Music Interview: Kronos Quartet’s fire still burns

By Paul Jarvey

There are no boundaries. If there’s music that magnetizes me, then I want to play it. It can come from any country, any city, any place. I just try to keep my ears open all day and all night. If you can do that over a period of years you’re going to run into a lot of interesting and incredible music.”

David Harrington, founder and violinist for Kronos Quartet, has immersed himself in all the sound the world has to offer. A conversation with him wanders through continents and genres as effortless as a finger through a disorganized record bin. The quartet’s music is equally challenging. From birth, the growth of Kronos has explored and recreated the most interesting and stimulating sounds from the esoteric obscura to the greatest masterpieces and the glam rock of our time.

“There was this article in the paper the other day about dust that’s been collecting in outer space, and the headline was something like ‘Stardust older than the sun brought back to earth,’” Muses Harrington. “Can you imagine any time in the history of the world when there would be a head- line in a newspaper like that? And you just start thinking about the ways things evolve, and change. It’s the same in music. There’s music that feels right to play every day of the year. And that music is always a little bit different all the time.”

Each member of Kronos has some training in what’s generally considered to be western classical music, but the band doesn’t confine themselves. In fact, Harrington remembers clearly the departure from the classical arena.

“I was about 15 years old when I started listening to music like Stravinsky and Bartok and Charles Ives,” he recalls. “I started driving everyone around me crazy. There was a great record store by my high school, so I spent more time in the record store than at school. They had listening booths and would let us open records and listen to whatever we wanted. My high school also had a terrific record collection and I was able to listen to music from all over Africa and Asia and South America and everywhere else. By the time I was 16, I had met a composer in Seattle named Ken Benshoof. He wrote a piece for a group I had and that was when I first started playing music by composers that were writing new things. I thought it was so wonderful and cool. Nobody else had heard this music before. I was so proud to be able to go out on the stage and play music that nobody else had ever heard. I got addicted to that at a young age.”

The group’s thirst for the novel has brought numerous lineup changes to the band including Jeffrey Zeigler last June. Harrington sees this process as a positive exploration leading Kronos opportunities to experience new sounds.

“The infusion of his [Zeigler] enthusiasm and energy and listening habits is incredible,” he says. “He’s turning me onto this band that I should have known years ago called Ministry. I was listening to them in the car on the way over here. He was telling me how he just loves their fuck-you attitude about everything. He’s turned me on to some great stuff.”

A growing part of Kronos’ repertoire consists of contributions collected through the Under 30 Initiative, a program designed to give talented young composers a chance to step into Harrington’s world.

“I’m beginning to sense this amazing amalgamation of energy that we’re getting not only from our audience, but also from composers who are writing right now,” he remarks. “I can’t recall a time in music that has been this amazing. I just came from a rehearsal with Dan Visconti, the third recipient of the under 30 commission award. His piece is really amazing! He’s incredible! We realized the group was about to celebrate its 30th year. We just thought: ‘what do you do to mark an occasion like that?’ There are composers out there whose entire lives are circumscribed by the length of our career. Why not set up a call for score to learn more about what’s going on? So that’s what we did. It’s given Kronos a chance to learn more about an entire sector of our population that is writing great music. It’s a way for those people that we end up working with to not only gain some experience, but also some excellent exposure.”

The group’s other influences started with what many contemporary musicians have built upon. The birth of jazz in mid-century America has fascinated musicians ever since. Kronos is no different, their first release was a full length collection of Thelonious Monk covers.

“It was Ken Benshoof who introduced me to Thelonious when I was 16,” Harrington says. “He listened to Monk records with me to teach me about Monk’s timing. Thelonious Monk had the ability to make a half step or a minor second played on the piano sound more dissonant than anything I’ve ever heard. Monk was a genius. Just sonically amazing.”

One of the best perks of being an internationally renowned musician is having the chance to perform with your idols. Despite having the opportunity to meet musicians from David Bowie to Brian Eno, Harrington has also warred with some outstanding lesser knowns like Indian vocalist Asta Bhosle and throat singer Tanya Tagall, who the Kronos Quartet will be sharing the stage with at this year’s High Performance Rodeo.

“We are so lucky to be playing with Tanya Tagak,” Harrington says. “She is the Jimi Hendrix of Inuit throat singers, and everybody else is Mozart.”

Tagak was featured on Bjork’s all vocal Medulla, and has become increasingly prominent as a globally respected Inuk artist. Calgary will also be treated to works from a huge range of contemporary musicians and composers, from Xploding Plastix to Derek Charke.

“This tour will be incredible,” Harrington enthuses. “We’re playing new pieces by Heinrich Gorecki, Glenn Branca, some very wonderful music from Iraq and Afghanistan, and we’ve got new pieces by Michael Gordon and Alexandra DuBois. Our plate is full of incredible music. I can’t recall a time in the past 33 years when I’ve felt this on fire about music.”

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