David Harrington founded Kronos Quartet in 1973, at a time when family obligations made the formation of a new music ensemble a risky venture. To hear him describe those days almost 45 years later, it would seem he had no choice.
When you think back to the early days, did you lay out goals for Kronos?
When Kronos began, I hoped the group would last until the next week. Then when we lasted till the next week, I hoped it would go on again. It was very very tough in the beginning. American society is not that friendly to musicians who want to do things the overall society doesn’t know about. To keep four people together – to keep a group together – it was challenging.
You were married at the time too, with family obligations.
Our first child was born in the summer of 1975. And a couple of weeks later, the group moved out to upper state New York. That was an amazingly beautiful time. To have a little baby in the house, and the quartet was rehearsing every day.
The group to me just felt like a west coast group, so we made a decision to move out to San Francisco. That’s kind of an epicenter of west-coast culture. The first year that we were artists in residence at Mills College was when we met Terry Riley. Terry has been my personal friend for all of these years, and of course he’s written incredible music for Kronos ever since 1979.
Is Terry regarded as highly as he should be?
I don’t think any composer is regarded as highly as they should be. Terry, through “In C,” “Rainbow in Curved Air” and many of the other early pieces – plus his immense involvement with Pandit Pran Nath and learning the ins and outs of Indian music – I think he singularly revamped directions in music.
“In C” is “The Rite of Spring” of the 1960s. So many other composers were inspired by that very very simple idea. Simple in quotes, because to arrive at something that’s that clear is not easy to do. And then to find a way of activating it and notating it and inspiring performers.
Forty-five years later, are you still driven by the same motivations?
I’d say if anything, the motivation is stronger. I started Kronos in the summer of 1973, initially in order to play “Black Angels” by George Crumb, having heard it on the radio.
I’d never heard any music like that in my life. I had to get a score, so I called up the publisher, and a week or so later the score was delivered in a mailer tube. The score was huge. Not only did “Black Angels” not sound like any music I’d ever heard, when I got the score it didn’t look like any music I’d ever seen in terms of its notation, layout and what it required players to do.
I had that magnetic attraction; I couldn’t do anything about it. I had to play that piece. Life just wouldn’t work for me if I couldn’t play it. Seeing that score, I realized I would need to get a group together that was going to be serious and do everything required in order to play “Black Angels.”
That was a genuinely transformational moment for you. You can pinpoint where this all started.
Yes I can. And I can pinpoint another moment. I can tell you exactly why I decided to play in string quartets when I was 12. I joined the Columbia Record Club while I was reading a biography of Beethoven.
I was at that point where he was writing late quartets. This 12-year-old didn’t know what a late quartet was and had never heard one. But the Columbia Record Club was offering one of the late quartets. If you sent in a penny, you got five or six LPs.
So I heard the Budapest String Quartet playing Op. 127. I can hear those opening e-flat major chords right now. That sound just grabbed me. I had to learn how to make that sound.
I would be a much better violinist today if my instrument hadn’t become the string quartet when I was a teenager. It wasn’t really the violin, it was the string quartet. I played the violin in order to play string quartet music. I should have been practicing individual stuff. But what I really wanted to do was play all the music I could find for string quartet.
Your 50th anniversary is coming up. Any plans?
We haven’t really thought about it yet. Speaking about 50, we’re involved in what we’re calling Fifty for the Future. We’re trying to make a functional, useful repertoire, not just for Kronos but for quartets all over the world.
Especially young grade school, junior high, high school, college, young professional groups. In order for these musicians to enter the kind of world that Kronos is part of.
On June 17, we’ll be at the Holland Festival. On that day, the next five pieces will be released on our website. So we will be halfway through the 50 pieces.
You can go on that website, no charge, and download the scores and parts of some of the most wonderful new pieces that are available for string quartet. I can’t wait for people to hear the next five. We’ve got a beautiful piece by Philip Glass. In fact many people have told us it’s his best piece.