Kronos Quartet is one of the premier avant-garde string ensembles in the United States. They have worked with a huge range of modern composers, poets, and multi-media artists, and have played such prestigious venues as Carnegie Hall and the Vienna Opera House. They performed at UCI in May of 1995, and KUCI's Philharmonic Infierno scored an interview.
KUCI: Kronos has been together for twenty-two years; how did it come about? What brought Kronos together and got them established?
DAVID HARRINGTON: Well, in 1973 I was living in Seattle, and I had grown up playing quartet music. When I was in high school that was the major passion of my life at that point, and began to get to know some of the major recent composers, and then when I was about sixteen a composer in Seattle named Ken Benchoff, whose music we're going to play tonight, by the way, wrote a piece for the group I was in, and that was my first involvement with the newest music, and music that was written especially for me. It was a fantastic feeling, and something that I'll never forget, and as time went on and I played more music and had more experiences, it became clear that that's what I wanted to do, forever. And then in 1973, during the summertime late one night, I heard this music called "Black Angels" by George Crumb. It was a startling, scary experience to hear that music, and it was a kind of experience that maybe you have once in a lifetime where all of a sudden I knew -exactly- what I was going to do, and what I wanted to do was play that music.
KUCI: George Crumb?
DH: Yeah. We recorded it in 1989, it came out in 1990. That's really what got me started and gave me the propulsion and the energy to form Kronos, was hearing that piece, live on the radio, late one night.
KUCI: So has Kronos always had the same lineup? The oldest recordings I have of Kronos don't go all the way back to the beginning.
DH: Well, we didn't really start recording until the mid-80's, really. Our first recording on Nonesuch came out in '85 and it wasn't until 1990 that we released Black Angels. Sometimes it just takes a long time to find out how you really want to present something, and for me, that piece was so much a part of the early reasons for wanting to have Kronos, you know, as as way of life, that I wanted to be sure that we did it exactly the way we all wanted it, and that just took about seventeen years.
KUCI: What is it that draws you to the pieces that you as a group decide to perform?
DH: I would say that people find their music in many different ways. The way I find music is by, chance sometimes--just a few minutes ago, for example, a composer I've never heard of dropped a tape and CD and scores off at the hotel here, and you know, later--sometime soon, maybe--I'll get a chance to hear that, and who knows, it might be something that will be just the kind of experience that I'm going to want to explore and share with everybody.
KUCI: Has Kronos been commissioning works, or have other people been commissioning works specifically for Kronos?
DH: Yeah, it's happened both ways. Most of the music we play now has been written in the last few, the last few months even sometimes. Occasionally we'll go back to some earlier things, but at the moment there are about forty people, men and women all over the world, writing new pieces for us. It's a very exciting and challenging time to be a musician or to be someone interested in music, because you never know where your ear might be taken. For me, at least, that's just a fantastic feeling to jump out of bed in the morning and think, God, the world could totally change today, you know, depending on what you hear.
KUCI: So if something grabs you, then you really pursue it? Because something I've noticed is that some of the works that you do were not originally written for string quartet.
DH: Well, that's true.
KUCI: Do you do the arrangements yourself? A piece grabs you to the point where you're willing to put that much into it?
DH: There's a couple of pieces over the years that we have done the arrangements of. If you hear the Black Angels album, the piece that comes directly after that piece was written in the 16th century by a guy named Thomas Tallis, and it's a forty part motet, and we arranged those forty parts for ourselves. But normally, we would use the most wonderful composers that we know, and we ask them if they would be interested in arranging or re-imagining some of the things that we are excited by that maybe haven't been written for quartet before.
KUCI: Like, tonight I see that you're going to be playing Harry Partch's Barstow--is that right?
DH: Well, that's been changed a little bit. We're going to do a Harry Partch piece called Two Greek Studies.
KUCI: I was curious about that because I know Barstow was written for microtonal marimbas, and exotic instruments like that.
DH: Yeah, well, there's four different versions of Barstow. Harry Partch was one of those rare people that I think is just one of the most amazing musicians that I'm aware of, and he never wrote--well, he did write a quartet piece, but he later burned it. My belief is that if Harry Partch would have known Kronos and Kronos had known Harry Partch that we would have been working together, even though he professed to hate the string quartet. So there's a certain amount of attitude that we're taking here in presenting his music. To me his qualities, and his just radical view of music, is not dissimilar to that of Jimi Hendrix, or other people that we've felt drawn to over the years.
KUCI: The music you play has a broad appeal, but what you're really known for is the avant garde--music you could never whistle in the shower. I think of John Zorn's piece on Winter Was Hard. People will listen to that and think it's too abrupt, harsh, that it's hyperstacatto. What is it that grabs you in a piece like that that makes it a vital, viable piece--something you'd be interesting in doing?
DH: Well, I think that the music of John Zorn that he's written for us--the piece you're talking about is called Forbidden Fruit--since then he's written three other quartets for us, and he's working on two more, right at the moment. His work, in my opinion, is very challenging to the way we perceive life, and a lot of times some of the most interesting music does challenge and make you re-hear or re-examine the world. And I would say that that's how Zorn's work is for me. And being in the studio with him when we recorded that piece was really interesting. The piece was done block-by-block, so you might hear ten seconds of total mayhem and freakout, and then right next to that would be something that's physically impossible to do in real-time, but which was done, well--we recorded the next block sequentially, so there was really no editing that was done at all. It was done in real time but the blocks were assembled one after the other. Not spliced together, but played one at a time.
KUCI: So it's the transitions that are the impossible part.
DH: Yeah, they're physically impossible to do sometimes. We were so excited by that music and the resultant quality of that that we asked John Zorn to write another piece, and what he wrote after that is called the Cat O' Nine Tails, or Tex Avery directs the Marquis de Sade. So that was Zorn's first piece that we could actually play live. There's a lot of abrupt changes in that, too, but it's not quite as extreme in that arena as Forbidden Fruit, I would say. But in Cat O' Nine Tails, he is using some of the elements that have been very important to him... that element of abstracting of cartoon music, and even some of the brutality and violence of some of the imagery in that music. I think Cat O' Nine Tails is just an incredible recent piece.
KUCI: And Kronos is unique in that you really do play a lot in the traditional classical venues where some people like John Zorn might not get to... they don't touch venues like that...
DH: Yeah, I think you're right--I bet Zorn hasn't played Carnegie Hall or La Scala, or some of the places we have played his music. But that's OK. La Scala didn't fall down and Carnegie didn't crumble... we tried!
KUCI: In some way, you're taking music that doesn't really get too much performance anyplace else, and you're bringing it to the fine arts audience. Is that part of what you see as what Kronos does?
DH: Well, there was one tour last summer that was pretty amazing. One night we were playing at the North Sea Jazz Festival, which, I don't know if you've ever seen the lineup over there, but normally there's about 150 different groups and artists, and sometimes there's eight or ten concerts going on at the same time--it's just this factory of concerts. The next night we played in an outdoor rock and roll festival in Denmark, and everyone was completely stoned and drunk, peeing all over the place, and it was really wild. The night after that we played in the Vienna Opera House. And you, know--I like that. I like the fact that our music can exist in a lot of different places. For me, that's not only fun. but it's also challenging, and I like to hear our work in different settings.
KUCI: So you mentioned a few of the works in progress, is anything forthcoming that you'd like to mention?
DH: Well, you know it'd take me an hour to talk about all the things that we're going to do soon, but I'm very interested in the next piece that Terry Riley is going to do, for example. We were talking about John Zorn's new pieces--he's at a really deep point in his work right now, I feel. And Steve Reich is going to write a new piece, and Henryk Gorecki is finishing up his third quartet. And Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, she's from Azerbaijan, in fact, we're playing one of her pieces tonight, and she's doing a new piece. Diamanda Galas is going to write for us...
KUCI: She's going to write something for string quartet, or she's going to accompany...
DH: It's going to be a quintet. Diamanda and Kronos. So, you know, there's a lot of things to look forward to and to celebrate right now, and who knows which one of them will be next.
KUCI: Where are you headed from here?
DH: We're playing on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at UCLA, and then next week we're on to Pennsylvania, Chicago, and then Quebec. And then I'm going off to Boston and New York for some... well, one of the things we're going to do, with Allen Ginsberg, we're going to record Howl.
KUCI: The entire poem?
DH: Yeah. He's laying down his part in a couple of weeks, and then we're going to lay down our parts over the summertime, so I want to be there when he does his, and get that all together.
Philharmonic Infierno is hosted by Dan Young every Sunday at noon on KUCI, 88.9 FM