Sonatas from the Soviet Era at SubCulture
A Celebration of the Composer with the American Composers Orchestra

Coffee Conversation: Kronos Quartet's David Harrington

David Harrington, Big Ears FestivalFor anyone who cares at all about the living art of music, there is no more vital institution than the Kronos Quartet. Since their founding 41 years ago, this indefatigable quartet has commissioned more than 850 works and has performed more than 8,000 concerts around the globe. 

Kronos is in NYC this week for a pair of shows, including Mary Koyoumdjian's Silent Cranes at Roulette tomorrow (5/12) - part of their Under 30 project - and a collaboration with the students of Face the Music - including a world premiere triple quartet by Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen - at the Queens New Music Festival on Wednesday (5/13).

Somewhere in between the Kronos Quartet's seven performances at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville back in March, I had the chance to grab founder and artistic director David Harrington to talk a bit about Kronos' legacy, as well as some of the exciting things on the horizon. Chief among these is their ambitious Fifty for the Future project for Carnegie Hall, in which they will commission no fewer than fifty new works over the next five seasons. Excerpts from our conversation below.

David Harrington, John Sherba

On Discovering String Quartets: When I was 12 years old, I bought the Budapest String Quartet's recording of Beethoven's "Harp" quartet from 1961. That E-flat major chord at the beginning is what started me on string quartets. I played it over and over, and I just said to myself: "I've got that chord in my heart. I can draw on it anytime, day or night. Anything Kronos has done - or I did before then - is like a set of variations (on that chord). 

On Starting Kronos: Sometimes, you don't realize it right away, but it's happened to me a few times in my life where I've heard something and then all of a sudden, things are different after that. It happened when I heard "Black Angels" in 1973. A week later, I started Kronos.

On Discovery: If I get magnetized by something, it isn't a decision. It's almost involuntary. When I heard Wu Man for the first time, I could just not believe the vividness of the playing. When I heard Terry Riley's In C, it was like hearing The Rite of Spring for the first time. And then, after we started to play his music and work with him, the way we thought about music began to change. It took us a long time to unlearn everything we'd been taught.

The ideas come from everywhere. I get ideas from reading the Science Times, from interviews. I check out a lot of stuff. Have you heard the Weddell Seals from Antarctica? It's one of the greatest sounds I've ever heard in my life! We've already used a recording in a piece that we performed last year. You hear certain things, and it turns the page. I just try to be ready and open.

On Collaboration
: I love tUnE-yArDs! I'm so tired right now, I don't think I'm going to be able to hear her perform tonight, but I've already talked to Merrill and there will definitely be something we're going to do together. There just has to be. She just has a certain spirit that's so beautiful. (Ed.: Merrill could be heard warming up in an adjacent dressing room as we spoke.

Earlier, after we performed Mahalia Jackson's "God Shall Wipe All Tears Away" with Rhiannon (Giddens), I said to her: Do you want to do a Mahalia album with Kronos? And she said: "Yes please!" I mean, I'm not announcing anything, but I'm pretty damned sure it's going to happen. 

On Fifty for the Future: I'm trying to get the most wonderfully creative, generous people to make their best possible pieces for us. We're going to record them, we're going to record rehearsals with the composers, we're going to publish the music, get the parts and scores absolutely perfectly ready to go. And then, you'll be able to push a button, and any group in the world can play that music and have access to the composer: her voice, his voice, the rehearsal process. So, 100 years from now, you'll be able to get accurate information about how this music was created. 

There's a lot of young people who want to play the music that we play, but they can't get the music. You have to go to this publisher, that publisher. We're not a publisher, so it's even illegal for us to copy music that's been published and send it to somebody. So, we said: okay, we need to find a way around this problem. So, the idea is: after five years, there will be 50 pieces - half by men, half by women - and, we're going to track how this music gets disseminated by groups all over the world.

kronos quartet

On Legacy
: I've been doing this for 41 years. More than 350 of our pieces have been performed by other groups. I'm incredibly proud of that, that other people want to play music that's been written for us. There have been these amazing moments that I've been fortunate enough to encounter. Let's try to make some of them for people in the future. Let's consciously try to hit some home runs here.

A lot of people think Beethoven is the greatest composer. I don't think the greatest piece that's ever been written exists. It can be written. So, I challenge each one of our composers to come up with that E-flat major chord that spoke to me as a 12 year old, that had so much power and honesty that I had to try to make that sound.