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Q&A: Kronos Quartet Founder David Harrington On Collaborating With Philip Glass

Every day this month, in conjunction with our Feb. 1 cover story "Philip Glass, An East Village Voice," Sound of the City will post excepts of interviews with Glass and his collaborators, as well as reviews of several concerts celebrating his 75th birthday.

Today we're publishing our interview with violinist David Harrington, the founder of the Kronos Quartet. In addition to several collaborations with Glass, some of which were specifically written for the quartet, Kronos has worked with the music and talent of Meredith Monk, Daren Aronofsky, Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, John Adams, Noam Chomsky, DJ Spooky, and Dave Matthews.

This interview began with a chat about a 2005 outdoor concert in Prospect Park of the score to Dracula, which Glass composed for the quartet. The concert—where Glass and Kronos performed together—was aborted under rather dramatic circumstance when a lightening storm blew in suddenly.

I was at the screening of Dracula at Celebrate Brooklyn! in 2005, where you were trying to play live with Philip Glass!

[Laughs] Wow, you were there?

Yes. And I escaped!

We were so excited to be there, and the audience was great, and in fact nobody can forget that concert. The other thing was that it was going so great. I thought everybody was just on. And then the storm happened exactly—

Was the first bolt of lightening as the tracking shot moved in on Dracula?

Actually, it was during the storm scene!

That's right.

Yeah, it was during the actual storm scene when the show had to be called. It was amazing.

Were you getting nervous?

I wasn't nervous. I was worried about the sound and lighting booth people, and the electrical situation. I think the right thing was done, of course.

In preparing for the pieces I am writing about Mr. Glass's 75th birthday, I was listening to the soundtrack to the film Mishima yesterday. Not being a professional musician, I hadn't realized for some time that it featured a string quartet—you! But of course, listening to it after I knew this, I could hear Kronos in with keyboards and other instruments. Was that your first project together?

The first music we ever played of Philip Glass's was "Company," and that was in the early '80s. And, I can't remember which year, it was probably about 81 or 82. So, we've worked together for about 30 years now. And of course the first recording we did of his was Mishima.

Did he approach you on Mishima?

I think the way we worked together was that I heard the soundtrack as it was being recorded, and I realized, wow, we should be in on that. And it was being recorded for Nonesuch Records, and it was being recorded right at the beginning of our contract with Nonesuch, which began in 1985. That must have been the year Mishima was recorded.

 

Had you met socially before that?

We had met before, earlier. I think he had been to a concert of ours. We had played Company, and I was hoping he would write more quartet music, and it began to happen. And then, we made a concert version of Mishima that we began to play, and then later, I belive, he used that as one of his numbered string quartets. I believe his third quartet. And of course, there was his fifth quartet, which he wrote for Kronos, shortly after his wife died.

Was that first piece he wrote for Kronos specifically?

Yes, except there were two songs we'd recorded for Linda Ronstadt for the Songs From Liquid Days album. The first major piece that he wrote specifically for Kronos was the String Quartet No. 5.

(If you want to hear the rest, here are parts two and three.)

Did he say that he's wife's death was an inspiration for that composition, or a par of his grieving process?

Publicly, he didn't say much about that. Privately, it was the first piece he wrote after that. I believe he spent quite a while in Nova Scotia, and that was the first music he wrote after she died.

I think that that, when we rehearsed with him on that—it's hard to put emotions into words, to interpret that, but I did have the feeling that this music was a part of that experience, and perhaps even surmounting that experience and dealing with it.

When you talk to lay people, how do you describe what it's like to play Philip's music?

What a great question... I would have thought I've been asked that before, but I don't think I have been asked that.

It depends. Some musicians—let's start with musicians. There's been an idea, and I'll gradually move toward the broader world. There are some musicians that totally disregard the music of Philip Glass, thinking it's very simple. And simple minded. Well, I have this to report to the people who have said that kind of thing in public and in private: they should try to do it sometime. Philip's music requires the utmost clarity—of interpretation and sounds and intonation and rhythm of any music I can think of. He creates momentum and mood and a kind of texture through the use of repetition.

And one of the things can always happen in Philip's music is you can forget to take a repeat and realize that you're in a different place than anyone else! Like, "Where am I?" [Laughs]

And that's one thing people that are not spending 23 and a half hours a day practicing being musicians, they might not notice at first. How do you know where you are in his music? And that definitely is an issue. Over the years, Kronos has worked out various was to know where we are with the music of Philip Glass.

Also, practice helps. [Laughs]

How would I explain it? I feel that Philip's music is definitely related to a lot of different things. I mean, for example, there are moments in Dracula that could have been written only by someone with the most intimate knowledge of the music of Schubert. There are a couple of chord changes that are so Schubertian. I wish Schubert could hear how another composer had found new relevance in certain beautiful chord changes.

Does he hand you a piece when it is completed, or will he ask you to play something while he is still working on it?

What I've noticed is Philip's pieces are always in construction in a certain way. We've played Dracula together for many years now. We're continually finding finding new ways of doing things.

Really?

Yeah. He has said things like, he likes to write music because he likes to have his friends together. That's what he'll say. I think that was such a beautiful thing to say. It's kind of when we're rehearsing, as we will be later this year, doing Dracula with Philip playing and Michael Riseman conducting... I am sure that will be a change that will be made in the piece that we'll get at the rehearsal. There always has been. There will be little improvements, and a little tinkering. That will probably begin in his group, the Philip Glass Ensemble. Everyone is always thinking about the music that we play, and trying to find ways to make it better.

When you think of your years working with Philip, are there specific experiences or performances which come to mind?

There are a number of things that occur to me about Philip. I find him to be an incredibly generous person, and that can be—that has been expressed in many ways. For example, most people don't know how supportive he is of young composers. People who come to his for advice. He's incredibly generous that way. Most recently, our most recent recording is coming out in a couple of weeks. It's for the Amnesty International 50th Anniversary. And he didn't think twice about helping with it. He does things like this all the time. Largely unknown, largely unpublicized for causes that he thinks are important.

On February 28, there's going to be a trailer for a film, a documentary. Philip has agreed to do the music for the trailer. He's also doing a little soundtrack for an Occupy film.

He addressed the Occupy Wall Street General Assembly at Satygraha.

I was in New York and I saw that! What a beautiful convergence of the art and the politics of the moment.

I didn't get to see it live, but I saw the simulcast from BAM.

It was beautiful, especially in the act about King. I don't know if you could hear that on the simulcast, but in the hall, the sound was so magical! It was just awesome! It was really astonishing. I wrote to him afterwards. I haven't made it part of my life's work, but one thing I tell young people, young composers not to do is make an opera—because they never get played, and they spend so much time working on them. This performance convinced me of the value of doing an opera. I thought it was a remarkable performance.

 

What do you think about getting to play Glass's music while Glass is alive?

I think about Schubert. Most of his music wasn't played in his life, and one of his greatest pieces, the Schubert C Major Quintet, was written in the last month of his life, and it was kept in a cupboard for 36 years after his death. I remember telling someone the other day how much poorer the world would be without that one piece.

To me, that one piece is one of the greatest human documents there is. I am so glad that Philip, at a young age, that he decided that he was going to start his own ensemble, and that he was going to be a performer composer, which is something in a lot of ways has been lost in western society. Composers were, before the late '60s and early '70s, the composers all handed their music to performers. A lot of times they lost the feeling for what it was to be on stage and to play for an audience. That's one thing that's very dramatically clear in Philip's music. He knows what it's like to be on stage. To put Philip's music together in a rehearsal setting, and to be aware of what it takes to assemble a new piece, that's a very important detail, I think it needs to be said.

I'm really looking forward to Philip's next piece for Kronos, which will be the sixth string quartet. He will be writing it [this year]. After all of the experiences we've had together over the years, I just know that the String Quaret No. 6 will point us in the direction that all of these experience point to. I don't know what else to say. I'm really looking forward to it.

Thank you for your time and thanks for sharing. By the way, I recently bought a record player, and I have been digging your Bill Evans album and playing it a couple times a week.

Oh, thank you. Vinyl rocks!

Yes, and it's exactly the kind of album that really shows how wonderful LPs are.

Previous articles in our series on Philip Glass's 75th birthday: Philip Glass, An East Village Voice (February 1 cover story) Live: The Premiere of Glass's Symphony No. 9 at Carnegie Hall Happy (Happy Happy) 75th Birthday, Philip Glass, From South Park

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