Kronos Quartet is in Toronto tonight to open the 21C Music Festival with the world premiere of Jherek Bischoff’s “Strange.” Founding member David Harrington and I sat down to talk about repertoire decisions, John Cage and more.
What goes into the decision to perform or record a piece?
That’s the question I think about every day. What is music, and what can it be next? I’m always trying to align the work that Kronos does with sounds that are happening inside of me. Things that magnetize me get included in my inner soundtrack. I don’t really have any control over it. It happens.
This collection seems to be getting larger and larger as time goes on. And more fabulous and interesting and exciting. So when it comes to exploring – I just call it the wide world of music – for me there are no national boundaries. There’s no immigration this or that. There’s no passport necessary. We just get to participate and react and appreciate. Or not.
When I go back and watch that TV show where John Cage premiered “Water Walk,” that seems like a major moment in American television history. And it might be one of the last times that a major work by an American composer was premiered live on television.
I personally think it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen on TV. But I can’t imagine what an audience would have thought of that in the 1950s. It’s still weird. To me, it’s weirdly wonderful.
We got to work with John Cage, and we knew him quite well. It was a fabulous experience. I didn’t encounter that until after his death, that particular show.
There’s another thing that Nam June Paik, the Korean composer, I saw a theatre piece that he did. You can see it on YouTube, it’s absolutely hilarious. He was visiting with Bill Clinton, and just as he was shaking hands his pants fell down. If I ever get a chance to meet Trump, I’m going to come up with something even more alarming.
Why is Cage still so relevant?
He started with silence, and added to it everything that ears can hear. He delighted in so many things. His concepts of time and what it is to be a musician. He was always thinking about things, and kind of revising himself. So he always felt fresh and new.
If you go back and listen to some of his earliest pieces, it’s incredible. All the way through his career, he was always challenging himself to make something else.
What was he like personally?
Very gentle. And firm. We had a rehearsal once. We were on our way to Europe and had a stopover in New York City. It was the only time we’d be able to rehearse with John Cage before our premier of his “30 Pieces for String Quartet.”
He came to Kennedy Airport; we’d reserved a room out there. We had to leave the door open because we couldn’t figure out how to turn the lights on in this room. Eventually John Cage comes. He spoke very softly, so in order to hear him we had to close the door.
There were these little lights on the floor. So basically we had a rehearsal with John Cage in the dark. We were asking our questions about his music in the dark. It was an unforgettable rehearsal.
Then a couple of years later, we performed his piece “Five.” It can be five performers of any instrument. There was a piano on stage. I actually convinced John Cage to join us. There’s actually a recording of Kronos and Cage playing. Each person gets to play five notes.
I’d heard some recordings of Cage playing the piano, and his touch on the piano was so beautiful. I just wanted all of us to experience that together with him. So he did it. He said ‘oh, I haven’t played piano for years.’ I think it was the last time he ever played piano in public.
Check back in tomorrow for Harrington on the early days, Terry Riley and the Columbia Record Club.