Kronos Quartet boasts almost 40 years of incredibly diverse repertoire, a totally different approach to your ‘traditional’ string quartet and numerous awards. I interviewed violinist David Harrington about their return to the Malta Arts Festival.
Last year the ensemble played in Floriana under a perfectly starlit sky, in what they described as one of the most “fantastic” locations they have ever played in.
The result – a combination of evocative lighting, eclectic compositions and perfect musicianship – was mesmerising.
This year the Kronos Quartet is back for its second stint at the Malta Arts Festival, not only with a concert at the same “fantastic” location (David Harrington’s description of the Argotti Gardens) but also with a one-day residency aimed at helping young musicians who might wish to follow in the quartet’s footsteps.
And what illustrious footsteps they are, too. Kronos Quartet is credited with revolutionising the traditional idea of what music a “classical” outfit should play.
They have performed with an almost impossibly diverse string of musicians – the long list includes legend David Bowie, pop songstress Nelly Furtado and even the bad boys of industrial rock, Nine Inch Nails. Not what you’d expect your typical violin, viola or cello player to be endorsing.
Then again, the quartet is anything but typical. Most interviews and reviews run by the press tend to mention the ubiquitous soundtrack to the film Requiem for a Dream – an outstanding work, to be sure, but the quartet’s musical genius extends far beyond that.
We’re lucky enough to be experiencing this genius once again this year. The programme will, as expected from Kronos, include that ‘world music’ touch that the quartet is renowned for. Last year we were treated to music from India, America, Turkey, Egypt and Russia, among others. This year the mix includes what I like to call ‘the usual suspects’, with a touch of Vietnamese, Polish and Serbian thrown in. How do the musicians decide which compositions to include?
“We’re trying to bring the world together, showing different traditions, places and times through our music. Some of the music is very old indeed; but old music can still somehow sound new. The location where we’re playing also plays a part in our selection. When I picture the night scene at the botanical gardens, for instance, it provides the perfect backdrop for Tenebre, which we commissioned from The National’s Bryce Dessner,” Harrington says.
The quartet will also be performing a years-old traditional folk song by Vietnamese composer Kim Sinh. As I’m conducting the interview via telephone, Harrington tells me that they are actually on their way to start rehearsing this very piece; the Malta concert will be the first time they perform it in public.
“Kim Sinh’s prowess is incredible. He lost his sight when he was only three months and yet when he recorded this piece he still managed to play all the instruments himself.No one knows when the piece was originally composed; it’s extremely old but we are treating it as new music.”
I point out that many traditional string quartets tend to opt for ‘safer’ composers, the old masters perhaps. Yet, Kronos Quartet invariably favour composers hailing from countries which, to a certain extent, have gone through (or are still going through) a troubled past.
Many would take this as a political statement. Harrington agrees, to a certain extent. He gave birth to the quartet some time after hearing The Black Angels’ Vietnam-war inspired pieces. As a young musician who was wondering what was happening to the world and how he could change it, he figured that music could be his voice.
“Kronos is all about finding voices. I’m not looking for a fight but I’ve realised that concerts can be a place where people gain strength, energy and perspective to deal with problems. Musicians are privileged; we travel around the world, make friends with the locals, experience different cultures. With this privilege comes a sense of responsibility; we see things that are not reported in the newspapers. Our music gives both a sense of the beauty of humanity and of it destructiveness.”
Harrington adds that after the September 11 devastation, the group felt a heightened need to play music from more cross-cultures, particularly from those that “our leaders might be afraid of – Iraq, Afghanistan and the like.”
Surely, given that Kronos have been performing together since 1978 (with a couple of changes to the line-up along the way), there have been some changes in the style or delivery of the music. Harrington replies that any evolution is more related to logistics than anything else.
“A concert like the one we’re giving in Malta would not have been possible 30 years ago. The idea of performing in an open-air space of this nature… I would never have imagined that. It took us years to learn to see the sound we want in such a setting, to amplify the way we wish too… there are always changes of this nature.”
What about changes in line-ups?
“Recently we met up with Joan Jean Renaud, our former cellist. It was a joy to see her and to play with her once again, to be reminded of what she had brought to the group. Ultimately she had to leave because she was suffering from Multiple Sclerosis. When I think of all the musicians who have worked with us I feel very fortunate. They’ve all been incredible experiences.”
I turn the conversation back to the Malta Arts Festival and the residency that is planned for the day after the concert. The idea, Harrington tells me, is to offer help and advice to those musicians who are interested in carrying out what Kronos have been doing for almost 40 years.
This 40-year benchmark is rather rare, of course. The fact that any group manages to survive this long – let alone continuing to excel and surprise – is an achievement in itself. Forty years is a long time, but Harrington disagrees.
“It’s not long enough. Life is too short. There are so many more things we’d like to do. I’d like another 40 years.” Despite the smile I sense in his voice, he is perfectly serious. It is this total dedication to music that is part of the charm of Kronos, after all.
An edited version of this interview appeared on The Sunday Times. The Kronos Quartet will be performing today (Tuesday 17th) at Argotti Gardens, Floriana, at 9 p.m. The residency will be held on Wednesday between 10 a.m. and 5.30 p.m. at the Aula Magna of the Old University, Valletta .