Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Magnetized by music: A conversation with Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington

By Matías Tarnopolsky

Kronos Quartet

Cal Performances launches the 2012-2013 season with our third annual Fall Free for All, a free day of performances on the UC Berkeley campus, featuring performances by artists from the world renowned Kronos Quartet to student groups. Over 13,000 people attended the first and second Fall Free for Alls in 2010 and 2011, and we are looking forward to a similarly enthusiastic response this year.

The Kronos Quartet played the very first notes on the very first Fall Free for All, and they return this year as featured artists, additionally celebrating the first year of a new relationship with Cal Performances as Artists-in-Residence. Founded almost forty years ago by violinist David Harrington, Kronos has led the way as the leading string quartet dedicated solely to commissioning and performing the music of our time. Kronos has commissioned almost 800 new pieces, and their dedication to inventiveness, creativity and artistic excellence mirrors perfectly Cal Performances’ own values. Their performances with musicians and artists from non-western cultures have been a signature of their recent work. Last year Kronos won both the Polar Music Prize and the Avery Fisher Prize, two of the most significant awards in classical music.

Excerpted below is a Sept. 14 conversation I had with David Harrington on the phone from Krakow, Poland, at the start of a brief European tour in advance of Kronos’s Sept. 30 performance at Zellerbach Hall.

MT: When you and I first met, we talked about what you looked for in a new piece of music. I was struck by a comment you made about always looking for pieces of music that ‘magnetized’ you.

Kronos Quartet

DH: For me, being magnetized by a piece of music is an elemental part of being a musician and being a listener…it’s something that I trust. It’s just like if you’re cold you try to get into the sun, if you’re too hot you try to get under a tree. For me, I allow myself the opportunity to be totally be swept away by a piece of music. That’s why listening to music takes energy and takes time. It’s not passive. And it’s why I have to set aside hours every day to allow for that sort of magnetism. It’s quite rare that something just pulls me to it and demands that I listen.

MT: You are describing a visceral connection with the music. Does that connection happen as intensely with the audience?

DH: Definitely. For us the audience is an instrument. Kronos gets to play for the collective instrument that the audience becomes in a performance—they give music back to us. You can definitely feel those moments collectively with an audience where you never know what might happen next. They are unguarded moments, and they are very special. As a performer I want to protect those moments because every once in a while music somehow can burrow into our lives. And in the case of every composer that Kronos has commissioned, there has been an amazing personal musical experience that has led me to know who should write for Kronos and when.

MT: As a musician you seem to be in a perpetual state of dialogue between today and the past, between different cultures, languages and peoples.

DH: Often they are real conversations. We get to have extraordinary dialogues with composers and performers when they join us in rehearsals. It’s a fantastic experience to be a part of the works that we help create. I’m looking at a pile of CDs that I brought on this trip, and I have no idea what I’m going to be hearing next. It’s fun to explore.

MT: Kronos has commissioned almost 800 new pieces of music over 40 years. That’s an extraordinary, unprecedented, contribution to the music of our time. Can you reflect on what you have learned in bringing so much new music to life?

DH: I think that I’ve gained sympathy and respect for the difficulty of being a composer. I was on Skype earlier today with a young composer. The conversation had to do with my wanting to reassure this composer to not feel daunted by the tradition of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Berg, Webern, and Bartok, and then on to Terry Riley, Morton Feldman, Alfred Schnittke, Henryk Gorecki, Astor Piazzola, and many of the other people we have worked with. I wanted to be sure that in spite of that incredible body of work, this composer would find a personal voice, that she would turn her ears around, listen inside and be confident in what she heard. We all need to be listening to ourselves in order to find the music that needs to be the next note, the next piece.

MT: So how do you go about making programs? Often with music that you haven’t yet heard.

DH: What I have found is that music is influenced by its context. So we ask ourselves how should we begin a concert and how should we end a concert. Which piece follows which. Frequently we are in the position of making a concert program with music we haven’t played yet — maybe a piece hasn't been finished yet — so we have to take a guess.  Right now I’m thinking about the Fall Free for All concert. I’ve been wanting to make something that families will want to come to. That’s what I loved so much about the last time we performed at the Fall Free for All. It really felt to me like moms and dads were bringing their kids and their extended families. It felt like an ideal and perfect audience, exactly the audience that I hope for. I feel a lot of responsibility to try to make something beautiful, fun, wide-ranging and challenging—an experience that can be useful for people of all ages. Music doesn’t have to have any barriers.

Matias Tarnopolsky

In every program I want there to be moments that take each listener through all sorts of different feelings and musical colors, evoke geographic places, and make us consider totally different viewpoints about the world, religion, society.

One of the pieces we’re going to perform at the Fall Free for All is played at weddings in Syria; and another piece is from the Vietnamese opera tradition. And yet I want to make musical experiences where no one feels they have to know anything about the music in advance in order to appreciate it.

I use myself as an example: when I’m looking at this pile of CDs, I intentionally don’t read anything about the music before I listen. So the music either magnetizes me or it doesn’t. It’s very, very simple and I feel that’s how music really works. We can get confused by what we know and sometimes it’s better to respond instinctively, viscerally. That’s what gets to happen at the Fall Free for All: a fantastic time for music to be appreciated by families all together and hopefully there’ll be a piece that’s the littlest child’s favorite, another that will be the mom’s favorite and the grandparents will like all of them! Who knows!

Matias Tarnopolsky is the Director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. He previously served as Vice-President, Artistic Planning, at the New York Philharmonic, and Senior Director of Programming at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

David Harrington is violinist and founder of the Kronos Quartet. Kronos performs in Cal Performances’ Fall Free for All on Sunday, Sept. 30 at 5 p.m. in Zellerbach Hall, then in a Schooltime concert on Tuesday, Oct. 2. Full details at calperformances.org.