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March 7, 2005 | by  | in Features |
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Classical, But Not As We Know It

This month Wellington gets a visit from Kronos Quartet, whose turn on the Requiem for a Dream soundtrack made classical cool for rock fans. Salient’s Music Editor Tessa Prebble talks to the Quartet’s founder and violinist, David Harrington.

I am sitting on the end of my flat mate’s bed, nervously tapping my fingers on the key pad of the phone. It’s five minutes to eleven, and in a couple of minutes I will be talking to a musician from a group who are the revered rock stars of classical music. Aside from the frequent experiences of hearing what I referred to as a kid as “Dad’s death music”, I had, before being introduced to Kronos Quartet, very little knowledge of classical music. I feel more than a little out of my depth as I dialled David Harrington’s San Francisco number.

What greets me on the end of the line, however, comes as a welcome relief; Harrington, founding member of, and violinist in Kronos Quartet, is friendly, insightful, and down to earth. While I think my limited knowledge in his area of expertise must have been pretty obvious at times during our interview, Harrington didn’t seem to notice, and was quite happy to discuss the Quartet’s influences and motivations, and what our audiences will take away from their performance in March.

We began by talking about how the Quartet got started. It was over thirty years ago now, but Harrington remembers exactly what triggered the group to form. “It was 1973, and late one night on the radio I heard some music that was alarming and unbelievably gut wrenching and fantastic. It was a piece by the American composer George Crumb called ‘Black Angels’. Growing up in the Vietnam time in America was tough, it was hard to know what to do, and all of a sudden I heard this piece of music and I knew exactly what I was going to do”. Harrington’s final line-up consists of Jennifer Culp on cello, John Sherba on violin and Hank Dutt on viola as well as himself. Although there have been some changes in performers over the years, Kronos Quartet is still going strong after three decades together, which is no small feat.

Kronos Quartet, through their deliberate use of rock and other contemporary styles of music within a classical framework (like their rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’), have brought classical music to a whole generation of people who may not have discovered or appreciated it until they were well into their middle age. However, Harrington admits that this was never an aim of the group. “You don’t really have control over some things. I mean I can’t say it was a goal, we have tried to play the music that feels right to us the best way we can. But yeah, it does seem as if our audiences are getting younger and more vital as time goes on, and I love that!” He also admits to their featuring on the Requiem for a Dream score as being a big part of that popularity: “It seems like it has gotten our music out there in a way that is very important to us, I mean it’s an amazing soundtrack, and we were really honoured to be a part of it.” Harrington pauses. “Shit what a gut-wrenching film that was”.

If people like me (that is, ignorant in the ways of classical music) enjoy what Kronos Quartet produces, it leads me to assume that classical purists are probably up in arms. When I ask Harrington if the quartet gets much of a backlash from such groups he says simply “Yeah, we do”. There’s no undercurrent of anger from him, he just sees it as the way it is and always will be. “You know, it feels like a mosquito landing on my arm,” he says, laughing, “but you know what? I’m not going to slap it because I don’t want my own blood to mess up my clothes”. I for one am happy they haven’t let it discourage them.

Kronos Quartet have not only brought classical music to younger audiences – albeit accidentally – but they have also helped the world’s youngest composers to get their music out into the world. Aside from playing pieces they choose and adapt, like various Hendrix pieces they have played along the way, the Quartet also commission works, and recently set up the Under 30 Project to celebrate the Quartet’s thirtieth birthday. In its first year, the project received over three hundred scores from all over the world. “We thought, ‘what’s the best way to celebrate our birthday?’ and figured it was to learn some new things, and one of the things we felt we wanted to know more about was what the youngest composers in our midst are up to, and so we established the under 30 commission”. From scores of entrants, the Project picks one talented young compser to write a commissioned work. In their first year the winner was Alexandra Du Bois from Bloomington Indiana (one of her pieces will be played in the upcoming concert), and in the second year it was Phillipe Perez Santiago from Mexico. Illinois native Dan Visconti was announced as the 2005 recipient on January 14. Of the winners, Harrington says, “these young composers wrote fantastic pieces for us, just amazing. You know, for me, there is just a great deal of energy coming into the Quartet from this and we are just delighted about it”. Through their Under 30 Project, which is a collaboration with the Hopkins Centre at Dartmouth College and the American Music Centre, the Quartet is giving young composers a chance to have their music heard, as well as picking up pieces for themselves that are fresh and original, and maintaining their reputation as innovators and boundary pushers in classical music.

Kronos Quartet opened my eyes. Before listening to them I had always had a certain attitude towards classical music, probably due to the fact that I thought it was for people who were old and crusty (sorry Dad). I’m not saying that I suddenly think all classical music is fantastic, or that you will become a classical music connoisseur after hearing the Quartet, but if you give them a chance they can change the way you think about music. Imagine a song that could move you to tears in its first four seconds without a single word, or make you laugh without any corny lines. Kronos Quartet play music the way it was always supposed to be played.

To spout a cliché, it’s music that truly acts as a universal language. This explains why the Quartet is so popular world wide. “Well you know, we have been pretty lucky, worldwide the response to our work has been really heartening, and very strong. Whether it’s Moscow, Paris, New York or back home in San Francisco we just get a fantastic response, we feel pretty fortunate really,” says Harrington humbly. Kronos Quartet’s music has no need for translation: It’s powerful, moving, gut-wrenching and beautiful no matter what language you speak.

When I ask Harrington what our audiences can expect from their upcoming performance in March, he starts to get excited. “You can expect some music you have never heard before. I’m interested in presenting useful musical experiences for people; I want people to feel more alive and more appreciative of the world we are all a part of. For me, music is such a great way to do that. We are just trying to celebrate music, and hopefully our concerts can do that”.

If you want to experience something new, raw, exciting, and nothing like you have ever experienced before, I strongly recommend going to see the Quartet when they come, for the first time in nine years, to Wellington. As Harrington points out to me, “I think one’s appreciation of music is very instinctive, you enlarge your vocabulary by having more experiences”. You can never hear too much. Come on, enlarge your vocabulary. It’s what you came to Wellington for, is it not?

The Kronos Quartet perform on the 14th of March at the Town Hall. Tickets are normally $50 (which I consider cheap in itself for such an opportunity), but if it doesn’t sell out there will be Student Rush tickets that you can purchase on the night from 7pm for $25. But don’t forget your student ID!

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