Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Kronos Quartet’s David Harrington discusses the power and mystery of music

By Chad Radford

For almost fifty years, Kronos Quartet has served as one of the most forward-thinking contemporary string ensembles in the world. Using music as a means of breaking down the social, political, and spiritual barriers that separate people and cultures, the group’s catalog includes collaborations with a range of artists, including Tom Waits, Laurie Anderson, and Azerbaijani father-daughter singing duo Alim and Fargana Qasimov.

In 2017, the Trump administration imposed a travel ban restricting access to the United States from Venezuela, North Korea, and a number of Muslim-majority countries—including Iran, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Syria. Naturally, Kronos Quartet responded by creating a musical program—Music for Change: The Banned Countries. The program includes commissioned works by artists and composers from Muslim-majority nations, including Yemeni composer Fatimah Al-Zaelaeyah, Syrian vocalist Omar Souleyman, and Iranian vocalist Mahsa Vahdat.

For a 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, February 18, performance at Penn State’s Eisenhower Auditorium, Vahdat will join Kronos Quartet to celebrate both the subtle and overwhelming beauty that defines music from those countries. Kronos violinist David Harrington recently discussed the quartet’s history of lifelong collaborations, communing with the deeper meanings in music, and exploring the ways in which the universe makes sense.

Question: Kronos Quartet has long collaborated with other artists—Bryce Dessner from The National, Terry Riley, Wu Man, and Alim and Fargana Qasimov. For the Music for Change: The Banned Countries program, you’re performing with Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat. What is the thread that connects you with these artists?

David Harrington: The thread is listening to and being occasionally magnetized by what other musicians are able to do. This has happened consistently throughout my life. That’s what all of us in Kronos do. When I first heard Alim Qasimov in London, maybe twenty years ago, it was in a very small room, and it felt like this man was singing right into the center of my life. It was so beautiful and confident and passionate and virtuosic. It was so many things all at once that I vowed one day we would find a way of working with Alim. In the meantime, his daughter, Fargana, was studying with him, and she became a master as well. So when we began working with him, we also got to work with her. I can say the same thing about our relationship with Riley, Astor Piazzolla, Waits, Tanya Tagaq, Anderson, you name it. If we’ve been involved with someone, it’s because something has pulled us to them musically.

This is exactly what happened when I first heard Mahsa Vahdat. Then I learned about her life story and began to understand how her voice and her artistry has been tempered by her experiences. In Mahsa’s home country, it is illegal for her to perform in public. She was arrested for singing on a rooftop in Tehran and for making a video without wearing a headscarf because she’s a woman. Then her sister, Marjan, was jailed for doing this. Mahsa has been able to fully express herself through her artistry when she’s outside of her home country. Can you imagine yourself being in the position where all of a sudden you’re not able to do what you love to do the most? It’s incredibly powerful, incredibly beautiful, and it is so very necessary for us to know about this.

Q: Performing in Tehran without a headscarf is incredibly brave. It’s also the mark of an incredibly punk rock spirit!

A: Exactly! It’s like, “Take that!” It was a courageous and powerful thing to do on so many levels. When you meet Mahsa and Marjan, and get to know them, and perform and record with them, you find out they are the gentlest, kindest people you will ever meet. Yet, their devotion to their art and the absolute integrity of that devotion is practically unique. It’s beautiful and special, and it deserves our attention. We are so proud of the work that we do with them.

Another thing I should say about Kronos’ collaborations is that I would never want to collaborate with anyone if I couldn’t imagine it as an ongoing conversation throughout our lives. When I think about the work we’ve done with Riley, going all the way back to 1979 when we first started working together, I knew that I wanted to work with him until my last breath. I feel the same way about [Serbian composer] Aleksandra Vrebalov, who we met when she was a student at the San Francisco Conservatory. She had just arrived from then-Yugoslavia, now Serbia, and she’s been writing for us ever since. These are lifetime collaborations. Wu Man from China—when I first heard her music in 1992, I could not believe what I was hearing. We have worked together as often as possible ever since. And that’s how I feel about Mahsa Vahdat, as well.

Q: Engaging in these lifelong pairings allows for interesting growth. You’re both returning to each other with different life experiences.

A: That’s right, that idea of a conversation that keeps going, keeps developing, and allowing things to happen in life, no matter where you are.

You mentioned Bryce Dessner. We now have his latest piece, which is part of our Fifty for the Future project, and he’s never done anything like it. Since Bryce last wrote for us, he’s become a father. These branching points in life make a big difference to the way people—great musicians—hear life inside of themselves, and this new piece charts wholly new terrain for Bryce’s music.

I’ve been playing with Hank [Dutt, viola] for forty-two years, with John [Sherba, violin] for forty-one years, and Sunny [Yang, cello] has been in the group six years. Recently we recorded five new pieces for our Fifty for the Future Project. The recording session was like getting a master class from the three members of Kronos. I feel inspired by them, and I want to make better notes every day if I possibly can. That’s what they want, too. We’re all in this composite collaborative sound together.

Q: Your collaboration with Mahsa Vahdat, Placeless, takes its name from a Rumi poem from the thirteenth century. Nearly 800 years later, it still reveals new meanings. Fleshing out these ever-changing meanings as a unifying agent is one of Kronos Quartet’s strengths. Be it political or religious in nature, you’ve found ways to break through barriers that separate people, which is no easy task.

A: Music is a really personal thing. It doesn’t belong to any of us. We get to share it for a while. That’s really all I know about it.

When you think about it, most of the music in the world is religious music, in one way or another. What that says to me is that the yearning for wholeness gives us an idea that the universe actually makes some sense that we can perceive. I’ve thought that music is almost like the friction between us and the universe. And when you play a violin, viola, cello, bass, or any instrument that has bow hair, what you hear is this surface noise of the hair.

It’s very soft, but it is this friction of the hair pulling the string and making it vibrate. You need some rosin, some tree sap on the horse hair to accomplish that. But it’s that friction that makes the sound that gets the instrument vibrating. For me, this makes sense. This friction is actually at the heart of music. If you stand next to a singer and you can hear the vocal cords—feel the body vibrating—it must be some kind of friction from the air and the vocal cords and the flesh and bones vibrating. It’s kind of endless.

The very last thing the great Polish composer Henryk Górecki said to me was, “I hope one day I will understand how music works.” And that’s been inscribed in my inner being. If Henryk—one of the most incredibly musical people on the planet—didn’t understand how it works, I don’t think anybody could. He had the presence of mind and the humility to say he didn’t understand it. And he confirmed what I feel. How does it work? It’s a mystery that I love to explore every day of my life.

Chad Radford is an Atlanta-based music writer.