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Navigating a Single Note: The Kronos Quartet's David Harrington

Don Kaplan
Contributing Writer

Don Kaplan writes:

Since its inception in 1973, the Kronos string quartet has become one of the most prestigious and influential ensembles around, performing thousands of concerts worldwide, collaborating with many of the world's most eclectic composers and performers, commissioning hundreds of works and arrangements for string quartet, and releasing more than 40 innovative recordings.

The ensembles is known for its unusual approach to string quartet music, incorporating everything from jazz, pop, and beat poetry to the use of non-Western instruments and world music idioms. Along with performing, the players are deeply involved with coaching less established ensembles and working directly with composers. Kronos has featured prominently in film, collaborated with choreographers, sponsored commissions for young composers, and won numerous awards, including a Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance (2004) and Musical America's "Musicians of the Year" (2003).

I had an opportunity to meet with the quartet's founder, David Harrington, just prior to one of David's coaching sessions.

David Harrington, founder and
first violinist of the Kronos quartet

DK: Did your unusual approach with the Kronos quartet come from any place in particular?

DH: I had my first experience working with a living composer when I was 16. It was such a thrill going over to his house and playing his piano quintet. It wasn't finished yet. Nobody else in the universe had ever heard that piece before. I got hooked.

As a teenager in the 60s, I'd hang out in the summertime at the University of Washington, which had one of the great ethnomusicology departments in the US, and I'd get to hear people who many years later I heard on recordings. I tried to take advantage of whatever there was. There was a great record shop right near the high school, and most often I was over there rather than at algebra or geometry or wherever I should have been. And in those days, you could open the records and go into a booth, so I heard Edgar Varese, Ives, Bartok.

DK: You're involved in a new educational project with Carnegie Hall called Signature Works, a training workshop where you'll be coaching four string quartets on works written for Kronos. Could you tell me how the workshop came about?

DH: When Kronos celebrated its thirtieth year in 2003, we were trying to figure out how to celebrate that event in a meaningful way. We came upon the idea of commissioning a composer under the age of thirty - a person whose entire lifespan had been circumscribed by the Kronos career. We were incredibly pleased and honored that so many composers sent their works to us. [The Under 30 Project is now in its fourth year. ] I think the word got out that numerous groups around the world were performing and recording our commissions, and Carnegie Hall decided to have Kronos come there and lead a week-long session working with young quartets.

DK: To apply for Signature Works, ensembles have to submit a performance of a work composed during the last 20 years. Is this meant to suggest that an ensemble needs to specialize in contemporary composition in order to approach the material?

DH: What we wanted to be sure of was that anyone who applied for this week-long very intensive workshop - it's 10 hours a day - has at least some familiarity with the type of music they'll be rehearsing and performing.

DK: The application for the program also requires a statement of the ensemble's artistic goals. How do you define "artistic goals"? How important is it for a musician to have them?

DH: I've always thought that having some sort of plan was a good idea. When the group was celebrating its thirtieth year, I just happened upon a list of ideas I had written out in the fall of 1973 when I started Kronos. I was amazed at how helpful it had been in verbalizing some interests - like wanting string quartet music from Africa, South America, Asia - places where the string quartet had traditionally never had any kind of a root system. I wanted to make concerts that would be fun and stretch the idea of recent music into all kinds of areas that hadn't been covered yet by anyone. A plan is almost like a shopping list: it helps you organize how you're going to navigate.

DK: You just mentioned a couple of your own artistic goals. What are some of your other goals, and have they changed?

DH: Well, my artistic goals are always changing, because for me music is the result of what I've heard already, and the world of music I carry inside is constantly shifting. This morning, I was listening to a wonderful recording of this young Japanese composer who made pieces of music out of toy sounds and various games - and it's just beautiful. I was also listening to an amazing Russian musician who plays the hurdy-gurdy and sings. And who knows how these things will affect my own navigating? Everything you hear affects you as if you're a gyroscope. You're constantly adjusting.

One of the things I'm interested in doing is filling in as much as possible of the picture of the world of music as I understand it. It's something I'm constantly thinking about. I just came back from Vienna, the heartland of the string quartet. I love to play in Vienna because I can always get my bearings a little and can see how the form has been changed by our work. In a Terry Riley piece I play a Peyote rattle in the sand [a Native American rattle traditionally made from a pebble-filled gourd on a beaded wooden stick], a bass drum with this foot, and conduct the rest of the group with this hand. I realize that probably no violinist in the last 250 years started a piece playing a Peyote rattle and a bass drum in Vienna. I don't think it's happened. I loved it. And then in one of the movements I get to play a little Mexican toy violin, and you could almost hear people gasp. I was pretty happy with that - that the form has grown and is more inclusive than it used to be. That was one of my goals. But goals can never be fully realized because there's so much to do. The world of music is constantly absorbing influences. When musicians hear something they like, they try to add it to their lives, and that's what I've done for 33 years.

DK: How do coaching other musicians and collaborating with composers fit into Kronos's musical endeavor?

DH: We're very involved in that kind of thing because we've benefited so often from the advice of other musicians and the composers we've worked with. They've given us tremendous insights into their work. Frequently when we're on tour, we're involved in coaching groups, and I meet with composers from all over the world. Hardly a day has gone by in 33 years when I haven't been with a composer. It's just the way it is, and I love it. We've worked with many, many different composers and every one of them has contributed to the vocabulary we have right now. It's been an incredible pleasure so far and I know it's something we'll continue into the distant future.

The entire Kronos Quartet. L-R: John Sherba (violin), Jeffrey Zeigler (cello),
David Harrington (violin), Hank Dutt (viola)

DK: Signature Works gives you an opportunity to work intensively with quartets over a period of a week. But when musicians are coached during only a single meeting, can anything really be accomplished?

DH: I've learned so much from other musicians, and sometimes it's been during only one conversation. In 1975 I wanted to play Shostakovich's eighth quartet. I called a musician who was giving a concert in Seattle and had worked with Shostakovich. He was so nice to me - he didn't know who I was, he had never heard of my group. He couldn't talk with me then, but said if I came to Vancouver the following night, he would find some time to speak with me. I went to Vancouver and after his concert he took three hours, until 3:00 in the morning, to describe what it was like to work with Shostakovich. And that has set a standard for me, for what I expect of myself when I'm dealing with young musicians. So I credit him with showing me the way I feel the best about being towards other musicians. My teacher Veda Reynolds was exactly the same way.

DK: Was she your most influential teacher?

DH: Yes, definitely, without any question. She had such care, and such thoughtful comments. She thought of one's whole imagination and one's body in making notes and creating one's association with the instrument. I think about her every day. There were times when I would have these 6, 7, 8 hour violin lessons. In her 80s she had more energy than I have. I had one lesson that was, like, 4 hours long, on one note of [Alban Berg's] "Lyric Suite. " So I've been the beneficiary of some marvelous teaching. And you never know where you're going to find that.

DK: What makes a good teacher?

DH: I think one of the things that makes a good teacher is sizing up the situation and knowing what can be said that can be helpful in a way that each student can accept and learn from. After Veda died, I was able to meet some of her other students, and every one of them is an entirely different kind of violinist. None of her other students play modern music. What she taught me about teaching is how important it is to really listen, to really concentrate - how much one can receive from that fantastic opportunity. A great teacher is a very rare person. There aren't that many, and I think people have to be very careful about who they allow to teach them. You can get really messed up.

There's a certain egotistical type of people that aren't really concerned with the student, but who are more concerned with themselves, their image, and who feel that there's only one way to do something. What I learned from Veda is there are plenty of different ways, and you have to use your own body, you have to teach your body to do what you want. Part of being a great teacher is teaching a student how to practice. Like, here's this stick of wood and horse hair, these strings, how do you learn how to make them do what you want? It's a lifelong kind of endeavor, and I learned that from Veda.

DK: How long did you study with her?

DH: 30 years.

DK: Do you think she influenced the way Kronos approaches music?

DH: She was fascinated by the music. Not something she did herself, but something she accepted as possible. I would take in recordings of Gypsy violinists and ask, How can I make this kind of sound? I was trying to stretch her, too, so it's like we helped each other a bit. And a lot of what she has told me has ended up in our rehearsals in various ways. It's like, well, if you just put your finger down a little lighter, if you make sure your shoulders are square and when you get to this part of the bow - things like that. I think each one of us in Kronos has brought up things that we've learned from our teachers. Sometimes we don't even know when we're doing it, probably because it's become so ingrained.

DK: What's the best advice given to you by a teacher?

DH: The thing that Veda taught so well is that if you really listen, you can find out what you need to do, what correction you need to make. Then I had a teacher in high school - he said one thing to me that I'll never forget. He said, "Practicing is really difficult work. If you're really practicing, not just playing through something, you're changing what you're doing. Practicing is change. " And I've thought about that ever since. That if I'm not actually changing, modifying what I'm doing, if I'm trying to relax a certain part of my back, trying to find a way of being more limber, if I'm not really practicing, just kind of playing through - basically if it really sounds good, then you're not really practicing. It should sound pretty bad - bad getting better. In other words you should work on those places that need work, not just try to satisfy yourself that everything is going to be OK and you can already play.

DK: The worst advice given to you by a teacher?

DH: I don't know if I have any worst advice. I've been fairly reluctant to follow advice, having figured that advice is something a person has to learn to give. You know what I mean? Basically if I don't find it useful I forget about it pretty quickly because there are so many things in life, and so little time, so little time. . . .

DK: What's the best advice you've given a student?

DH: I always say I don't trust anybody's advice. You have to find out for yourself. There are a lot of people who say, "What should I do? What should I do?" I don't know what you should do. I don't have any idea what a person should do. The thing is for a person to find out what they need to do, and turn their ears inside out and listen inside. What is the sound you're hearing? What is the sound you're not hearing or need to hear? For me, what my career has been all about so far is finding balance - finding balance in my navigations through the world of music and through my own life, and discovering how that translates into music.

DK: Kronos teaches people to think about string quartets in new ways. What does Kronos teach you?

DH: I think of playing in Kronos as having three teachers every day. Every one of them - Jeff, Hank, John - they're always teaching me. When we add a composer we are listening to what he or she says to us, trying to assemble a body of evidence about the music at hand, so the composer becomes a teacher as well. I'm always trying to figure out how Kronos can extend its experiences and enlarge the palette of what can be done by two violins, a viola and a cello. Next week for a performance we're going to be adding instruments we've never used before, and I love that. I'm constantly trying to explore what it means to be a group, what it means to be a quartet in 2006 and 2007, what are the responsibilities we have, what are the options, what are the capabilities. You know, so far the group has commissioned over 500 pieces. It's interesting when you step back from that a little bit, you begin to realize that music is so vast, it's so incredible, an incredible natural resource that people have created for each other, and no one can know more than a fraction of this music. There's a lot to celebrate.

DK: Do you think contemporary and late 20th century music is being accepted more by musicians and audiences?

DH: I think so. I made a list of pieces Kronos has commissioned that I know have been recorded by other groups and it was almost 200. That's an indication that there is interest from musicians themselves, and I think the audiences that we've enjoyed around the world just got larger. But these things are hard to quantify. I think there's a lot of inertia in various spheres of the world of music. People think they know how to define music, what music is. And what I've found, if anything, is that I know less and less and that it's more and more mysterious and I don't know what might happen next. I kind of like it that way.

DK: Which of your recordings should be "basic listening" for young musicians?

DH: If they want to hear the piece that inspired me to start Kronos, play [George Crumb's] "Black Angels" [Nonesuch 07559] and turn it up loud. If you want to hear one of my goals that I had as a 23 year old when I started Kronos, listen to Pieces of Africa [Nonesuch 79275].

DK: After 30 years with the Kronos Quartet, do you still feel like you have areas to explore?

DH: We are just getting started, as far as I'm concerned. I like to describe a note as an opportunity. Depending on what happens to you in your life, and how your imagination is filled by various aspects of the world and other people, you never know what you might be able to put into a note. Basically you need to use your imagination and your body, to find ways of expressing what you hear inside. So, for me, to be a musician involves listening, and a lot of that listening is listening to yourself. Why does every musician sound different? What is it that differentiates all these things? For me, it's a lifetime of thinking and studying and pondering and exploring and experimenting, and knowing that every note that's ever been played can probably be played better. LM

Don Kaplan is the author of many articles, music critiques and books including See With Your Ears: The Creative Music Book. He has developed curriculum guides for The New York Times, taught at several colleges and universities including the Bank Street College of Education, conducted numerous teacher-training workshops, and been an artist-in-residence in a wide variety of settings. He is currently helping people learn about music as co-manager of The Musical Offering classical music store in Berkeley, CA.

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