INTERVIEW: The Kronos Quartet [Part II]

On Part I of our amazing discussion with Kronos Quartet founder/violinist David Harrington, we discussed a lot of what went into making Floodplain, their latest, transglobal masterpiece. In Part II, Harrington discusses the unusual challenges in covering Blind Willy Johnson (and the group's incredible solution), what the Kronos Quartet's "definitive" lineup was, and reflecting on his own personal accomplishments in his three decade plus career ...


I think some of that is leant to the fact that being in the web/digital era, so many artists now have an avenue of exposure that they would never, ever have had before. I was listening to this Honest Jon’s compilation awhile back that featured music taken directly out of Baghdad in the 1920’s …

I’ve heard that record.

Yeah, and I was completely overwhelmed by the sadness contained in those songs. The only thing I found more fascinating is that about ten years ago, an album like this would have never had a chance even in a niche marketplace, but now we’re in an age where a physical and digital release is easily, easily doable and it has the chance to reach listeners in ways that no one would have previously thought possible.

Right! And that’s what albums can do now: they can celebrate these possibilities. The idea for Floodplain germinated right around the time of the invasion of Iraq by the Bush Administration. Basically, I decided early -- probably in March of 2003 -- that I was going to try to learn more about Iraqi music. Later as the “Axis of Evil” got defined (and that would include Iranian music), pretty soon this lead to the realization that there’s entire worlds of music that I had no idea about. A lot of our albums have something to do with sharing discoveries -- in fact, most of them do. [Laughs.] So for me, this process involved a lot of listening and the thrill of finding something that you really love that you hadn’t heard before that you wanted to play. That’s a part of this album.

With your Dark Was the Night compilation and your Blind Willy Johnson cover -- plain and simply: why Blind Willy Johnson?

Well here’s how that happened: I was on the phone with Bryce Dessner and we were talking over a couple concerts that we were going to be playing at his festival in Cincinnati (MusicNow). We were talking over things, and then he said “You know, we’re right at the final stages of this Red Hot compilation -- you wouldn’t happen to have anything that you’ve never recorded that you’d really like to record?” I said “Oh yeah, definitely.” He said “What is it?” I said “’Dark Was the Night’ by Blind Willy Johnson.” There was this kind of silence over the phone. [Laughs.] A few seconds later he said “I can’t believe it. We’ve been talking about having that song on the album and this would be perfect.” Well our sound engineer Scott Fraser had this idea for me -- and we’ve played the piece on and off for a few years -- and in concert it just didn’t quite come off as vividly as we wanted, mainly ‘cos of my part. It had to do with the sound coming from a bottleneck violin. Scott suggested I put guitar strings on my violin.

That’s what gives it that sound.

Yeah, that’s how that sound came about. A suggestion from Scott Fraser, who co-produced Floodplain and You’ve Stolen My Heart. He’s one of our sound engineers for concerts as well; we go way back with Scott. He’s really an amazing musician. When Scott had mentioned that, I knew that that was the solution, so I really wanted to record the piece that way. We had been talking about recording it, and to me it’s one of the mythic American pieces, right at the center of our entire musical history in a certain way. Anyways, that’s how that happened. Then we were on tour early in September [2008] and we recorded it and a week or so later Scott & I mixed it and we got it to Bryce and after that they decided to call the release Dark Was the Night.

One of those “happy coincidences.”

Yeah, totally! [Laughs.]

I have kind of a personal question for you. You’ve obviously been there during the Kronos Quartet’s inception ‘lo those many years ago. You had a solid lineup for awhile, and only in the past decade have you had a couple of changes. Just out of curiosity: is there ever a “definitive” lineup of the Kronos Quartet in your mind?

Oh I think the definitive lineup is the current one. But, it’s always been that way! I mean, Joan Jeanrenaud was with us for 20 years, and that always felt definitive. Now Jeff [Zeigler] is here and that feels definitive to me, and a lot of it has to do with the material that’s being written and that we’re playing and exploring. We had just come from Australia where we put together this incredible piece using instruments devised and invented by Jon Rose, and they’re musical fences, and together with Jon we created this theatre piece that closed our concert at Sydney Opera House, and it kind of lifted things to a new place in our music, and for me, that’s definitive.

Finally, so far in your career, what’s been your biggest regret, and -- conversely -- what’s been your proudest accomplishment?

Well, are you talking about professional regrets or personal regrets?

You can interpret it however you wish.

Well when I think of regrets, the first thing that comes to mind is the death of my son. And there’s nothing else that even compares to that in terms of sadness or influence on my life or anything -- so that would be that. In terms of accomplishment, I think I’d have to say keeping my family together in spite of that tragedy and also then becoming a grandparent shortly before Bush, Cheney & Rumsfeld started this damn war. The incredible joyousness of being a grandparent -- it’s something I’d highly advise buy only if I was asked. [Laughs.] Because it’s a very personal topic. All I can say is I now have two grandkids and I get so much energy from them: it’s just … the sense of wonder and idealism and the desire to explore has for me invigorated my life so much.


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