The CultureMap Interview
Kronos brings hardcore classical music to iFest: Kicking it off with a stringparty
The Kronos Quartet is an artistic force to be reckoned with.
I credit them for systematically making hardcore contemporary classical music in vogue, bringing to the forefront the pioneering works of composers like George Crumb, Tan Dun, Terry Riley, Alfred Schnittke, Henryk Górecki, Philip Glass, Steven Reich, John Adams and Alban Berg. With the same passion and intensity, Kronos has also unearthed the musical sounds of many world cultures, recreating their aesthetic for string quartet.
Often including musicians of other musical backgrounds, Kronos has taken an active role in broadcasting the beauty that is found in music of all cultural origins.
As a music student, I became obsessed after hearing them perform George Crumb's Black Angels, mesmerized by their intent, and began collecting the quartet's recordings.
CultureMap caught up with David Harrington in between meetings and rehearsals and got the scoop on Kronos's upcoming concert this Friday with Homayun Sakhi Trio as part of iFest 2011 - The Silk Road: Journey Across Asia.
CultureMap: Kronos and iFest share many similarities, both interested in world cultures. The fusion of ethnic sonorities onto the iconic classical chamber music ensemble, in a way, has defined Kronos. Was there always an interest in these influences?
David Harrington: These interests have been a part of my musical landscape since I was a kid. A lot of things that Kronos does take many years to accomplish. It's not unusual. Take Pieces of Africa for example, the first piece was recorded in 1984, but the album took 10 years to finish.
Stepping back further, I remember when I was 17 and in high school. I heard a recording of African vocal music and I thought it was so beautiful. It was unlike any music I had heard and played, and hoped that some day, I would play music with a similar sound. And it took 20 years to do that.
It took the group 16 years to record Black Angels. Not because we didn't want to record it, but because we wanted to make sure it was the first piece on the recording. It took that long to find the second piece to complete the album. Our work takes a long time.
Kronos Performing Arts Organization, the non-profit organization that surrounds Kronos, has commissioned 730 and some pieces. Though at times it seems like recordings come out quickly, they don't.
My next meeting is with Noam Chomsky, one of the greatest living thinkers, to discuss how to music can become a force for activism. When I heard Black Angels when I was 23 years old, I knew I had to play that piece. It answered spiritual questions, cultural questions and musical questions and propelled me. Noam Chomsky and his knowledge of power structure and language, can let us in on a new way of thinking of how music can be an actual mechanism for social action.
How does this relate to music in Iraq, Palestine, India and Central Africa? It's all part of the same world. Ears don't have little fences that block things out. I can't speak for everyone but for me, what happens is that when something magnetizes me, I have to find a way to be in touch with that music.
CM: It seems that ensembles that specialize in contemporary repertoire also dabble in early music and skip the middle period between baroque and romanticism. What is it about early music that's so attractive for modern ensembles?
DH: That's certainly not the case for Kronos. I love romantic music. Glenn Gould's last performance — he conducted Wagner's Idyll, a piece written as a birthday present for his wife and premiered as she was waking up — is as romantic as it gets. It starts with a string quartet. All I can tell you is that if I had been around when Wagner was around, I would have been knocking on his door. I feel that way about Mahler also.
I try to play music that means something to me. What good will that do if it doesn't?
We are so blessed with so many various forms of music that I feel fortunate to be able to explore new instruments and languages.
CM: Kronos is quite prolific in recordings. And yet, there is uncertainty about the concept of a whole album given the iTunes world of single track buying. Kronos keeps putting out album after album successfully. What is your strategy?
DH: We have released a lot of singles also. The recording with Astor Piazzolla, the final recording he did, released in 1991, is a single. Berg's Lyric Suite was a single also. It's the ultimate romantic string quartet. Incidentally, when I was 18, it was the first piece I played for my wife and she thought I was nuts. We are still together after many, many years.
I grew up with a recording that had both Webern and Schoenberg and I never could get through the music in one listening. I use myself as a guide when putting together albums. If I can't listen to it in one sitting, there is no way I would present it to anyone else in one album.
CM: Most of the pieces Kronos will be performing at iFest are taken from the album Floodplain. The works highlight cities and cultures that emerged in riverbanks and often experienced flooding. The richness of the terrain makes them prone to all sorts of dangers and disasters.
DH: I was trying to explain the idea to my wife when we felt the album needed a title. Just like 30 years ago, when I was writing names and eventually came up with the name of the quartet, we wrote down possibilities. She thought of Floodplain, and it made sense. It's a parable of some events that are going on right now. Catastrophic natural disasters, environmental concerts and wars, it's a way of thinking about how sometimes the future gets created out of catastrophic events.
CM: What type of preparation does the ensemble go through to adapt to the styles, scales and sonorities of non-western music?
DH: We try to get as much information as we can. We are in contact with the composer as often as possible. In the case of Ramallah Underground ("Tashweesh" from Floodplain) we had to communicate and work through the Internet as we had no way to physically get together. Sometimes, we need a translator.
CM: Let's talk about the future of classical music. We have orchestras like Syracuse folding, others like Detroit are going through financial trouble. What are we doing wrong?
DH: I'd like to question what the country is doing wrong. The reason there is no money for our schools, teachers, artists and infrastructure is because we have these wars going on and we are paying billions of dollars to drop bombs on people. No one wants to admit it, but if it takes a violinist to say it, I am going to say it loud. We need to stop these aggressive wars, bring our troops home and start dealing with the problems we have here.
We are the most powerful industrial and military country in the world and we need to set a good example. There is a lot of responsibility on us to do the right thing and we are not doing it.
To me, that's at the heart of why orchestras are folding. So many of the problems can be traced back to the misuse of our resources, including why an audience may feel disengaged in classical music.
Note: The Kronos Quartet concert requires a separate IFest ticket, which can be purchased at ifest.org