It's virtually impossible to summarzie the work of the Kronos Quartet into a single paragraph -- but we're gonna try anyways.
Formed in 1973 by violinist David Harrington, the Kronos Quartet has gone on to become one of the most widely-recognized classical groups on the planet, winning a Grammy in 2004 for the Alban Berg album Lyric Suite, working with everyone from Philip Glass to Terry Riley to Steve Reich on specific pieces while also having works written specifically for the Quartet to perform. They've even gained extensive clout in the indie-rock community as well, having worked on the soundtracks to films like Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, covering Nine Inch Nails one second while contributing the title track to the double-disc Red Hot Dark Was the Night compilation the next. This group has yet to meet a challenge they haven't conquered, and it's for this very reason that the Kronos Quartet remain peerless in the avant-classical realm.
Speaking with Evcat, David Harrington was more than happy to talk about the group's latest disc Floodplain (a transglobal album that tackles songs both forgotten and new -- some even written specifically for this release), their encounters with musical fences, meeting puppeteers in Bali, and learning how to craft the perfect Blind Willy Johnson cover. This interview was so extensive, we've had to divide it into two parts [you can read Part II right here]. So, without further ado, the inimitable Kronos Quartet ...
So how are you doing?
Oh I’m fine.
Just about ready to go on tour, I hear.
Yeah we are leaving on Friday for Europe.
Oh yeah: looking forward to it. Got a lot of cool stuff to play.
Understandably! Which actually leads me to my first question: this year has been extraordinary for you guys, ranging from contributing the title track to the Red Hot Dark Was the Night compilation to releasing your own full-length disc Floodplain. Given that you guys have essentially released an album a year like clockwork since 1985, do you ever see yourself slowing down at all and giving yourself a breather?
You know, breaks are not on the calendar here. [Laughs.] It’s not something I’m really that interested in. I mean, for me, my battery gets charged by music and by hearing wonderful new pieces and composers and instruments -- that’s what I need to do: just keep charged.
When you go on tours like that, do you often go out to try and listen to the music of the places you’re visiting as well or is it usually performing strictly Kronos-type material?
Well, most often we’re pretty involved in the getting to and from our shows and sound checks and things, but generally what’s happened in the last 36 years is that I have meetings with musicians from wherever we are and people hand me a lot of recordings and scores and stuff: it’s one way I’m able to stay in touch with what’s happening in different places. We just got back from Bali a couple weeks ago. We had a week there -- and that’s kind of unusual for us to stay in a location that long -- and it was fantastic, ‘cos not only did we get to hear some amazing music, but we also got to meet the Master Puppeteer from Bali, and he gave us a private performance. He’s retired now, but he sort of came out of retirement …
But an actual puppeteer is what you’re saying?
Yeah. His name is Mister Sitia and he’s generally acknowledged as the greatest of the Balanese puppeteers and he’s in his late 70s right now. His eyesight is kind of going and his body has been worked hard for many, many years. He did a dance performance with us -- his son and grandkids did the music. It was kind of like seeing Shakespeare in Hamlet or Beethoven doing one of his last sonatas. On the order of artistic experiences that I’ve never had but have wanted to have: that was one of the high points of anything I could possibly imagine. That just doesn’t happen that often.
Let’s just jump real quick to Floodplain. I get this sense that you’re always pushing the Quartet into new sounds and new directions, whether it be getting sampled by Faith No More on their Angel Dust album to performing with Nelly Furtado to Nine Inch Nails to Mogwai, all while still working with the likes of Terry Riley on top of that. In listening to the new album, one of the songs that immediately jumped out was “Tashweesh”, a collaboration you did with the electronic group Ramallah Underground. What was the germination for this particular piece?
Well I first heard Ramallah Underground on MySpace. It would’ve been two and a half years ago since I first heard them. I was just kind of looking around on MySpace for some wonderful music. I don’t even know how I found them, but for me I was just hearing a sound and an approach that was distinctive; I’ve never heard anything quite like that, and I really, really like their music. So I got in touch with them. I sent them a bunch of our recordings and they sent me a whole bunch of theirs; so we kind of began to exchange ideas. I mentioned this album idea that I had at that point, and asked them if they would like to write something for it. Basically, they wrote a whole lot of music and asked us to choose something, and what I chose was “Tashweesh”.
So that was a piece they had already done?
No -- they wrote it especially for us and for the album. They wrote three or four pieces for the album, and we chose that one.
One of the more striking moments on the new album I found was “Ya Habibi Ta’ala” which I liked because it sounded both traditional and modern at the same time. It was very strictly tied in with its traditional Eastern roots but was also immediately accessible as well. Do you ever yourself trying to “contemporize” any of these pieces in order to more immediately grab the ears of Western listeners who may not otherwise get a chance to hear these sounds?
Well that’s not something that comes into my thinking, really. For me it’s just finding something that magnetizes me and wanting to find a way to bring into our orbit or our world. So “Ya Habibi Ta’ala” -- I heard that on a recording of this very young great singer from Egypt from the 1940s. Azmahan was her name and she died tragically during the Second World War. She appeared in a few movies. This song just really attracted me and I thought “Wow, we’ve got to play this!” [Laughs.] So that’s pretty much what it was, and then I talked to my friend Osvaldo Golijov and played it for him and he made a version for us and then we kind of worked upon that, and “reorchestrated” or “retranslated” his version or whatever you might want to call it, and that became what you hear on the recording.
Floodplain travels a lot of distance in a short amount of time, ranging from the brutal piece “…hold me, neighbor, in this storm…” [by Aleksandra Vrebalov] to some more spritely numbers, but its ambition and immense worldview are never in question. Ultimately, what do you want a listener to take out of Floodplain after listening to it straight through?
You know, first of all the title of the album, I was trying to explain to my wife what I had in mind -- actually, almost exactly like what you’re asking. Like, what is it that we’re trying to communicate? I was mentioning that for me, the world of music right now is almost like this amazing river which is kind of overflowing with riches and with music. So the banks of the river are flooding. And then she said “Well the album has to be called Floodplain.” [Laughs.] The idea that the traditional classification and little areas of the world of music are not connected -- for me that idea doesn’t work anymore. I feel connected to so many musicians and so many sounds and so many instruments and voices and I would like to share those connections with our audience. Just the vitality of being a part of the world of music right now is -- for me -- totally thrilling and very inspiring. I think that that is at the base of what I would like to try to communicate.
Visit the Kronos Quartet's official website.
Photo by Jay Blakesberg