They have recently released Howl U.S.A, a grim portrait of the dark side of America, in which the The Kronos passionately accompany the voices of J. Edgar Hoover, Harry Partch, I.F. Stone, and Allen Ginsberg.
David Harrington formed the group after hearing George Crumb's Black Angels, a powerful piece about the Vietnam war; ever since he has sought to give voice to twentieth century composers all over the world. At this moment there are hundreds of pieces being commissioned by them. The Kronos have performed pieces by Thelonious Monk, John Zorn, Philip Glass, Charles Ives, Dmitri Yanovsky, Scott Johnson, and a slew of European and African composers. With a balance of fervid dedication, spirituality, and a liberal sense of humor, the Kronos Quartet have taken on the awesome responsibility of saving an entire musical universe.
Goblin Magazine: It's been said that there's greed and corruption in the classical music industry, and that it's becoming as crass as the rock industry.
David Harrington: One of the things we've done is stayed with ourselves. When the group first got together twenty-three years ago I thought it would be very important to get a management company in New York to represent the group, and at that point I didn't really know what that meant. What I found out was that nobody would ever call me back. This was when the group was first starting and we rehearsed every morning of the week, starting really early and ending early afternoon. At that point I got on the phone to try to find out where we might perform. Basically I was the manager early on and it was bizarre to realize at the time that the management companies didn't care. So just by default the group had to be really independent. In the end that turned out to be the best thing for us, though for years we were barely making it.
What happened is internally the group began to make its own decisions and began to form our own office in 1979. What I wanted to do is make music that I felt was important and naturally it's not the kind of thing everybody is going to like, and it certainly isn't the kind of thing an established management group is going to like and spend their time being involved with. The solution to that and the continuing solution is to take care of it ourselves. We're lucky we can afford to have an office staff to take care of the incredible workload. I don't mind working hard though. Every day, every season, it's important to me to make sure being a musician is part of my life everyday. I've found that if I feel like that every day I'm able to keep the balance and energy I need to generate ideas and thoughts about our work.
Goblin: How much do you feel the government should pursue giving subsidies to the arts? Because it's the constitutional right of every tax paying citizen to pursue happiness and music is such an incredibly deep source of happiness, it seems like the government has a responsibility to foster music programs and education -- which they're totally derelict on now.
Harrington: I think it's known in some areas of our society that artistic expression and appreciation of artistic expression is very valuable for people; in terms of learning more, being open to experiences, to a sense of curiosity and imagination. For me it's incredibly short sighted of our society to not put more value on forms of expression and the arts. It's inconceivable to me that people could care so little about the present and the future.
Goblin: There's a major decline in the number of young people going to see chamber music, almost none at all.
Harrington: I remember when I was a kid I'd be the youngest person there. I always sat in the front row, I'd have to be there a couple hours early to make sure I was in the front row. It pissed me off so bad I had to spend the rest of my life trying to change that.
Goblin: Since music exists in time, not space, it seems that it's almost a lost cause to try to reach younger people today; because their attention spans have been reduced to seconds and they can't rely on musical memory to grasp musical architecture Harrington: I think the whole idea of fragmentation and attention span is a surface thing. I don't think it's absolutely real. For me what's really happening is that a minute of advertising time on TV is so expensive that the commercial people have to make it shorter and shorter. What's being said is the attention span is getting shorter and shorter, but is that really true? Kids cans play basketball or video games for hours. I can play quartets for hours and hours and not even think about what time it is. I've always been that way. You can only use yourself and someone you know really well as an example. I think attention span has to do with how something is presented, how engaging it can become and how involved with the person's life, environment, and desires.
Harrington: You have to define what you mean by that. For example, there's a wonderful quartet piece by Alfred Schnittke, the fourth quartet, and clearly that is an outgrowth of his appreciation for the music of Scheonberg and others. In the case of Schnitka it is such a passionate human statement there is no denying its reality and beauty. Goblin: I feel that way with Anton Webern but that's two people out of all the people who wrote in the style.
Harrington: But what about the lyric suite of Alban? For me that's one of the all time expressive pieces there is. A lot of times people take these terms so seriously, and it has happened with the music of Terry Riley, let's say. He's called this or that but when you actually listen to the music and get to know him, how could it be considered minimalist? I feel a lot of things are misinterpretations. And in a lot of ways Schoenberg's attitudes were misinterpretations of Beethoven. I think he had a huge Beethoven complex. I would say that's the bigger problem, not his desire to stretch the tonality system. He was thinking of music history as a reality and wanted to become the next composer. In my opinion it's not unusual for the ego to try to supersede, at least what I would think of as reality. Scheonberg wanted to be in that pantheon of composers that maybe started with Bach and would include Mozart and Beethoven. And by insisting that he had done something no one had ever done before he felt he would be considered to be some figure in the history books.
Goblin: It seems like Wagner had already been deconstructing harmony.
Harrington: It's interesting how harmony has been molded. It's interesting how at the same time Schoenberg was doing that, people in Hong Kong and Africa and every where around the world were doing interesting things. As time goes on I don't want to get caught up in the dialectic conversation that Schoenberg wanted many of us to get caught up in. It's not of interest.
Goblin: My problem was that you almost have to have perfect pitch to remember the twelve tone rows, let alone when they're being inverted and all the contrapuntal** tricks that they used to play. It seems to be beyond the span of an ordinary or even a very educated listener to be able to comprehend it orally. It just sounds like a series of random notes basically.
Harrington: I've heard it said that a person can't really follow more than three things going on at the same time. It may be that four things going on at the same time may not necessarily have to be preconceived as three things, but that there's this sense of great activity. We've worked with a lot of composers that want to create a sense of chaotic happening. John Zorn is a good example and there are many others. And it's not that the human ear would need to follow those happenings. It's a texture, and a sense of the complexity of life.
Goblin: You're talking about world music. It seems like you're finding so many composers that are so much more attractive than the academic composers that have been dominating western classical music for years and years. Are you finding a genetic propensity for the fifth in all the music you've encountered? It seems the open 5th drone is universal. Or are there actual serious radical differences in the tonality from country to country.
Harrington: One of the things that you find is that the idea of pitch is very different in certain parts of the world from the standardized pitch that we have. Virtually 99.9% of everything you hear on the radio is played on a tempered scale. It's interesting as a violinist because a lot of times I hear something and I think, 'oh it would be great if the tone was a little bit sharper because it would propel the melody into the next key.' Which you do in a string quartet, the way we tune things is not the way a piano is tuned. Unless we're playing with a tempered piano like in the Morton Feldman piece. But then if you start working with musicians from various parts of Asia the idea of where the pitch really is is quite different. It's one of the most fascinating aspect of our work at the present and I think in the future it probably will be too.
Goblin: It seems like there's very little humor in music, unlike literature. I was wondering what's the nature of classical music that there's so little laugh-out-loud humor in it.
Harrington: I think the problem with Haydn and Beethoven is because the past has become so venerated people have forgotten the punch lines over the years. For a long time a lot of people thought that element couldn't or shouldn't exist. I remember the first time I heard laughter at one of our concerts and it was scary at first. This was fourteen years ago when we did a piece by a guy named Steve Rifkin. The audience was just howling. At first I just didn't know what to do, and it took awhile to start relaxing into it because I'd never heard it at a quartet concert ever.
If there is something that musically brings out the humor aspect of life I definitely encourage it. For me the emotional range, is humor on one side and the most tragic thing you could possibly think of is on the other side. To me the emotional spectrum of what I want to do is between those two.
Goblin: A lot of people have said that Rock N' Roll is basically about sex. What is classical music ultimately about in those searching terms. What is the ultimate thing you're trying to achieve when you perform?
Harrington: One of the reasons I play quartet pieces is I feel the nature of its sound is so much akin to the eternal sound I've always heard for as long as I can remember. It's almost the sound of my own heart beating and even deeper than the mind somehow . . . it's a very personal experience to be working with. Almost every composer that's ever worked for Kronos has commented about that, whether from Africa or Argentina. You name it, there's something about the sound of the quartet that really attracts composers. Some of the best composers have written some of their best stuff for quartets.
Goblin: There is a theory that a perfectly made Greek Wine Amphora in form and function is equal to say, a Wagner opera. Neither of them is aesthetic ally greater because they're each perfect in their form and function. Do you think there are categories of greatness, or do you think that everything as long as it's perfectly fulfilling its form and function is equal.
Harrington: I would have to say that I think each person has things in their life that are special moments or special remembrances. Things that are almost impossible to share with any other person. And one of the functions of music and painting or any of the arts is to find ways of relating those very special and private aspects of life to public events, which are performances. I know that for myself that a lot of times when I think I'm really in touch with, as Allen Ginsberg says in Howl, the "animal soup of time," I'm really in touch with things I wouldn't be able to describe to anyone. But somehow maybe the act of making a tone on a violin puts me in that position.
Goblin: So you wouldn't want to say any piece is greater than any other?
Harrington: I'm not sure I could define that for anyone else, I'm not sure I would want to. For example one of the strongest memories I have of childhood is the garden that my grandmother used to have. She grew lilies from seeds, and she collected those seeds from all over the world. I don't know how much you know about growing lilies from seeds but it's a very difficult thing to do well. But I remember this garden being the most beautiful garden I've ever seen in my life. And frequently that sense of completeness and sense of balance that she completed in that garden is almost a reference point I use in my own life.
Goblin: Were your parents musicians or creative at all?
Harrington: I think they were creative but they were not musicians or involved in the arts. I was lucky my father used to take me to football games and fishing and stuff like that, and they were very supportive of my desire to play music. But I think I got my real artistic support from my grandparents.
Goblin: With a happy childhood where does your passion come from? Do you have to pull it out of you or are you a naturally passionate person?
Harrington: Like we were talking about a couple of minutes ago the raw nature of the sound that we're working with is to me so much in touch with a lot of aspects of life, not only with sex, not only spiritual things -- but it's very tactile to me. And to be involved in making this sound feels like we're hand-making it, and I think that's something that Hank and Joan and I share a love for all the time. Also the fact that we've worked directly with most of the composers that have written for us. Goblin: That's just a dream come true for a performer isn't it?
Harrington: What's really great is the fact that when we're working on a new piece we're getting a real sense of the personalities of the people who have written that music. And when we get on the stage we can work with that personality. It's a very strong reservoir of information and memory.
Goblin: We just interviewed Yma Sumac, I was wondering if you ever came in contact with her music.
Harrington: I love her music. I think she's fantastic. I wonder how I could be in touch with her.
(Goblin gives him her contact number -- if there's a collaboration in the future you heard it here first).
Goblin: What is the ultimate thing musically that you've striven for?
Harrington: I'm concerned with trying to make one note be absolutely honest and truthful. If I ever get one note that is really that way I'm going to be happy. And I haven't gotten there yet.
*Contrapuntal: Music whose harmonies are generated by many lines of almost equal melodic importance playing simultaneously -- eg. Bach, Dixieland, Mingus. A German oom-pah waltz is the opposite - the only tune is on the top. "Oom-pah" over and over in the bass isn't a tune at all.
**12 Tone Music: A theory developed by Arnold Schoenberg early in the century. There are 12 notes in an octave -- C C# D D# E F F# G G# A A# B C. He decreed that no note shall ever be repeated until all 12 have been gone through, in whatever order you chose. (Tone row). This effectively destroys the traditional sense of "key" and the tonal relationships based on the powerful attractive powers of the 4th (F) to the 5th(G) and back to the home key (CC) (All blues are based on this). For at least 40 years more or less strict 12 tone music completely dominated western classical music. Obviously, it is completely dissonant.
Another Interview With Harrington
Kronos Fan Web