An Interview With David Harrington: Forever Deepening Musical Relationships

Jeff Kaliss on September 28, 2009
In his fourth decade as a violinist and as both founder and artistic director of the award-winning Kronos Quartet, David Harrington still exudes the infectious excitement of a gifted student infatuated with experimental and global music from beyond the conservatory’s walls. At Howard’s Café, up the street from Kronos headquarters near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Harrington sits down with me to share memories, opinions, and coffee, as well as the ensemble’s program for its Oct. 9 benefit for the Old First Church series, where Kronos played one of its earliest dates, in the late 1970s.

SFCV recently reviewed Kronos’ latest release, Floodplain, on which you extended the repertoire of the string quartet to yet another part of the world, in this case the Middle East. You’ll be featuring works from Floodplain and other geographic areas at Old First. How early did world music and string quartet enter your personal world?

I think I’m at least as much in love with the sound of two violins, a viola, and a cello today as I was when I was 12 years old and first heard that sound. It just connected with me in a very profound way. I used to have a globe in my bedroom back then, and I remember one day thinking, “All the string quartet music I know was written by four guys who lived in the same city. Vienna is one little dot on that globe, but there’s lots of other dots. What do they sound like?”

What other dots will you be visiting at Old First? There are 10 pieces on your program, most of them from foreign sources, aside from John Zorn and Bryce Dessner.

Smyrneiko Minore I first heard on this rerelease of 78s last year [Black Mirror: Reflections in Global Musics, on Dust-to-Digital], with a singer named Marika Papagika, from Greece. Marika’s first note, when she comes in on this song [recorded in 1918], is at the moment probably my favorite note I’ve ever heard in music, because the bar got set, higher than Fritz Kreisler, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Pandit Pran Nath, Billie Holiday — you name it. I didn’t have any choice, I had to play that piece [in an arrangement by Jacob Garchik]. The “Zari” Ritual Lamentation I first heard on an album [Dancing With the Dead, on Ellipsis Arts] which I purchased some years after our son [Adam] died. All the tracks had something to do with death, from various cultures, and I kept coming back to the “Zari,” the Georgian vocal music. Hamza el Din [a composer and oudist from Nubia] is represented in the Old First concert by Escalay (Water wheel). It was Terry Riley who introduced me to Hamza, and what he contributed to American musical life is unbelievable. [Hamza and his Escalay also appeared on the Quartet’s Pieces of Africa, which topped both classical and world music charts in 1992.]

Is San Francisco the best home base for a group taking the music of the world around the world?

Definitely! First of all, it feels right here. On a great day, the light is incredibly inspiring. And I like the fact that Golden Gate Park is basically my backyard, and has been for 32 years. My granddaughter Emily and I frequently look for frogs in Strybing Arboretum. She’s 6. And I think about this amazing country we have here, that has attracted musicians from all over the world. We’re hearing so much misinformation about immigrants, but they contribute to our culture.

What has managed to keep you with the same ensemble for so long? Have there been temptations to do something else?

I’ve worked with [violist] Hank Dutt for 32 years; I think his sound is one of the greatest I’ve heard from any instrument. John [Sherba] I’ve worked with for 31 years; as a violinist, as a person, as a force in Kronos, he’s unparalleled. Jeff [Zeigler, cello], this is his fifth year, and the energy and perspective he’s bringing is refreshing; it’s vital. I’m totally satisfied. And when I’m not satisfied, I’ll find a new piece, to get rid of the dissatisfaction. I’ve been asked, “Do you play solo?” No, I don’t. If I want to play a solo, I’ll find a way of doing it within Kronos. If I want to play with an orchestra, we can do some backing tracks, and we can sound like 1,001 strings. The idea of concentrating on something that continues to resonate very powerfully, as a sound, as clay that I can find ways of molding — for me, we’re just getting started.

Pick out a good Kronos tale for us.

I don’t tell this story very often, ’cause I’m not in love with name-dropping, but Leonard Bernstein came into one of our rehearsals at Tanglewood one time, the very first time we played there. We were rehearsing Salome Dances for Peace, by Terry Riley. I look over, and damn, it’s Bernstein! I’d never met him before. So I stopped playing. And he said, “Keep going, keep going, that’s great! It sounds like Egyptian whorehouse music.” I called up Terry afterwards and said, “You just got a review from Leonard Bernstein.” Terry said, “Can I use that quote on my flyer?”

What’s out there on the horizon of Kronos’ world?

We have a new piece that we’ll be premiering with [former Kronos cellist] Joan Jeanrenaud, inspired by the String Quintet in C major of Schubert; we have a concert at UC Berkeley on Dec. 13. We’re hard at work right now on a musical–theatrical collaboration, A Chinese Home, with Shi-Zheng Chen, a great stage director, and we’ll be premiering it on Nov. 3 at Carnegie Hall; it’ll be heard locally at Stanford next year. Checkpoint 303 [Arab electronica] is gonna be writing for us, as well as Café Tacuba [the progressive Mexican rock band whose 12/12 will be part of the Old First concert]. Plus which, we’re putting together a full concert series at Carnegie Hall, starting next March, [including] a retrospective of Terry Riley’s quartets over 30 years. And we have a recording coming out with Alim Qasimov [the Azerbaijani singer heard on Floodplain] and Homayun Sakhi, a master of the [three-stringed] Afghan rebab, who lives in the Bay Area.

So you’re continuing to venture far from anyone’s run-of-the-mill chamber music?

I’m more interested in the next great piece and the next great relationship, and in deepening the relationships we have — men and women from all over the world. I’m not interested in casual relationships.

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