Editor's note: In early 2012, our sister paper the Village Voice ran writer Steven Thrasher's interview with Kronos Quartet violinist David Harrington about the influence of composer Philip Glass. In anticipation of the Quartet's two-night stand at the Musical Instrument Museum, here is that conversation.
In addition to several collaborations with Philip Glass, some of which specifically were written for the quartet, the Kronos Quartet has worked with the music and talent of Meredith Monk, Darren Aronofsky, Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, John Adams, Noam Chomsky, DJ Spooky, and Dave Matthews.
This interview began with a chat about a 2005 outdoor concert in Prospect Park of the score to Dracula, which Glass composed for the quartet. The concert — where Glass and Kronos performed together while the classic film played — was aborted under rather dramatic circumstance, when a lightning storm blew in suddenly.
Steven Thrasher: I was at the screening of Dracula at Celebrate Brooklyn! in 2005, where you were trying to play live with Philip Glass!
David Harrington: [Laughs] Wow, you were there?
ST: Yes. And I escaped!
DH: We were so excited to be there, and the audience was great. And, in fact, nobody can forget that concert. The other thing was that it was going so great. I thought everybody was just on. And then the storm happened exactly . . .
ST: Was the first bolt of lightning as the tracking shot moved in on Dracula?
DH: Actually, it was during the storm scene!
ST: Were you getting nervous?
DH: I wasn't nervous. I was worried about the sound and lighting booth people, and the electrical situation. I think the right thing was done, of course.
ST: In preparing for the pieces I am writing about Glass' 75th birthday, I was listening to the soundtrack to the film Mishima yesterday. Not being a professional musician, I hadn't realized for some time that it featured a string quartet — you! But, of course, listening to it after I knew this, I could hear Kronos in with keyboards and other instruments. Was that your first project together?
DH: The first music we ever played of Philip Glass' was "Company," and that was in the early '80s. And, I can't remember which year, it was probably about '81 or '82. So, we've worked together for about 30 years now. And, of course, the first recording we did of his was Mishima.
ST: Was that first piece he wrote for Kronos specifically?
DH: Yes, except there were two songs we'd recorded for Linda Ronstadt for the Songs from Liquid Days album. The first major piece that he wrote specifically for Kronos was the String Quartet No. 5.
ST: Did he say that he's wife's death was an inspiration for that composition, or a par of his grieving process?
DH: Publicly, he didn't say much about that. Privately, it was the first piece he wrote after that. I believe he spent quite a while in Nova Scotia, and that was the first music he wrote after she died.
I think that that, when we rehearsed with him on that — it's hard to put emotions into words, to interpret that, but I did have the feeling that this music was a part of that experience, and perhaps even surmounting that experience and dealing with it.
ST: When you talk to laypeople, how do you describe what it's like to play Philip's music?
DH: It depends. Some musicians — let's start with musicians — totally disregard the music of Philip Glass, thinking it's very simple. And simple-minded. Well, I have this to report to the people who have said that kind of thing in public and in private: They should try to do it sometime. Philip's music requires the utmost clarity — of interpretation and sounds and intonation and rhythm of any music I can think of. He creates momentum and mood and a kind of texture through the use of repetition.
And one of the things that can always happen in Philip's music is you can forget to take a repeat and realize that you're in a different place than anyone else! Like, "Where am I?" [Laughs]