Artist Interview: Kronos Quartet’s David Harrington
Photo: Kronos Quartet, with David Harrington on left. Photo by Jay Blakesberg.
The Kronos Quartet performs two different programs in Ann Arbor on January 17-18 2014, as part of a special week of “renegade” performances also featuring saxophonist Colin Stetson.
We called up Kronos Quartet founder and violinist David Harrington to chat about his take on renegade music, how George Crumb’s epic Black Angels (which will be performed in Ann Arbor) inspired him to found the Quartet, and his take on artists who re-define instruments as Colin Stetson does.
UMS: Your performances in January are a part of a series of renegade performances this season, as part of which we’re presenting many different artists who break the rules in their own time. How do you feel about that term “renegade”?
David Harrington: Well I like it! Suits me just fine! I’ve always thought of the string quartet as offering composers, performers, and audiences a sonic glimpse into the inner world that we all participate in, and when someone does that, when they listen to their own voice, their inner voice, dramatic things happen because it’s not necessarily the voice that the society listens to and that conventional rules conform to. And so I think that the term renegade fits our music perfectly.
UMS: Is there anything about your history that strikes you as particularly “renegade”?
Since I was a little kid I felt that the art form as a whole needed a little kick in the butt. When I was growing up and I’d go to string quartet concerts—I always sat in the front row, by the way, it’s a great place to sit—
UMS: Why do you say that?
DH: Because you can see the action, you can hear the stringiness of the sound, you can see the rosin fly, and that tactility, that horse hair meets the string, the flesh meets the wood…I love that aspect of what we do. And when I go to a concert I like to be sure I can feel as much of that as possible.
But when I was growing up and going to string quartet concerts, I was always the youngest one at the show. Always. And usually concerts started with Haydn or Mozart and then usually there’d be an intermission and then Beethoven. That’s what the art form was to the general public at that point.
The Vietnam War was raging as well, and so how does one find a voice that feels real? And in August of 1973, on the radio one night, I heard Black Angels by George Crumb. And for a moment the world made sense. And I didn’t have really any choice but I had to start a group in order to play that piece.
UMS: We actually had the chance to speak with George Crumb about Black Angels and how that piece came together.
DH: Well, it was premiered at the University of Michigan.
UMS: Yes, it was! And he actually talked a bit about the way Kronos Quartet performs Black Angels, with theatricality.
I can’t imagine what it would have been like for the Stanley Quartet to get the manuscript of that piece. I wish I could have been in the room and seen their faces when they saw that.
UMS: Funnily enough, George also spoke a bit a bit how he was actually a conductor for this piece.
DH: Yes I know! He conducted the premiere.
UMS: How did you decide to approach it the way that you do?
Well first of all, I thought about the effect that the piece had on me personally. It changed my whole life. And so for me, every time we’ve ever played it I’ve been aware of its power. And I’ve hoped, all of us in Kronos have hoped to transmit that kind of visceral potentially life-altering experience.
We’ve probably played it close to 200 times, in all kinds of settings from concert halls, churches, basketball arenas, opera houses. It’s been in a lot of places.
And it took sixteen years for Kronos to record Black Angels. So we did not record it until 1989. And I’ll tell you the reason. I felt the group needed to learn more about the recording studio and how to make the sound kind of jump off the record or the CD right into the imagination of the listener.
But even more importantly, I knew that our performance of Black Angels had to be the first track on a recording. So there’s no way you could avoid it. I was hoping that listeners would basically have to confront that piece right from the very first note that they heard. It took 16 years for me to figure out what would be the second track on the album.
UMS: And how did the theatrical aspect of the live performance come to be?
When I was growing up in the early 70s, people like Pierre Boulez were saying that the string quartet was dead. Well in August of 1973 when I heard Black Angels, I knew that he was wrong. That one piece has so much power and so much presence and it requires something not only of the players, but the listeners.
Every performance that we do of Black Angels is slightly different. We’re constantly refining the way we perform the piece, and the very first time we played it is so different from the way that we do it now that you would not even recognize it. I mean, you would recognize the music of it, but you would not recognize the visual aspect of it.
And the other thing I should say about the recording is that in the recording studio you are able to have a lot of control. We followed the timings that George Crumb wrote in the score as perfectly as we possibly could and what we noticed is that Black Angels is actually a short piece. It’s very compact. It’s also not a loud piece. It has loud moments but in general it’s a very reflective piece, with these outbursts. It just so happens that it starts with an outburst.
And so that recording influenced what we wanted to do in public performance. So we didn’t set out to create a theater piece. The piece itself is theater and we just tried to make the music come alive in the best way that we could.
UMS: Colin Stetson is performing along with you as part of a week of renegade performances at UMS. Do you know his work? What do you think of his work? What makes his work stand out for you if it does?
Well, first of all, I do know Colin Stetson’s work. I’m a huge fan. It’s not often that you encounter someone who has basically redefined an instrument. And those are the people that I like to work with. And whether it’s Astor Piazzola, or it’s Tanya Tagak, the great Inuit throat singer, or Wu Man, the great Chinese pipa virtuoso, these are people who have redefined their instrument or their approach to music. I believe that Colin Stetson belongs in the same sentence. When we were on tour in New York City, I went to hear him live, and it was an amazing experience.