Jan 12 2007

David Harrington: Unexpected Discoveries

Published by at 9:22 am under Interview,Music

Published in the Union Newspaper on 9-11-92


by Sander R. Wolff

They are rebels with a cause. Their mission is to commission challenging new works from innovative composers and bring them to the world. Since 1973, when the Kronos Quartet began, the have been redefining the cutting edge and eliminating the restrictions placed on the traditional string quartet. They’ve worked with the big three modern classical minimalists: Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, but they are always on the prowl for exciting new works by relative unknowns as well.

“As a matter of fact,” said David Harrington, 1st violinist and spokesman for the group, “we’re opening out concert with just such a piece and its called ‘Yiddishbbuk’ by a composer I’d never heard of until August. His name is Osvaldo Golijov. Its a stunning work.”

Golijov was a Fellow in composition at the Tanglewood Music Center in 1990. Earlier this year, while Kronos was performing at Tanglewood, Harrington came upon some written material by Golijov.

“It struck me that here was someone that, the way he spoke about his own work and music, attracted me immediately,” said Harrington. “I got his address and he sent me some tapes and immediately this piece just leapt out.”

The Kronos Quartet changed the entire program for their European tour so that they could include the piece.

“We try to be ready for an unexpected discovery at any point, and I know we tend to drive people who print programs slightly crazy because we’re always changing them up to the last moment but, in this case, I think it was worth any ink that may have been spent.”

They are the darlings of the yuppie intelligencia and, at a recent performance, after an especially challenging piece, I overheard someone say, “its politically incorrect to say you don’t like what Kronos is doing.” Critics of the group say that, because all their pieces are commissioned, there is no way to compare their technical expertise to other string quartets. That argument fails simply because the pieces they commission demand astounding technical expertise.

On their current tour they are featuring Bob Ostertag’s “All The Rage.” It is a visceral examination of the anger felt by homosexuals. The piece blends three elements: The string quartet, text written by Sara Miles (read by Eric Gupton) and manipulated recordings of the riots in San Francisco.

“In fact,” said Harrington, “the sounds of that riot form the sonic underpinnings of the piece. Its quite a disturbing piece of music. To have a riot brought into a concert hall is something we’ve never done before. But in terms of the scope of his piece and what its doing, I think its absolutely right on.”

The piece provides a forum for the quartet’s technical skill but this is almost overshadowed by the dynamic qualities of the work. It begins with Gupton saying, “The first time someone said queer and I knew they meant me.” The anger, pain and frustration of the text is complimented by Ostertag’s notation of the vocal inflections, played by Joan Jeanrenaud on cello and Hank Dutt on viola. As the words continue, the riot sounds rise in volume and drown everything out. Sounds of glass breaking, people yelling and screaming. Amidst all this anger, there is the realization that the quartet is actually playing sounds in the tape, seamlessly synchronized.

In 1990 Kronos released “Black Angels,” featuring pieces that have a dark character. In “Pieces Of Africa,” their latest recording, the music seems much lighter and more joyful. I asked David Harrington if this was something cyclic.

“I think that searching for some kind of a balance, that’s important for us. You could say that “Black Angels” is one end of the emotional spectrum and “Pieces of Africa” is the other but, having said that, the last piece, “Kutam Barara” [trans: Spreading, composed by Dumisani Maraire -ed], the music might sound joyful and smiling but the words are dealing with oppression in Zimbabwe.”

According to Harrington, much of the African vocal music he’s encountered sounds joyful but deals, lyrically, with difficult topics. Thomas Mapfumo, one of Harrington’s favorite musicians and Zimbabwe’s most famous, recently performed with Kronos.

“One of the songs we did with him was very joyful, with melodic music, but the words have to do with hunger, starvation and famine in Mozambique.”

One of my favorite pieces on “Pieces Of Africa” is “Escalay.” [trans: Waterwheel, composed by Hamza El Din -ed] It’s delightful melodies and gentle rhythmic structures are absolutely captivating. Harrington explained that, again, the music belied the work’s true character.

“Hamza’s home is in the Aswan High Dam area [in the Sudan] and, when he went back, his whole village had been moved. He sat on a rock somewhere and began singing this melody and it was a response to feeling that his homeland had been devastated.”

The Kronos Quartet continues to perform new works to enthusiastic audiences around the world. They have a grueling schedule with at least 100 performances a year. They just finished a month long stint in Europe, are beginning a tour of the U.S., they’ll be back in Europe in December and again in March, in Japan in May and then back through the U.S., Canada and Mexico after that.

I asked Harrington if he found that the music Kronos performs transfers well into so many varied cultures.

“We played in Budapest several weeks ago, and we played a John Zorn quartet, a piece called ‘Cat O Nine Tails,’ and its essentially made up of elements of American cartoon music. I wasn’t aware that our audience there in Budapest would be familiar with cartoon music. They got every punch line. It was astonishing. They were right with it.

“In a way, musical communication is way ahead of other forms of communication,” continued Harrington. “To me, there’s an international audience for music. All the people who happen to be there on any night create a certain ambience, whether its Rio, Tokyo, Paris or New York. When we play a concert, there’s an audience who wants to get the best from us and we try to give our best to them. I think our audience will trust us to give them an experience that feels right to us and feels right to them, too.

“And its important to know that there’s a lot of planning and thought and trial and error and, sometimes, falling flat on out butts but, to me, that’s part of what being a musician is and, any time we’re not trying to take a chance or take a next step that feels right to us the group’s not doing what it can be doing.

“The world is, at the same time, getting smaller and getting larger and more diverse and, for that reason, its a wonderful time to be a musician and, I would say, a wonderful time to be a listener of music because you never know what might come up next. Its a time, in so many ways, of ferment and music thrives in that setting.”

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