Kronos Quartet's David Harrington on Glasgow concerts – full interview transcript
Artistic director of the groundbreaking ensemble on curating a mini-festival
The artistic director of the world-renowed Kronos Quartet explains why he's brining a mini-festival to Glasgow in May
The List: Could you tell me first of all when it was that you decided to put together this programme and how long you’ve been working on it?
David Harrington: You know it seems to me we’ve been thinking about this for at least a year, probably more. The idea of bringing the expanse of our music as much as we can in four or five shows to Glasgow is very exciting. We have of lot of friends coming, collaborators we've worked with over many years and also new relationships that we’re just beginning so it’s going to be a really intense and fertile time I think.
TL: So those collaborators, that spectrum of people who you’ve worked with over a number of years - was it difficult to get that set of people together for this event?
DH: Wu Man has a really intense schedule as does Tanya Tagaq, and Alim Qasimov…yes it has taken a lot of configuring to make everything work out the way we hope it will.
TL: Who was the most difficult to get hold of?
DH: Now that’s a good question! We’re sort of in regular contact with almost all of the artists that are joining us. Catriona McKay is the newest person we’re working with and I think she’s in Australia right now - she’s kind of finishing up the piece she’s working on for us and actually I’m really excited about that. We’re going do some chamber Scott Skinner songs with her so we’ve been in long distance communication about this idea and it’s really fantastic.
TL: Would you mind talking a little bit about those collaborations? Tanya Tagaq for example is someone that not every one may be familiar with. Could you give an explanation of what she does and how that fits in with your process?
DH: When I first heard Tanya it was on a recording. I think it was fRoots magazine had a CD in one of their issues around seven or eight years ago and I was in an aeroplane from Europe. Somewhere on that CD was a track by Tanya Tagaq whom I'd never heard of before and I started listening and just could not believe what I was hearing. I've heard a lot of different singers and, of course, I'm a huge appreciator of voices from many different places, qualities, languages, anything, but I'd never heard anything like that - like Tanya. It was as though she had not only a huge string inside of her throat but she had a bow inside there, or several of them and so it was this amazingly complex vocal instrument. I just couldn’t stop listening and for me that's when I know it's something Kronos has to be involved with - when I encounter something and it's grabbing me every time and I just don’t want to let it go. By the time I got home I realised 'I'm calling Tanya somehow, I'm gonna find out where she is'. Tanya is from northern Canada and is Inuit and the kind of singing she does is inspired by an ancient tradition of Inuit throat-singing which is normally done between two women, sometimes men but normally women. But what I was hearing Tanya do - I'd heard this kind of singing for years. Tanya sounded like more than one person all by herself and had basically taught herself how to do what two people normally do. She explained she learnt how to do it in the shower when she was a teenager. She's one of my favourites - persons and musicians and I'm so glad that she's coming to Glasgow.
TL: How does that work then when she comes to work with the quartet? Obviously what she's doing is producing some sort of high sounds and some low sounds simultaneously. Is it that you take on an aspect of that vocal range or is she still producing the same sort of multitude of sounds herself, or do you take over that process?
DH: We've done several different things with Tanya. The first piece that we did with her was basically an improvisation that we structured together, then we decided it would be great to have a composer friend of ours write something for us. What we're going to do together in Glasgow is the result of Derek Charke having written a fantastic piece for Tanya. She will not only be throat-singing and making the kinds of sounds that I first heard her do but she'll also be narrating a story within this piece and at various points in the work Kronos takes on elements of Tanya's kind of technique. There are certain things we can do with the bows and the strings that are similar to what Tanya can do.
TL: Could you talk a little bit about that first encounter, because there's quite a popular video of it on YouTube and it seems like, with the use of colours, it was quite a unique process that you went through there. Could you talk a little bit about that and what you felt you achieved through that?
DH: Up until about two hours before our first rehearsal I had no idea how we were going to bridge the, what I thought was a musical divide. It was about 5 o'clock in the morning and finally I thought "of course" and I happened to have some of my granddaughter's crayons in my suitcase and it just gave me this idea. I got out a bunch of pieces of paper and basically I drew colours on five sets of paper and handed them out and that became the score and then we interpreted what each of the colours made and found an order for them and started experimenting with sounds. It was kind of like building blocks with colours and we tried to build a piece of music together. It was really fun and I'd do it again in a minute. It was fantastic - I loved it.
TL: Did you say they were your granddaughter's colouring crayons? I've also read about the composition of the piece that you'll be playing with Wu Man as well and how that also has a sort of childish element to it.
DH: I'm very invigorated by my grandchildren - to have grandkids is the coolest experience I've ever had in life.
TL: Do they impact upon you musically as well?
DH: Definitely. When my granddaughter was about one and a half, or even younger, we had the most fun. I'd carry her in my arms around the house and we had stations at various places around the house. Each station had different toys and different sounding musical toys and we created all kinds of wonderful sounds. We had so much fun just going around the house making all these kinds of sounds together and I realised that I needed to tell my friend Terry Riley about this. I was just having so much fun. I invited Terry to come over to our house and play Emily's instruments with me and he recorded a lot of the toys and they became central elements in one of the movements of The Cusp of Magic.
TL: What about Matmos? I reckon for a lot of our readers Matmos will be one of the acts that they're more familiar with. Obviously your collaborators come from a wide range of fields but in a way they also seem to be quite unusual collaborators for you - how did you first get involved with them and how long has your relationship been going on?
DH: Now that’s a good question. I can't remember how long it is. What happened is I was at a record store in San Francisco and as I frequently do, I just kind of grabbed whatever there is that I'd never heard of before. I found this CD by Matmos, I really liked it and their phone number and email address was somewhere on the recording and then I found out that they lived in San Francisco - incredible! So we were in touch and we've been friends ever since and we've done a couple of different pieces together, I find it incredibly creative. I think they're just wonderfully refreshing presences on the music scene.
TL: How do you work with somebody who's using a lot of samples, who's using a lot of electronics - how do you create live performances with something like that?
DH: Well it's different every time, in every relationship. It kind of depends on how a person or group might work together with themselves. We try to find a vocabulary, kind of like what we did with Tanya, try to find a way that makes sense to work together. With Alim Qasimov we tried to figure out a way how we can do something together. I admired his work ever since I first heard it - I thought he was one of the great singers of the world, so how can we bring together almost a verbal tradition with a more notated tradition? In each case you sort of need to find a way to unlock a secret that opens the door to the possibilities. It's hard to answer the question without getting this specific.
TL: With Tanya your vocabulary became colour so when you were working with Alim, if you weren’t working with notations, what was your vocabulary like then?
DH: With Alim what happened is we found some music that he loved and when I heard it I loved it as well. It turns out that the music we first played with Alim was his bringing together of Mugham which is probably equivalent to Raga in India. It's an ancient improvised tradition so he brought Mugham together with some love songs, some of them were even from films and from Azerbaijan and made these amazing performances and I heard some of them and I could definitely imagine Kronos joining in on those songs. Our friend Jacob Garchik heard some of Alim's performances with his group and also with his daughter Forganna and made Kronos part of that. were able to be joined to what the Kasim Ensemble was doing…I'm sure this sounds kind of complex and for a while it was complex, until it got simple. Finding a vocabulary was what the rehearsals were about.
TL: One unique part of the programme is that you're going to be in the Hamilton Mausoleum. Was that your idea or was that something that somebody in Glasgow came up with…were you aware of the space?
DH: I think that the people from Glasgow, I don’t think any of them had been to the Glasgow Mausoleum, I found out about it when I was researching Glasgow and Scotland actually. I can't remember where I found out about this but what intrigued me was that somewhere it said that Hamilton Mausoleum had the longest natural reverb of any place in the world. When we were doing a sight visit last summer just to kind of plot out some of the possibilities for these concerts I said I had to go to the Hamilton Mausoleum, and actually I think it was Sven who made a few calls and we ended up there that very day. I can't wait to play there. It's going to be a wonderful concert I think with Tanya, Katrina McKay, Alim and Forganna. It's really going to be fun and hopefully the sound in there will work for all the different instruments and voices. I'm pretty sure it will - we'll find out.
TL: How did you test the reverb when you went on that site visit…did you take instruments?
DH: Our soundman Scott Fraser was with us. He did some recording actually…we have some of the Hamilton Mausoleum reverb and we use it in concerts now because you can clap your hands and then record the reverb after the clap for example, so some of the Hamilton Mausoleum reverbs is being heard in concert halls throughout the world.
TL: Can we talk a bit about [Steve Reich's composition] WTC 9/11 because obviously this is one of the real highlights of the programme. You must have done quite a few performances of it by now?
DH: Actually we've only done three, well four because the first night we did it twice on the same program and then we played it in Tusan the other night and most recently in Orange County.
TL: What do you feel the reception is to it? Has it been received in the way you expected?
DH: People are normally pretty stunned. I know I was stunned when we first played it - throughout the recording of all the backing tracks, everything associated with the piece. It's incredibly disturbing but at the same time, in the space of 16 minutes you revisit that day and everything associated with it but somehow by the end of the piece there's a transformation that has happened. It's an amazing work of art as far as I'm concerned, it's truly amazing and sonically it's off the charts. What Steve did with the sounds of the voices of the first responders to that attack is just incredible, the cantorial singing at the end of the piece, the way he's integrated these elements and made a statement from them is just fantastic. It's sort of hard to describe it except that we're aware of what this piece brings to a concert and as with Different Trains which he wrote for Kronos in 1988 this new piece WPC 9/11 opens more doors for not only sonic but emotional possibilities for the future of the entire medium. Really what I think it's adding is what it means to make a concert or make a musical statement.
TL: Are there any samples or vocal arts for the piece that particularly get you? Is there a way or moment in particular that you thought flawed you or flawed the audience? Could you pick one out because I know that there are a number of different samples?
DH: I think the very opening is just, for me it takes me back to that morning so immediately, just through sound.
TL: One thing I find quite interesting about the idea of the piece and obviously I haven't heard it yet - is when Steve has been talking about it he's spoken about overlapping vowel sounds, maybe a sense of connection created between people as a result of that and it sounds as if there's a degree of feeling created between an audience, between performer and also between people who are present and involved that day? Do you think it's difficult to write and to perform pieces like that, where you can understand up until a point but really covering an act of violence which is maybe not possible to understand at all? A similar point can maybe be made in Different Trains and its connection to the holocaust as well. Do you feel like you ever do broach in the performance something that you can't understand sonically, emotionally or otherwise?
DH: Yes definitely. My father-in-law used to say that it's like trying to teach a dog algebra or something like that - there are certain things that are not understandable, either our brains aren't big enough or the world is too complex. Generally music itself is like that - I find that the world that we're living in has so many possibilities and so many histories, not only acts of violence are mysterious but even acts of kindness. There are so many things that are kind of off the charts in terms of trying to know what they really are, ultimately a lot of things are down to instinct and feeling. The fact that some of the words near the opening of WPC 9/11 can't be discerned very clearly doesn’t bother me because I know what they mean anyway, even if I can't hear them I know what they mean. You know what I mean? There's kind of a setting that is sonically described even if the words can't be figured out.
TL: I wonder if you could explain a little about the idea of repetition and also how a piece can be repetitious but how the playing of every note within that piece could be different? For somebody who doesn't really know minimalism that well, how would you describe what makes a piece that uses repetition not boring basically?
DH: Well I think all forms of expression is repetition in a variety of ways. Even as we're speaking there are a limited number of words that we use and we use them over and over in various contexts and we look at things from various angles. I think it's the same way with music, even with very microtonal music…from India or Mughams from Azerbaijan or Iraq, there's lots of notes between normal pitches. You come back to those notes and there's certain rhythms, whether it's music that you might hear on the radio or whether it's music that you would hear in commercials on television, there are certain ways of repeating things that reinforce or that comfort or lull in some cases and composers and musicians, probably forever, have used various forms of repetition. I mean, the opening of WPC 9/11 for example is, as Steve said, like a phone that is off the hook and it's bleeping in a rhythmic way. How do you make your violin sound like that? That was what we were trying to figure out in the recording studio. And then mixing the actual violin sound with the phone that Steve sampled, to create almost another sound. I don’t know if that explains anything but it's interesting the people that one associates with the term minimalist in music. We've worked with those major figures: Terry Riley, Mott Young, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and none of them use that term to describe their music.
TL: They don't use the term minimalism?
DH: No. It's doubtful that Debussy used the term impressionist, even when he was talking to his wife. It's something that is seen and heard from a certain distance and frequently it might be the term from another art form or perspective really. But I think that people that are involved in creating dynamic expression use what feels natural to them and Steve started out as a drummer - well any drummer in the universe knows quite a lot about repetition.
TL: One thing you've spoken about when performing Different Trains is the sort of mechanical or the technical difficulties of playing a piece like that. Is that something that you experience with this new piece, with WPC 9/11? Are there certain challenges involved in the playing of it?
DH: Yes and a lot of it has to do with finding the tone that feels right. For example, in the last movement there's a song that is sung in the Jewish tradition before a body is buried and Steve brings this song into the piece and then later the decanter and what he wants the audience to hear is really a mixture of an instrumental sound and a vocal sound. It's not that the vocal sound predominates but that the audience knows there's a voice but isn’t quite sure what's being sung or what's being said. It's probably blurring an image somehow. I'm not saying that Steve Rice has become an impressionist or anything.
TL: Can we go on to talk quickly about the work for barbed wire fences and one question I had is that when you're playing a barbed wire fence, all videos of you doing so, some of the fence wires are actually barbed and some of them aren’t barbed. I wondered what sort of resonance you get from different sorts of wires and do you yourself rig those or who was it that devised and tuned those instruments?
DH: Initially we worked very closely with Jon Rose from Australia and John is without any question the master of the barbed wire fence and as an image we've talked earlier about bringing images into what a concert might be or what it means to attend a concert or listen to a musical. When I first heard Jon Rose's work with the fences of Australia - again it was thrilling, shocking and totally opened my ears. It's very clear that as times goes on there are more barbed wire fences in the world not less, and we're seeing them every night on the news, whether it's Guantanamo, Palestine or Israel or between north and south Korea or years ago with Auschwitz and the Berlin Wall. You name it, barbed wire fences have been a part of recent times and there are more of them and I believe it's up to musicians to create images and the idea of bowing a barbed wire fence to me seemed like a very important statement to want to make. The other thing is that fences are strings. I play on strings every day and I have to leave in about three minutes to lay on the four strings that I have and the idea of bowing metal strings, some of which are barbed, is kind of enlarging on something that we've been doing for years. Now we have a piece directly about September 11th 2001, we have a piece about the holocaust, using actually voices of people that witnessed went through it, we have a piece where barbed wires are actually resonating, buzzing - you actually hear what they sound like. I forgot a major fence and that's the one between the United States and Mexico, so anyway - people like me bow everything in sight.
TL: I'll just ask you one last question. In one of the performances it says that there's a mass participation element, I wonder if you could shed some light on that?
DH: Is that the one we're doing with the Family Concert with Craig Woodson?
DH: We've worked with Craig for many, many years now. He's one of my favourite forces in the universe. Craig delights in teaching people that basically any object can become a musical object. You don’t have to have a lot of money to be involved in making sounds and people can empower themselves by making their own instruments and Craig can demonstrate that right there in front of - hopefully lots of families, lots of kids. It's always a joyous experience when we get to play with Craig.
TL: So will people be encouraged to make instruments out of objects that they are carrying with them then?
DH: Yes and Craig will probably be providing all sorts of materials and will show parents and their kids how to make instruments.
Various venues, Glasgow, Thu 12–Sun 15 May.