shortage of outlets for these pieces to be judged, there are precious few opportunities for them to be studied. Forever straddling the "cutting-edge" or the "ultra-contemporary", much of the 21st Century repertoire has been anxiously awaiting induction into the western---if not, global---music canon. To remedy this, David Harrington, Artistic Director of the Kronos Quartet, has recently flung open a new door, embarking on a project that has the potential to fundamentally transform the way music is taught in the 21st Century. Welcome to the Fifty for the Future Project.

As part of a five-year project in which 50 composers will be commissioned to compose a string quartet for Kronos, a unique and unprecedented twist has now made possible the [extremely generous] availability of these scores---all 50 of them---to the public, for free, on the Kronos webpage. They will become available this April 15th.

Ten composers will be commissioned each year: five men and five women. With next year's composers recently announced, last year's selections are already in line for their premieres. Featuring the entirely original works of Aleksandra Vrebalov, Wu Man, Karin Rehnqvist, and Fodé Lassana Diabatéas, but also with arrangements such as as Jacob Garchik's arr. of Pete Townsend & The Who's "Baba O'Riley", a total of nine pieces (four in the The Kronos Learning Repertoire) will appear in Saturday, April 2nd's all-premiere concert at Zankel Hall (at Carnegie Hall), in Manhattan.

The following week will then see Kronos extend their educators' passion to the workshop arena as three quartets (Argus, Friction, and Ligeti) arrive at Carnegie to tackle selections from Terry Riley's Salome Dances for Peace, as well as some of the Fifty for the Future compositions. On April 15th (also at Zankel Hall), the week-long workshop will result in a public performance of different movements from each quartet. (The experience will allow audiences to hear multiple interpretations of the same piece.)

But before the craziness begins, Classicalite had the chance to speak with David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet about the quartet's drive to educate musicians, about this week's Fifty for the Future premiere, and about the project's implications for future music literacy and dissemination:

Wu Man
(Photo by Stephanie Kahn / DotDotDotMusic)
Wu Man, pipa virtuoso

CLASSICALITE: From where we stand, here at C-lite, the Kronos Quartet has been something of a household name---synonymous with inspiration and innovation in connection with the chamber community. Impressively, it has been running strong for over 42 years. As its founding member, what was the impetus for you to create Kronos in the first place? Were you dissatisfied with the state of the quartet at the time? Or was there something unique you felt could be added?

David Harrington: Well, in 1973, I was dissatisfied with the state of the world, and I still am, as a matter of fact. I’d grown up playing string quartet music. At age 12, I heard Beethoven’s Opus 127 and I fell in love with the sonority of those opening chords and I wanted to learn how to make that sound. So I formed my first quartet at age 12. And as time went on, through my playing string quartets, I became acquainted with music of Haydn and Mozart, other Beethoven, Schubert… and then at a certain point, I think I was about 14 or 15 when I first heard the music of Bartók and began to realize how little of the musical world I knew.

I began meeting composers who were writing new pieces, and at age 16, I was in a quartet and we played a world premiere for the first time. That was a really big moment for me, because when I walked out on the stage, I realized nobody else anywhere in the world or in the audience had ever heard this music. We had this secret that we got to share. So for me, that was a big moment.

As time went on, as you know, there was the American War in Vietnam. It felt to me like our society was breaking apart. I was growing up, I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with myself, and a lot of the music that I’d grown up with… it wasn’t that the music didn’t feel relevant, it was the way that it was being presented and the way it was being considered in our society that didn’t feel relevant to me.

My wife and I spent a year in Canada in 1972–73, and we came back to Seattle, and it was late one night in August of 1973 that I heard Black Angels by George Crumb on the radio. It was one of those moments---and I haven’t had very many of them---when all of a sudden life made sense. Everything I’d done up until that point, it just seemed like, “Okay, now I understand why I was doing that. I’m ready for this experience.” It felt to me like Black Angels was a response to the American War in Vietnam, and it felt like music and creativity were actually dealing with things that were happening right then.

And again, just like what happened when I was 12 years old and I heard that E-flat major chord and had to try to do it myself, I heard Black Angels and I had to do it. I didn’t have a choice. It’s not like I sat around and thought about it. I thought, “I need to do that because I’m going to understand myself better, and I’m going to understand creativity and the world better.”

In addition to that, it answered a bunch of musical questions, because right in the middle of Black Angels, you hear Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet, and you hear renaissance music, and later you hear God music, a beautiful cello solo. And when I first heard that on the radio, I had no idea what those sounds were. After I got the score, I noticed it was by bowing crystal glasses that makes this incredible sound accompanying the cello. At the same time, it felt like Crumb was somehow united in the sonic world of Jimi Hendrix as well. And all of a sudden I thought, “Wow, this is wonderful, it’s cool, it brings things together. I’ve got to do it.” So for me, that was the spark.

CL: Described as a "primer" for young composers, Kronos' new Fifty for the Future initiative (The Kronos Learning Repertoire) is an unprecedented showcase for the process of composition. Apart from introducing a mess of new talent, the program also threatens to peel away some of the mystery behind 21st Century composition by offering up some fresh published scores from the year's proceedings to the public, on the internet, for free. Simply put, it's a boon to music education. Who gets the credit for this idea and where did the spark come from?

DH: The credit for this idea goes to everybody associated with the Kronos Quartet and Kronos Performing Arts Association. It really is a result of a lot of work that’s been done, a lot of thoughts that have been had. There are certain pieces that were written for Kronos and that we’ve heard played by other groups that have given us the confidence that Fifty for the Future would be a good idea.

One of these pieces is Pannonia Boundless by Aleksandra Vrebalov. When I heard a high school group in New York City playing Pannonia Boundless, I couldn’t believe how happy I felt that this group was playing our music. Aleksandra came to that rehearsal, and she’d never seen me as a coach coaching other players, so she learned things about me as a player. And then she offered some of her thoughts as well, and this group found a new level, and our music found a different approach, a different sound. The same thing has happened with several pieces that Terry Riley has written for us.

When I’m hearing other people play our music, it makes me feel really good. I remember once, I was given a CD in Japan---and I don’t read Japanese---and I went back to the hotel, put it on, and the first piece on there was a Kronos piece! It was music of Kevin Volans—White Man Sleeps, the first dance—played by four kotos. And I just thought, “Wow, this is cool!” There have been a lot of experiences like this that have gone into the imagining of Kronos’ Fifty for the Future.

We’ve also realized that, when you go to a music library, say, at a university or a public library, the holdings in the library are frequently really incomplete. Hardly ever do you see any Kronos music in a library. It’s just not available. And a lot of times it’s hard to get accurate information about our work. If our music has been published, frequently, it has not been edited correctly. So collectively, we decided, “Okay, let’s just take matters into our own hands, find a way of making this material available, try to get the best composers to write their best pieces, and let’s just see what happens to the future generations of quartet players.”

As it turns out, the string department at my daughter’s school where she teaches first grade—Francis Scott Key Elementary School here in San Francisco—is going to play the third movement, “Ancient Echo,” of Wu Man’s Fifty for the Future piece. They’re going to start playing that in a couple weeks, and the idea that eight-, nine-, and ten-year-old string players are going to be playing some of our music is thrilling to me. It’s incredibly exciting, and I can’t wait.

CL: With a front row seat to the talent in question, have you noticed any compositional trends among the new composers with whom you've worked, or are they entirely diversified? Which movements, if any, are driving some of the next generation's leading composers (for chamber or otherwise)?

DH: (I don’t know too much about trends. I’m not willfully trying not to know about them!) What I’ve realized is that every person who has ever written a string quartet for Kronos sounds different than every other person. You have the medium itself---two violins, a viola, and a cello---as the basic palette, and then you have the individuality of each of the players. This music is hand-made by the composers, and the essence of every composer sounds different. So in a certain way, there isn’t a trend.

I feel like our responsibility in making the musical tapestry or mosaic of Fifty for the Future is to try to get the most creative people who really want to send a bit of their musical DNA out into the future. And one of the things all of the composers---this first group of five composers whose materials we will be releasing on April 15---have said is how exciting it is for them that their music is going to be played not only by kids and high school students, but also by young professionals and probably other touring groups like Kronos. I can’t imagine there’s going to be a group in the world who is not going to want to play Garth Knox’s Satellites, or Aleksandra Vrebalov’s My Desert, My Rose, or Franghiz Ali-Zadeh’s Rəqs (Dance). It’s fabulous music. Some of it is very challenging, but it’s all thrilling and fun to play. So getting back to the idea of “trends,” I’m interested in the next marvelous piece, and if that’s a trend, cool!

Aleksanda Vrebalov,
(Photo by Biljana Ustic / DotDotDotMusic)
Aleksandra Vrebalov

CL: The following week, you'll be in residence at Carnegie Hall's Weill Music Institute, leading a workshop for three young professional string quartets (the Argus Quartet, the Friction Quartet, and the Ligeti Quartet). For the residency's closing recital, you'll have the quartets perform unique interpretations of selections from Terry Riley's Salome Dances for Peace. What was it that drew you to this piece, specifically, as the best "control" mechanism for the ensembles to place under the microscope?

DH: We helped Terry Riley celebrate his 80th birthday in June of 2015, and one of the things that I’ve most enjoyed in music is working with Terry Riley, having him at our rehearsals over many years, and noticing how each one of his pieces affects us as musicians and as persons, in a way. It’s just astonishingly wonderful.

I don’t think any of the Weill Institute groups---the Ligeti, the Friction, and the Argus Quartets---has ever played Terry Riley’s music before. Or if they have, they certainly have not played Salome. First of all, the entire work is over two hours in length. It’s one of the most awesome and taxing pieces in the repertoire. So what we thought we would do is take three of our favorite movements and ask each of these young professional groups to learn one, and then we’ll coach them, giving as much as we know about this music. They’re going to have a whole new approach to life and to music if we do our job correctly. Looking at everything we’ve learned, if we can impart some of it, I know that there will be sounds and feelings and rhythms and approaches to music that haven’t been tapped yet by these young groups.

To me, it’s a great opportunity to celebrate Terry’s masterpiece, and I’m hoping that each of these groups is going to want to play the entire Salome later, that this will be like an entry point. So there’s that, and then also I’m just curious to find out what it’s going to sound like to hear this next generation of quartet players playing this music that was written for us in the mid-1980s and is still, in my opinion, one of the greatest American string quartet works that there is.

CL: The Kronos Quartet's attachment to minimalist compositions and composers (such as Sir Riley) are well known. As a performer, do you find that minimalist works are more difficult to tackle, and to rehearse?

DH: I think Kronos is probably the only group that has had written for it works by La Monte Young---some people consider La Monte the founder of “minimalism”; Terry Riley, who has written 24 pieces for Kronos; Steve Reich, who has written all three of his quartets for Kronos; Philip Glass, who has written five pieces for us now; and John Adams, as well as Morton Feldman, Henryk Górecki, Kevin Volans, Louis Andriessen… and you start thinking, “Okay, what is ‘minimalism’?” I personally don’t have any idea.

Part of it is, having worked with each of these composers, I see that each one of them is so different in the way they hear music, the way they imagine musical experiences, the way they impart their creativity into their work, the way they talk about life and the function of music in our society. The one thing that binds all of these composers---and there are many more that we can add to this list---is a real caring for the world of music. Each of these composers is really trying to make the most amazing experiences that they possibly can. To me, there is nothing “minimalist” about that. That is as big as it gets, and I applaud that.

We’ve worked with these people, and each of them is so unique. If what we’re talking about, in terms of “minimalism,” is La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Adams, the only thing they have in common is that their last names have five letters. That’s the only thing they have in common.

Terry Riley
(Photo by Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images for Nashville Symphony)
Terry Riley attends Nashville Symphony's "Celebrate After Spring" at the Russian Tea Room on May 12, 2012 in New York City.

CL: A steady stream of fresh music must serve as vital nourishment for an active quartet of 42 years. Has the consumption and performance of modern music been your favorite part of working with Kronos?

DH: Being able to take out onto the stage something that nobody else has ever heard before---that’s thrilling. It’s scary, too; it never has gotten less scary. Music always sounds different in front of an audience than it does in a rehearsal. You can rehearse for a month on the same piece and it’s going to sound different when you go out and play in front of an audience. It’s just going to be different, and you’re going to feel like you don’t know where you are, and all of a sudden you’ve got to figure it out and you’ve got to go for it.

One of the things that I’ve loved the most in Kronos is the way each member of the group contributes his or her best thoughts. It’s really interesting to see how the individual concerns that we have add up to an entire approach. It really takes all four of us to do this.

And then we try to learn as much as we can from our composers. A lot of times, I’ve found that asking questions that don’t really seem like questions sometimes gives us information that ends up being really important to interpretations. Trying to get our composers to sing for us so we hear their voices, or to get them to move to their own music and see how their body responds to the rhythms they’ve created or the experience they’ve made---I’m constantly trying to get our composers to do things like that so that we learn more.

CL: What outcomes of the Fifty for the Future initiative do you ultimately hope the project will cultivate? More compositions? More style diversity? Better insights into style & formatting? Give us your best case scenario. (Your utopia, if you will.)

DH: For me, Kronos’ Fifty for the Future will be everything I hope for it when we go to high schools around the world and we go to colleges and universities, and we hear this music being practiced, rehearsed, performed by young groups---that’s going to be amazing.

It’s great to think that within a very few short months, any group in the world is going to be able to play a really fabulous piece by one of Mali’s greatest musicians. It took me years to find a very first piece by an African composer, and one of the things I’m already most proud of of Fifty for the Future is that our very first piece was written by Fodé Lassana Diabaté from Mali. It’s a great experience to be able to play African music. A great experience to play Lassana’s music. All I can say is the feeling that you need to have of the beat, and the feeling of rhythm and melody is such a wonderful aspect of music, and it’s wonderful to be able to bring those kinds of considerations into concerts and rehearsals.

For me, growing up, it was always such a lack. When I was 16, I started exploring the world of music, and there was no African string quartet music that I could get a hold of. There was no South American music that I knew of, there was no Chinese or Japanese or Indonesian or Indian music. Kronos has spent a lot of our time, creativity, and energy trying to be certain that our medium, the string quartet, begins to reflect the awesome variety of the world we share. Thinking, “What makes a balanced musical experience? What’s going to give us the most energy, the most creativity?” And I think that very shortly, groups are going to be able to have incredibly wonderful music from various places in Africa, Central Asia, China, around the United States, South America, you name it. By 2020, we intend to have 50 inspiring works: 25 by women and 25 by men, a primer of the musical world we occupy and a gift to the next generation of string quartet players. Fifty for the Future is going to create a pageantry of creativity, a mosaic of possibilities for the future.

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TagsDavid Harrington, Kronos Quartet, Fifty for the Future, Contemporary Composers, Classicalite Q&A, EXCLUSIVE

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