Is it possible to be radical 40 years into your musical career?
After commissioning 800 new pieces and performing works that span a millennium? After groups like the JACK Quartet, ETHEL, Brooklyn Rider and, locally, New Music Raleigh have continued to prove that the string quartet really can be a rock band?
For Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington, these are the wrong questions. He'd rather talk about the piece that's inspiring his next project or the new idea he's discovered hiding within something he's played many times. Even though Harrington peppers his conversation with stories from his long career, those tales only matter insofar as they connect to his current project.
Kronos' next endeavor is a musical consideration of World War I and the century it birthed. The two-part program begins with Prelude to a Black Hole, a compendium of some of that era's most important music. The second half, Beyond Zero 1914–18, combines the music of Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov and the archival film plundering of Bill Morrison.
The tireless, ever-enthusiastic Harrington explored the process of conceptualizing and constructing the set.
INDY: Why pick World War I as a theme for a Kronos Quartet program?
DAVID HARRINGTON: The more I contemplate influences on Kronos, I keep coming back to that war as a very pivotal moment—not only artistically but also in terms of world events and setting the stage for all the other wars that have happened since. I can recall the very first time I heard the music of Stravinsky, Bartók, Webern, Charles Ives and Ravel; all of these people were very active at that moment during that war. That was at a time in our own country when jazz was evolving and originating; shortly after that, the blues. It was a very potent time, and it seemed to me that one way to mark that event would be to explore it as much as we possibly could.
How did you incorporate the composer Aleksandra Vrebalov and the filmmaker Bill Morrison?
I was speaking with Aleksandra Vrebalov, knowing that she was born in Serbia very close to where the war actually began, where the Archduke was shot. It just seemed like there was a piece of music waiting to happen. The more we talked, the more we realized we needed to bring Bill Morrison into this equation. The nature of his work is to explore archival films and discover what still exists, what it now looks like 100 years later or more. Bill made the film to Aleksandra's music. You have the sense the music is leading the film or instigating scenes, and it's really amazing how the synchronicity between the film image and the music are totally locked together.
Does that present any challenges for you as performers?
Yes, we have to be right on the beat. [Laughs.]
For the other half of the program, Prelude to a Black Hole, there was so much music leading up to World War I. How did you come up with these 10 selections?
Both Alexsandra and I listened to hundreds of different pieces of music. There was so much that I wanted to include that I realized the only way I was ever really going to be happy was to make a half-hour pre-show recording. If you really want to hear the entire Prelude to a Black Hole, you are going to have to get there a half-hour early. A lot of incredible music will be played before we come on stage.
How did you find these specific pieces?
As Aleksandra was writing the piece, she realized she wanted to have some Serbian orthodox chant as part of the ending. She was invited to a monastery and was allowed to record this incredible choir. When I heard this, I thought this is unbelievably beautiful. I asked her if there was a way she could make a version for Kronos. We played it, and I thought this is how Prelude to a Black Hole has to begin and it is also how Beyond Zero ends. A certain circle is created.
When you think about the lead up to World War I, you have to think about Stravinsky and The Rite of Spring and the Three Pieces for String Quartet, one of the very first pieces Kronos played back in 1973. So Stravinsky had to be on there.
I heard this incredible recording made by Geeshie Wiley a little after World War I, but it had to do with a soldier going off to war. "Last Kind Words Blues" in my opinion is one of the greatest songs ever written by an American musician. That had to be there. And then Aleksandra called me and said, "Have you heard the song that Ravel wrote during the war?" I hadn't, and most musicians I have met hadn't heard the Three Beautiful Birds of Paradise, dedicated to three of his friends that were killed. It is really a miraculous piece.
And that's just a sample. Were you trying to make some grand statement about the music of that moment, or is it more impressionistic than that?
I wanted to make something that felt like it took the listener to that point within the world of music as much as we possibly could in a short amount of time. When I was assembling Prelude, I didn't know what Aleksandra's piece was going to be like. We worked together and independently, almost like a wall of snapshots or postcards or old photographs of an earlier time in music that even now is influencing us.
The other guiding principle of the 10 different pieces that comprise the Prelude: I imagine us working with those composers. If Kronos were alive in 1914 and were performing, I know myself well enough to know we would have been working with them.
I have heard you talk about things being "Kronos pieces." How do you define that?
When a composer comes up to me and says, "Oh, I can write you a Kronos piece," I usually run as fast as I can. I am not really interested in doing something we have already done. I want each composer to explore the interior reaches of their world and make something that nobody else can make, like Geeshie Wiley did, like Revel did. These are people that are listening to their inner life, the sounds that nobody can hear but them. All of the 850 pieces we've played, the conversation has never started with "Oh, write a Kronos piece."
Dan Ruccia lives in Durham. He is a composer and improviser, playing with Polyorchard, Cyanotype and others.