• 21-25 OCT 2020
  • Budapest, Hungary
WOMEX 18 Artist Award Winner

"My goal was to create music that will protect people from harm."

We met Kronos Quartet's David Harrington at Pohoda Festival in Slovakia and talked about Beethoven, bulletproof music and a banned countries project idea for their performance at the WOMEX Awards this October.

The Kronos Quartet are to receive the 2018 WOMEX Artist Award in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria this October. Photo by Jay Blakesberg

We at Piranha Arts have been very excited ever since the announcement of Kronos Quartet being awarded the WOMEX 18 Artist Award and their performance at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 24–28 October 2018.

Kronos Quartet does not need any lengthy introductions. They are indisputably the World’s most famous and successful chamber ensemble. Performing since the 1970’s, Kronos Quartet has successfully collaborated and partnered with artists, musicians, bands from all over the world and continue to explore more different genres and music than any other quartet has possibly attempted.

After their dazzling performance at the multi-genre Pohoda Festival in Slovakia, we had a chance to sit down and talk over few things about life, music, politics, Google, success, and other matters with the leading and the oldest member of the Kronos Quartet, David Harrington himself.

The quartet’s performance at Pohoda Festival was exceptional for many reasons. For the first time ever they played on stage a piece by the Slovakian saxophonist Miroslav Tóth dedicated to the late Slovakian journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancé Martin Kušnířová who were found murdered beginning of this year.

WOMEX: Why does Kronos Quartet perform music from outside the Euro-American art sphere?

David Harrington: I started playing the violin at the age of 9, and string quartets by the age of 12. In 1961, I became a member of the Columbia Record Club, and one of the LPs I received from them was the Budapest Quartet playing the Beethoven’s Opus 127. As I was reading a biography of Beethoven around then, and I had heard about the late quartets, all of a sudden, I realised I listened to a late quartet, and the opening E-flat Major chords magnetised me, hooked me. For the next several years all of the string quartet music I knew about was Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert.

When I was 14 years of age, I had one of those moments that every one of us gets once in a while in life, if we are lucky, and it was while I was looking at the family globe, I realised, there were a whole lot of other cities than Vienna where music composers lived. There were a whole lot of other countries with a lot of other religions, languages and at that moment I realised I need to find out more about the kind of sounds that are present in other countries. I started to explore, and I haven't stopped ever since. I feel like I am just getting started because the world of music is so immense and anyone that thinks they know much about it is mistaken.

Gaurav Narula meets David Harrington at Pohoda Festival

Gaurav Narula of the WOMEX team backstage with David at Pohoda Festival in Slovakia earlier this month

WOMEX: What do you think you bring to that music, and what that music brings to you?

DH: If there is anything I have learnt from music is that I have fewer answers than I ever had in spite of having played more music from more countries. I have been fortunate in the relationships we have made over the years, but I have to say, for me it is more of a question, not less.

Even if the music notes looks the same on the page, I believe they should not sound the same. The music notes need to reflect where you are at this point in life and where you are coming from; this is what music is, music is not static! To me, music is always responding to what we fear, what we learn, what we are feeling, what we are desiring. I was telling Miroslav Tóth (Slovak composer) earlier today, in the early years of Kronos, I had made a goal, and that goal was to try to create music that will protect people from harm. Bulletproof music. That's what I wished to do. I have not been successful yet. I recently realised that I know people at MIT and other institutions, and I had never talked to a scientist about this topic that if we can make a sound that could be a substance or some force that could protect us. I learnt that was another question I need to ask.

WOMEX: Have you ever thought about a science-based collaboration, rather than an art-based one?

DH: We are actively involved with an environmentalist. Also, NASA commissioned us with Terry Rileys’ Sun Rings, and Donald Gurnett, the physicist who invented plasma wave receiver (equipment that records plasma waves), is working on a theory that he plans to publish with our release of Sun Rings. For me, science and learning are exactly what we are doing. We use our instruments to help navigate through fields that we do not know much about and are still learning. We were working with Zakir Hussain recently, he wrote this fabulous piece for us, and every one of us had to practice so much because the technique he used was something we had never learnt. We had to teach ourselves how to do things we had never done before.

Also, it is incredible to know how many scientists are in our audience and how people get fueled by music to do other great things.

Kronos Quartet performing with Trio Da Kali by Lenny Gonzalez

Kronos Quartet performing with Malian ensemble Trio Da Kali, one of their numerous collaborations. Photo by Lenny Gonzalez

WOMEX: Any principles or ethics you stick by as a professional musician?

DH: Several times we have been asked to use an inexpensive instrument and destroy it and I can't do that. Because there are so many kids in this world that might want to use a musical instrument and the thought of me harming an instrument, I cannot do that. I know what Jimi Hendrix did, and I love it, it was the right thing to do at the time, but not anymore.

Another thing is the idea of loud volumes. I like things to be at exciting volumes, but I don't want to hurt anybody’s ears. I need mine every minute of my life, and I am assuming every member of the audience needs theirs too. I don't want to hurt anybody's ears with the volume just for the sake of making a more significant noise than the next guy.

WOMEX: Any partnership, collaboration or performance which influenced you so much that you changed your approach towards music or work?

DH: One of the things I value most about all the members of Kronos Quartet is that I feel at every concert everybody is trying to do their very best and trying to take the level a bit higher than before. I think there is a lot of desire for improvement. We all know when it is better than the last time we did, and everybody is aiming to get that better each time we play. I would say it's more like all the collaborations push us to get better.

I remember being in the studio with Astor Piazzolla when we recorded Five Tango Sensations with him, and his willpower was extraordinary. He just pulled the music out of everybody including himself. That recording took about two hours. We have never recorded any session that quick. It was with an immense concentration that he pulled it all. I learnt so much from all these experiences, zeroing in on the centre of what you are trying to do. I believe with every collaboration we have ever had, I have learnt so much about life, music, and my instrument.

WOMEX: Have you ever Googled yourself?

DH: No! [bursts into laughter], should I? No, maybe not!

WOMEX: How do you handle mistakes during a performance?

DH: Tonight on Miroslav Tóth’s (Slovak composer) piece, my page was turned over at the bottom because of the clip I had, and I missed a one measure rest so I was off on this incredibly beautiful passage and it made me angry so much, I was furious. I knew I was off and I had to find my way back.

We all made some mistakes on some of the other pieces. Let’s say, by now the music itself is used to our mistakes, it accepts us.

WOMEX: You are widely acclaimed, in many different musical worlds, do you feel this gives you leverage to realise projects today, that you would not be able to do in the early years?

DH: I feel what we can do now there is no way we could have even imagined 45 years ago. There was no such thing as African string quartet music; it did not exist. There was limited string quartet music relating to many different areas of world music, plus, the kind of work we do or can do now requires a community. When we worked with Trio Da Kali, we needed a translator, and increasingly they are learning English, and we are learning a tiny bit of French, and the music takes care of rest. There are ethnomusicologists that we rely on; there are arrangers, there is our office staff, it’s like these people are critical to the work we do. When we started, it was, four of us and that was it, and then slowly we began growing.

I am not competing with anybody, all I want to do is the best work we can do with those partnerships that make us better musicians, and better people. I feel this is what our collaborators do for us. They make us better musicians, better people and better players.

WOMEX: What is the best advice you've received?

DH: In January 2003, I became a grandfather for the first time. With this newest member in our family, it was the most beautiful feeling. Unfortunately, this was around the time when Bush, Cheney, and others were plotting the invasion of Iraq. Here I was, this happy family man, and, here they were, trying to invade and destroy. With all these dark happenings around me and constantly touring and travelling away from family six months a year, I got severely depressed, often wondering if I should continue performing music. I did not talk to anyone in the quartet; I only spoke to my wife. I realised I needed to talk to somebody with perspective and the person that came to my mind with a voice was Howard Zinn, the great American historian. I had never met Howard, but one of my friends knew him. I got Howard's phone number and called him up.

A month later I was in Howard’s office in Boston, to talk to him about what could one do to bring the change. He assured me that an ordinary person could do a lot, they can bring the difference, if they so wish, but they can't do by themselves, they need a community. And, then he said, one needs to take every opportunity to make their views clear. Howard assured me that Dick Cheney and the people like him are afraid of artists and musicians and I thought to myself how Dick Cheney could be afraid of me? Well, just like Trump won't have any musicians or artists around him because none of us would put up with that nonsense.

That advice helped me immensely, it empowered me, gave me the courage and got me centred again on music. Plus, the other thing Howard said was even though you are physically away from your family, you are helping your family because you are trying to make things better. I just lost sight of such thoughts.

WOMEX: What can we expect from your performance at WOMEX 18? Or, what are you expecting from WOMEX?

DH: I am currently researching for our Banned Countries Project. I do have an idea, and I think it's an excellent idea. I made a list of all of the immigrant musicians and composers, immigrants to the USA that we have partnered over the years. And it's a very long list. I intend Justice Sonia Sotomayor's to read her dissent, record it, and use that recording as a part of our work. I hope that all the living immigrants to the USA will contribute a minute or two to this piece that will underscore her words. I am not sure if Justice Sotomayor can legally do that, or not, but I hope she can or someone else could. We are hoping to get this ready by October, but nothing is confirmed yet, such things take time.

WOMEX: Fingers crossed! We sincerely hope, we get to experience this performance in October.