Kronos Quartet: The Rumpus Interview with David Harrington

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I think, like it or not,  that everything we do as citizens, as human beings, is a statement about how we want the world to be.

Since 1973 the Kronos Quartet has maintained a reputation for challenging the string quartet form with both traditional and unorthodox compositions. The group considers collaborations with an eclectic mix of performers and composers to be integral to their work, and in addition to ongoing collaborations with composers such as Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Osvaldo Golijov, Kronos pieces have included collaborations with Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, American soprano Dawn Upshaw, and Chinese p’i p’a artist Wu Man; a NASA- commissioned multi-media piece featuring images from space; film scores for Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and Heat; and live performances with musician David Bowie, historian Howard Zinn and poet Allen Ginsberg.

When I was recently working with Z Space Studio at Theater Artaud, the Kronos Quartet was in rehearsals for “Yin Yu Tang: A Chinese Home,” directed by Chen Shi-Zheng,  which will have its world premiere on Nov. 3, 2009 at Carnegie Hall.  “A Chinese Home”  aims to explore China’s identity through folk tunes and electronic music.

While I was painting a cabinet “hibiscus purple,” I realized that Kronos violist Hank Dutt was ambling by my ladder.

Despite the fact my clothes were covered in both plaster and paint, Hank graciously arranged an interview for me with the Kronos Quartet’s founding member, violinist David Harrington.

On the day of the interview, you could hear the faint whine of instruments through the walls as the other Kronos members rehearsed nearby. At the conclusion of our meeting, I gave Harrington a chocolate chip cookie. He  was surprised and pleased, “nobody’s given me a cookie for years,” he said.

The Rumpus: Could you tell me a little about your musical background, and how you got involved in Kronos?

David Harrington: Well, it was a long time ago. I had grown up playing string quartet music. At that time, many people my age were affected by the war in Vietnam and a lot of us were searching for ways to express ourselves. And in the summer of 1973, I heard an amazing piece of music on the radio that totally changed my life: “Black Angels,” by George Crumb. Having grown up playing string quartet music, and then hearing “Black Angels” — it was so different from any music I had ever heard, number one, and it was completely different from any other string quartet music I had ever heard.

But it was the right music for me at that moment. All of a sudden I felt like I had [found] my musical voice. So I had to form Kronos. It wasn’t a matter of wanting to, or hoping to; I had to. Because I needed to play that piece.

So that’s what happened. A month later, Kronos started rehearsing, and within a few months we were playing “Black Angels.” Thirty-six years later, there have been more than 650 pieces written for us by men and women from every continent and from many different cultures and backgrounds.

As to how I got into playing violin in the first place — you know, my family used to watch Lawrence Welk on television on Saturday night. There was a wonderful violinist named Dick Kesner. Every week he played a solo, and I just liked the sound of it. My grandmother told me stories about hearing Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler and other great violinists in New York in the earlier part of the twentieth century, so I just grew up thinking about the violin as something I might want to do. I started playing in public school at age nine, and I’ve been doing it for fifty years.

Rumpus: What do you think accounts for the Kronos Quartet’s longevity?

Harrington: You know, I think it is the people we get to meet and get to work with. For example, today we have a whole team of wonderful people, like Chen Shi-Zheng, the great Chinese theater and film director. He’s a wonderful musician and has a wonderful sense of theater and the stage. We’ve been together for thirty-six years and we’ve never worked with a director before. We’ve always kind of done it ourselves, so this is a new experience and I am loving it! Jeff [Ziegler] and Hank [Dutt] and John [Sherba] and I are just having a wonderful time. Our whole staff has been involved in various ways to create  “A Chinese Home.” I can say that about all the music we’re playing, and all the various experiences we’re getting involved with: it’s fun, it’s challenging, it’s thrilling. I can’t imagine life any other way.

Rumpus: You mentioned that Kronos emerged from the energies surrounding the Vietnam War. Do you feel that Kronos continues to send a political message, or is it more about the pure form of music?

Harrington: I think, like it or not,  that everything we do as citizens, as human beings, is a statement about how we want the world to be.

Every action we take! To me, the way I would answer your question is that everything we do is a political statement. For me, what that means is trying to move the world just a little in a certain direction.

I’ve always wanted to play bulletproof music that would protect people from suffering and, shield children from harm, and things like that. Well, I’m still looking for that type of music. But until I find it, I think what we can we do is attempt through our actions to shift things a little bit.

We can attempt to move things towards a little bit more understanding, a little bit more peacefulness, a little bit more open-heartedness about the future. These are things I think music can do so beautifully. So I am committed to that.

Rumpus: Over the years, there have been changes within the group and in the audience. Could you talk a little about these changes?

Harrington: By 1978, John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), Joan Jeanrenaud (cello) and I had met each other, and that foursome stayed together until Joan left the group in ’98. And a lot of people know Kronos in that way. Actually, in December we’re going to be doing a quintet with Joan, whom we haven’t played with during all these years, a wonderful piece by Russian composer Vladimir Martinoff. And, then Jennifer Culp joined Kronos for five years. Following Jennifer’s tenure, Jeff Zeigler joined and Jeff’s been in Kronos for four years now.

Rumpus: What about your audience?

Harrington: It’s like the older I get, the younger the audience gets. I think it’s a diverse audience. For example, we were playing in Lyon, France about a month ago. There were kids, teenagers, students, college students, young professionals, older people. It felt like a genuine microcosm of the whole society. I liked that. And now I have grandkids. You know, the other night I was playing a videotape of a concert we did in March. It was the first concert where both of my grandkids were at the concert.

I could hear my grandson; he was about three months old. I could hear him crying. I just thought, you know, I love doing this. I just love it. It’s great when parents are bringing their kids. It’s great when people who have known us for years bring their own families, and then they bring their parents. I love that. It’s a reason to do something for as long as I’ve done this. There’s a real satisfaction in seeing and feeling that kind of development within an audience.

Rumpus: Earlier this summer, my dad took my thirteen- and sixteen-year-old sisters to see Joan Baez.

Harrington: Oh my god.

Rumpus: He listened to that music growing up, and then he got to share it with them!

Harrington: You know, Joan Baez came to one of our concerts last summer.My wife, to whom I’ve been married for 39 years, grew up listening to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. So she gave me a Dylan album to listen to one night, and I gave her an Alban Berg album to listen to. And somehow we’ve stayed together!

Rumpus: One thing I’d like to talk about is the diversity of your collaborators over the years. Dave Matthews and Nine Inch Nails, for example, and the composers you’ve worked with, such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. What do you think it is about the music you make that allows for such flexibility?

Harrington: That’s an interesting question, and I hope my response will be as interesting as the question. First of all, I think that two violins and a viola and a cello is an amazing sound. People are attracted to this sound more and more. There’s something to it. There’s something human in this sound that we work with. I’ve felt that since I first heard string quartet music when I was ten, or eleven, I think. I feel like more people are noticing that,  as well as more musicians from various parts of the spectrum of music. I find it interesting that no two composers sound the same when they write string quartet music. Górecki sounds like Górecki. Philip Glass sounds like Philip Glass. Terry Riley —

Rumpus: Sounds like Terry Riley!

Harrington: They sound like themselves. Most people who write string quartet music end up saying it’s the most intimate form, and the most challenging form. And I feel that probably the reason it is challenging is because it’s so basic, you know? Also because of its history. What Haydn started in 1750 is astonishing, really. Think about the foundation that the string quartet got from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert. They all lived in the same city. What a foundation!

What I have wanted to do with my life is to expand that foundation and bring more interesting voices, interesting perspectives, interesting personalities into this world. Every morning I say my little thank you to Haydn, Joseph Haydn, for starting this form. I think it’s a magnificent creation.

Rumpus: So what about the future? Where is Kronos headed next?

Harrington: This is a great day for me to be thinking about that. The piece that we are working on right now at Theater Artaud is the largest piece we have ever put together in terms of its scope. But to answer your question, usually where we are headed, is all directions at the same time.

I kind of suspect that’s what it’s going to be like. There are a lot of people writing for us right now, from Damon Albarn to Górecki to Terry Riley to Steve Reich to Philip Glass to a lot of people you haven’t heard of yet. I find it a very exciting time to be alive, to be a musician, and to be a member of Kronos.

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The Kronos Quartet has an excellent website with an abundance of information: performance dates, other collaborators, press and other projects. Check it out.


Nina Moog is a writer and director of photography based in Germany. She holds an MA from the University of St. Andrews and an MSc from the University of Oxford, where her thesis focused on photographic representations of prisons. More from this author →