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Kronos’ David Harrington: ‘There Is No Such Thing As Easy Music’

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From left, the Kronos Quartet is Sunny Yang (cello), Hank Dutt (viola), David Harrington (violin and founding artistic director), and John Sherba (violin). Image: Jay Blakesberg
From left, the Kronos Quartet is Sunny Yang (cello), Hank Dutt (viola), David Harrington (violin and founding artistic director), and John Sherba (violin). Image: Jay Blakesberg

Kronos: Commissioning 900 Pieces So Far

When we spoke with Kronos Quartet founder and violinist David Harrington last year about the group’s Fifty for the Future project, the effort was just getting off the ground. Focused on creating new repertoire for the training of instrumental artists, both students and professionals, the program now has named a second year of composers to produce new work. They include the iconic Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass and newcomers (to many of us) Aleksander Kościów of Poland and Canada’s Nicole Lizée.

There’s a Zankel Hall concert performance at Carnegie on April 15 of pieces generated from the first year’s group including work of Fodé Lassana Diabaté, Garth Knox, and Wu Man. The Argus, Friction, and Ligeti quartets will play the program, “Creating a New Repertoire.”

“There’s no such thing as ‘easy music.’ Trying to make a beautiful note that contains everything you know about life and everything you’ve experienced is tremendously challenging.”
David Harrington, Kronos Quartet

And while no one is sorry to see so much new music being created at such a rapid clip by a program only in its second year, you do wonder why the Kronos — easily the leading contemporary-classical ensemble of its kind for more than 40 years — would throw itself into such a complex endeavor: 10 new works per year for five years.

Music for Writers readers following the publishing industry’s problems with gender imbalance in a business heavily dominated by women might appreciate the Kronos plan’s designation of 25 male and 25 female composers.

Even so, what drives a famous quartet like Kronos, which doesn’t have to prove a thing, to commission so much new music as 50 new works in five years? It turns out that the answer, in part, has something to do with another thing authors know well — the issue of having their work readily available. Early on, you’ll find out, as I did, that much of Kronos’ commissioned work to date isn’t available in music libraries.

That’s where we started in our exchange with Harrington, always gracious, articulate — and between planes somewhere.

‘There Aren’t Enough Musicians In The World’

Thought Catalog: The Fifty for the Future program is both a terrific idea and really ambitious. How did this concept come about, and what led to the training element, in which the works are graded for difficulty? — does the Kronos ensemble hope to create a new crop of ensembles, or is this work largely aimed at the teaching institutes?

David Harrington
David Harrington

David Harrington: Fifty for the Future is the result of experiences that Kronos has had trying to ensure that our music is available for other ensembles to play. Additionally, we’re noticing that in our society, in places where musicians can find access to new experiences, new music, new relationships, it’s frequently difficult to get information. For example, music libraries: of the 900 pieces that have been commissioned by Kronos so far, most of them are not in any music library anywhere.

When I was 12 years old, I could go down to the Seattle Public Library and check out string quartet music. Frequently, that’s not possible anymore. Access to information is difficult, and we’ve decided to try to solve that problem for young groups — junior high school, high school, college, young professional groups, maybe even old professional groups — anybody who is interested in expanding their work.

We’re interested in finding ways to get these materials to them, so here’s what we’ve decided to do: We’ve decided to commission 50 new pieces over five years — by 25 women and 25 men — and we’re trying to find the most wonderful music by the most wonderfully creative composers we can find, and we’re hoping they’re going to write their very best pieces. What we want to do is to make Kronos’ recordings of each of these pieces available on our Web site, we want the scores and parts to be notated and edited as perfectly possible, and we want as much background information as possible on each of the pieces and the composers.

For me, I’d say that there aren’t enough musicians in the world. There’s always room for more music and more musicians, and I hope that Fifty for the Future can act as a source of teaching information.

TC: And you’re going to rank the canon of 50 new works according to difficulty?

DH: Ultimately, after five years, we’re going to have all 50 of these pieces graded in the way Bartók’s Mikrokosmos are graded for piano. Of course, this is going to take some doing. We’re going to need to have all 50 pieces, and we’ll have worked with young quartets all over the world, so we’ll have a good sense of which pieces are the more difficult ones, which ones can be approached earlier on, and we’ll find a way of making them so musicians will be able to go through all 50 of these works.

The result should be an explosion of creativity in what a string quartet concert can be. I’m already noticing this, and we only have five of them available right now that we’ve recorded and premiered so far — the music of Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Garth Knox, Wu Man, Fodé Lassana Diabaté, and Aleksandra Vrebalov — and already our concerts feel like they’ve taken a step up in terms of vibrant creativity, and I’m very happy about this.

TC: Can you tell us a little about what you’ve just performed at the beginning of the month in your Carnegie concert?

DH: On April 2, we played the premiere of Vrebalov’s My Desert, My Rose, Yotam Haber’s break_break_break, one movement from Wu Man’s Four Chinese Paintings, and one movement from Fodé Lassana Diabaté’s Sunjata’s Time.

Wu Man. Image by Kuan Di
Wu Man. Image by Kuan Di

Wu Man is a musician whom Kronos has worked with for 25 years, since 1991.

What I’ve noticed is her expansive knowledge of Chinese music and culture, so when I was thinking about the people I know who could add something to Fifty for the Future, immediately, Wu Man came to mind. I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have something written for us by a great performer who could explore various aspects of the world of Chinese culture through music?”

In her piece, Four Chinese Paintings, two of the movements are influenced by the Western Chinese Uyghur music, one is influenced by music from her hometown, and one is inspired by very early Chinese music from the ninth century, so she has provided us with this beautiful mosaic of Chinese music.

Garth Knox. Image: Kronos Quartet
Garth Knox. Image: Kronos Quartet

Garth Knox, who wrote Satellites, was in a professional quartet, the Arditti Quartet, for many years, so he knows the inside and outside of string quartet music, and he’s become this incredibly interesting composer.

He has made a piece for us that explores all sorts of ways of making sound, ways of creating ensemble and rhythmic textures.

There’s nothing quite like Satellites that I know of in quartet music. It’s very challenging to execute, and tremendously thrilling when you’ve done a good job with it, so I can’t wait for young groups to take this piece on.

Alexandra Vrebalov
Alexandra Vrebalov

Aleksandra Vrebalov is a composer whom we’ve worked with for over 20 years, since 1995.

My Desert, My Rose is the 10th piece she’s written for us.

It is thrilling, it’s beautiful, it’s wild—it’s wonderful music.

TC: Has anything in the first year’s commissions proved particularly tricky or challenging to the Kronos? As accomplished as the quartet is, I imagine that it’s pretty hard to throw you guys too big a curve, but does one of these composers ever arrive with something you simply hadn’t seen coming at all?

DH: All of the pieces that have been written so far for Fifty for the Future have presented challenges to us that have increased our own ability and our own scope, and that’s one of the things that I want for this music. I want each of the composers to write a piece for Kronos, and then we’re going to try to make this music available to other people in the most vivid way we can.

Garth Knox’s piece will be challenging for anybody to play, there’s no question about it. Franghiz Ali-Zadeh’s piece has some parts that are really, really tough to do, and we’ll find out soon enough how tough they are for other people.  In Fodé Lassana Diabaté’s piece, there’s a solo for each member of the quartet, and each of those solos is really challenging. I heard a junior high and high school group play this music in Vancouver a couple weeks ago, and I was thrilled at how wonderful it sounded. These young players had never played music like this — they’d never played any music by anyone from the continent of Africa before. This was a new thing, and it sounded so good! But in order to get there, they had to work really hard.

Each of the pieces will present its own challenges. I’ve always said there’s no such thing as “easy music.” Trying to make a beautiful note that contains everything you know about life and everything you’ve experienced is tremendously challenging, because you need to focus your attention, you need to focus your body and your ability and your imagination to try to make something better than you’ve done before. And if you really take that to heart, there is no such thing as “easy music.”

Sometimes things that look really hard on the page might be the easiest thing to do, and vice versa, because nobody can tell just by looking whether it’s in tune, together, etc. Five years from now, when we’re in the process of organizing these 50 pieces into a graded approach to the work that Kronos does, there may be things that look really tough that might be in Volume One, and then there might be things that look like they should be really easy that might be Volume Five.

“When I started out as a teenager, there was no music by an Inuit throat singer for string quartet. It didn’t exist. There was no music by an African composer for string quartet. In fact, I didn’t even meet a female composer until I was in my mid-20s!”
David Harrington, Kronos Quartet

TC: In working with the Argus, Friction, and Ligeti quartets at the Weill Institute residency the Kronos is doing this month, what’s the basic format of the workshop?

DH: Every day during the weeklong workshop, each of the three participating quartets will have two or three coaching sessions, each of which involves one member of Kronos working with the full quartet, e.g., me and the Argus Quartet. Over the course of the week, each quartet will have approximately 16 coaching sessions — four sessions with each member of Kronos. The quartets will work with the members of Kronos to make sure that all of the repertoire is covered during the course of the workshop, and each member of Kronos will endeavor to coach each group on all of the planned repertoire.

The most recent release from the Kronos Quartet, a performance of music of Terry Riley, came out in June 2015. The ensemble has produced more than 50 albums so far.
The most recent release from the Kronos Quartet, a performance of music of Terry Riley, came out in June 2015. The ensemble has produced more than 50 albums so far.

TC: When I spoke with you last year about working with Tanya Tagaq, you mentioned how both she and the quartet were “getting a little closer to what the other can do. You learn new things. It’s like being a painter and discovering a new color or being a sculptor and discovering a new stone, a whole new area of inquiry.” That’s a wonderful conceptualization, and especially for artists who are as accomplished as Krono’ — is this part of the intent with the Fifty for the Future program, to bring new influences to bear on your own work along with creating a training repertoire for others?

DH: Yes, definitely. When I started out as a teenager, there was no music by an Inuit throat singer for string quartet. It didn’t exist. There was no music by an African composer for string quartet. In fact, I didn’t even meet a female composer until I was in my mid-20s!

The world has changed quite a lot, and what’s possible for musicians to be able to include in their concerts and include in their practicing is so interesting now. We want Fifty for the Future to celebrate the time that we get to live in and some of the possibilities, and hopefully, each one of these pieces will lead other players on journeys that only music can take them on. That’s the idea. If the first five pieces are any indication of what we’re going to end up with five years from now, I can say that this body of work will be one of the most interesting groupings of quartet music available.

“When it’s all together, it’s the collective, it’s Kronos…It takes so many people to accomplish anything that we’re not isolated human molecules who need to have our names splashed on the front page of the newspaper.”
David Harrington, Kronos Quartet

TC: Lastly, this is what might be called, the ego question: There’s an interesting aspect to the public-facing persona of a quartet or other standing ensemble, I’ve come to realize, in that the members of the group have to largely submerge their own individual needs for recognition and visibility (perfectly natural to all of us) to the greater needs of the ensemble. So many people might know the Kronos and love it but not know the names of the four artists of the group. Like doubles tennis rather than singles on the championship circuit. Is this an occasionally frustrating aspect of working even in so terrific an ensemble as Kronos? Or is there perhaps a special personality of musician who’s happier performing with the ensemble as the brand and without a need for much individual reclaim?

DH: There’s so much that’s needed to go into a musical experience, and so much that’s needed for an audience member to have a transforming experience. One of the things that’s really not necessary for that to happen is for that audience member to know my name, or John’s [Sherba, violin] name, or Hank’s [Dutt, viola] or Sunny’s [Yang, cello] name. When we’re on stage, we’re thinking of ourselves as a collective, and we’re relying on each other. I need the best performance possible from Sunny, Hank, and John in order for me to do my job, and they need the best performance possible from me. But when it’s all together, it’s the collective, it’s Kronos.

And when I think of Kronos, I also think of the Kronos Performing Arts Association, which is our umbrella organization in San Francisco. It’s a nonprofit organization that has been an essential part of the work of Kronos since the very beginning.

Basically, what this all adds up to is that it takes so many people to accomplish anything that we’re not isolated human molecules who need to have our names splashed on the front page of the newspaper. It’s much more important that the experience we’re trying to make feels complete and with a total energy and involvement from each one of us. Only then will it add up to something.

Then maybe people are going to want to know, “Okay, what are the names of these people? How did he or she end up getting into this kind of work?”

It will lead to questions, rather than the other way around.TC mark

Philip Glass works with the Kronos Quartet in a rehearsal for the Dracula performance at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Image: Kronos Flickr archive
Philip Glass works with the Kronos Quartet in a rehearsal for the 2015 Dracula performance at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Image: Kronos Flickr archive
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Poetry that will change you

This is for the women who are first to get naked, howl at the moon and jump into the sea. This is for the women who seek relentless joy; the ones who know how to laugh with their whole souls. The women who speak to strangers because they have no fear in their hearts. This is for the women who drink coffee at midnight and wine in the morning, and dare you to question it. This is for the women who throw down what they love, and don’t waste time following society’s pressures to exist behind a white picket fence. The women who create wildly, unbalanced, ferociously and in a blur at times. This — is for you.

“When Janne has a new poem written, I shut my life down to do nothing but read it, and then when I turn my life back on, everything is better.” — James Altucher

You’ve never read poetry like this before

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