Arts and Entertainment

2011 Polar Music prize winners Kronos Quartet to showcase reimagined contemporary classical

By Charlotte Hough ’14

What is great music, and does it even exist yet? These are questions that pull at David Harrington, violinist and founder of the Kronos Quartet.

This Saturday, Hamilton students, faculty and community members will have the chance to see the Kronos perform in Wellin Hall. The San Francisco-based quartet has been a champion of the new music scene for 40 years now, collaborating with contemporary composers and musicians from all over the world.

Kronos will present a unique program —(“We don’t repeat programs,” says Harrington)—featuring works by Bryce Dessner, more popularly known as the guitarist for the indie rock band The National; Canadian composer Nicole Lizée; Philip Glass; the English mastermind behind the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack, Clint Mansell; American composer and performance artist Laurie Anderson and Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov. The Spectator spoke to Harrington about the upcoming concert, the commissioning process and plans for exciting new projects.

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about—and I’m quoting the biography from your website—your “commitment to continually re-imagining the string quartet experience.” What exactly does that mean to you?

When I was growing up in Seattle, I would go to quartet concerts. What I began to notice was most of the time… the range of music was really limited. It was generally European, always written by guys... When I started Kronos, I had a much different idea. It would be fantastic, if possible, to discover all sorts of music that could be played by two violins, a viola and a cello. And to bring more of the world into the experience that I grew up with. 

I’ve always just wanted the sound that Kronos makes to reflect the world that we all share and the diversity of experiences that people have. I think what we mean by “reimagining what the experience of the string quartet might be” is to not be controlled by the past or to only think that the greatest music has already been written, and therefore that there’s no point in really thinking much further. I don’t think the best pieces have been written, even by Beethoven or even by Bach. I have proof of it because there are so many pieces that have been written for us that are just wonderful music.

In what ways do you think the program you’ll be playing this Saturday reflects this diversity of experiences from across the world?

Well I mean we have music from Serbia, from Canada, from various composers living here in the United States. We’re bringing in sounds of vintage electronic instruments. In Aleksandra Vrebalov’s piece there’s a Balkan drum that we play and there’s a traditional Serbian one-stringed instrument played by poets in the last two millennia. So, we’re bringing in a lot of different instrumental sounds.

I believe that there are issues that are brought up by music that we play. For example, [Vrebalov’s] “Hold Me Neighbor in this Storm” really makes the listener consider what it might be like to be a Serbian person. I was hoping that Aleksandra would write something for us that would give our audience a sense of what has been happening in her homeland. We can learn new things, and I think that her piece does that.

Could you talk about the process of commissioning a piece? How do you connect with new collaborators?

What I do is listen to a lot of music that I’ve never heard before. Every day I’m constantly listening to new things. Every once and awhile—if you do that long enough—you find something that is so beautiful and wonderful and special. If you’re a collector of musical experiences like I am, you’ll find things that you have to add to your collection.

We were just in Bogotá, Colombia. I could not believe the vitality of the music that I’d been hearing from Bogotá and around Colombia. It’s like it’s a whole world that I had no idea about, so one of the things I’m doing right now is studying Colombian music. I’ve got about 20 recordings with me and I’m checking out all kinds of things. I’m sure there will be a whole area of our future work that explores the world of Colombian music.

Your quartet has played 20th-century and contemporary classical composers, but has also collaborated with rock and jazz artists. What draws you in so many different directions? Or is there some sort of running thread through all the different styles of music that you play?

I find music to be very mysterious.  I don’t know what it is for sure that pulls me to a piece of music or a certain instrument. I just know when it happens. When I hear something that I just can’t get out of my mind, that’s when I know Kronos has to do it. When it just becomes this obsession…If you allow that to happen to yourself as a listener, it’s a pretty fabulous experience. I always just trust that.

What do you think is the most exciting thing going on in chamber music today?

That’s a really great question and I’m not sure I have the answer. I listen to a lot of things, and one of the musicians that I was checking out earlier today is Colin Stetson. He plays various saxophones. He has this incredible recording where he does this circular breathing so he can play a piece that is a half an hour long without taking a breath. He plays this bass saxophone—huge—and it sounds like there are about four or five people playing at the same time. Anyway, I get to meet him when we play in Michigan. I’m hoping that there’s going to be a great new piece that Colin can write for himself and Kronos. If that happens, it’s going to be a major development in our music.

Do you have any specific advice for young musicians who hope to become professionals?

I don’t usually give advice because I don’t take it very well myself. The one thing that every musician needs is a contact with the internal sound, which to me is the motivating factor in a musician. The important thing is to turn your ears around and listen to that the sound that’s going on inside and trust that sound…A lot of times we think “you need to learn how to play louder, higher, faster, more in tune”—yes, we need to learn these things, but we also need to know more about what’s going on inside of ourselves, and why we want to be a part of music.


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