Interview: David Harrington, Kronos Quartet

As one of the most forward-thinking neo-classical groups make their way to the Edinburgh International Festival, <b>Kronos Quartet</b> founder <b>David Harrington</b> tells why they've got more than the X Factor

Feature by David McNally | 28 Jul 2010
  • Kronos Quartet

Formed in Seattle in 1973, the Kronos Quartet has steadily become one of the most famous contemporary classical groups in the world. As well as working with a host of big names in the modern compositional field (Philip Glass, Steve Reich), they're equally at home covering everybody from Jimi Hendrix to Sigur Rós.

Prolific, yet they are likely best known for performing Clint Mansell’s 2000 score to Requiem for a Dream, which has since been used in a variety of movie trailers, sporting broadcasts and melodramatic moments from The X Factor. Not that violinist and founder David Harrington takes offence at this ubiquity. “We are interested in getting the sound of this music out there,” he says. “So it's all good as far as I'm concerned! I tend to think of the pieces as organisms which go off and have a life of their own after we play them, by which time we've moved on to something new.” Contrary to that ethos, the focus of their upcoming Edinburgh International Festival engagement is a reprisal of two key works from Harrington's history.

The Kronos Quartet will be in performance at the Usher Hall on 21 August and can be seen in conversation earlier that day at the Hub. This time around the focus will be on a composition that Harringtron says has had the most impact out of any music he's ever heard, a piece without which Kronos wouldn't exist – George Crumb's anti-war polemic Black Angels.

“It really woke me up and changed my whole life,” says Harrington. “It was like a huge blast coming out of the radio, one night in August of 1973. I was a young man looking for music that felt right to play, the Vietnam war was still going on and many people were looking for ways to express themselves, and all of a sudden this music was coming out of the radio. I couldn't believe it.” Its upcoming performance promises to be special in its own right. “As we perform it now, 36 years later, there's a theatrical element to it – you're involved in chanting, playing instruments other than your normal ones. This will be the first time we've played the new version here.'

The quartet will also perform Different Trains (the Steve Reich piece commissioned specially for Kronos). “Yeah, and strangely enough Steve is now finishing up his third piece for Kronos,” says Harrington. So he's a repeat offender? “Yeah! Gotta be a compliment, right? We think relationships are very important; if we're involved with someone it's rarely a one-shot deal. With Different Trains, I can hardly think of a piece that's influenced the way Kronos works as much as that, other than Black Angels. There had never been anything quite like that in string quartet music before, and it marked the point we became fully amplified.”

The diverse range of collaborators Kronos have worked with – Tom Waits, Allen Ginsberg, Mike Patton and Amon Tobin to name but a few – is less a conscious strategy than the simple result of keeping their ears open. “For me, basically I'm waiting to be magnetised by music I hear,” says Harrington. “That’s the only absolute in music, and when that happens I trust my ears. That's the common feature in all the stuff we've been involved with, whether it's working with Asha Bhosle or Tom Waits – there's something that I've found really transformative, and I've just wanted to be closer to it. You can only get so close and then it evaporates; the only thing we have of it is what we can remember. The job of people like me is to try and create experiences that are memorable.”

You might think it tough to keep going after so long in the business, but the quartet believes injections of new blood bring fresh impetus. “Well, I'm under headphones many hours every day listening to new music, and so far there's been about 700 pieces of new music commissioned for Kronos. So yeah, I'm open to everything new. People try to define things, I guess it goes back to how we're taught at school – you learn to separate – and what I've found with music is, the more I listen, the less I know. For me, music is becoming more and more mysterious.”

Of course, if you speak to most people who have worked the same job for three decades they'd probably say it's gotten a little boring, but that's clearly not the case for Kronos Quartet. “Oh no. My teacher – the wonderful Vita Reynolds – one of the last things she ever told me was that the amazing thing about music is that it can always be better," booms Harringtron. "Today's music will be an improvement on yesterday's. I often think that as I reach for my violin and bow.”

Playing Usher Hall, Edinburgh on 21 Aug