One of the things that is often asked about the Kronos Quartet is how do they keep reinventing themselves?
In 40 or so years, they’ve recorded the works of contemporary minimalists Philip Glass and Terry Riley, early 20th century Austrian Alban Berg and Argentinian revolutionary Astor Piazzolla. They’ve collaborated with The National’s Bryce Dessner and performance artist Laurie Anderson, the great saxophonist Ornette Coleman and Iceland’s Sigur Ros, and performed pieces by composers Maria Schneider and Thelonious Monk.
It’s a dizzying list, even before getting to the group’s newest album of collaborations with four folk music performers, but I put it to founding member and violinist David Harrington that the question itself misses the point.
This isn’t a group which has had to reinvent itself but one that is constantly investigating and expanding itself from a set of clear first principles.
“I look at everything that I’ve ever done, and that Kronos has ever done, as a large set of variations,” says Harrington, who currently shares the stage with violinist John Sherba, Hank Dutt on viola and cellist Sunny Yang. “And for me it gets back to 1961 or 62, when I [aged 12] first heard the Budapest Quartet play on record Opus 127 of Beethoven Eb major quartet. I’d never heard a string quartet before and all of a sudden on that record player there was this amazing chord and I wanted to make that chord myself. So I went down to the public library and checked out the music and called up three friends from the Seattle Youth Symphony and a couple of days later we were making that chord.
“Basically everything I’ve done since then is a variation of that. I tend to follow my ears so if something magnetises me – and I don’t know what it is about some music, it’s mysterious – some sounds, some music, some voices just pull me. And I don’t have any choice but to follow.”
The new album, Folk Songs, sees Kronos working on mostly traditional songs with American folk artists Rhiannon Giddens, Sam Amidon and Natalie Merchant, and British writer/singer Olivia Chaney.
It grew out of performances three years ago at a 50th anniversary concert for the artists’ Nonesuch label, but really built on the constant Kronos search not only to “teach ourselves new forms, new ways of approaching the instrument, new ways of thinking about music” but to “explore humanity and get to know more about things that I wish I’d learned when was a teenager”.
But what could they learn from playing folk songs, which are in many ways fairly simple in structure, deliberately so often, and which have in the past generally involved minimal instrumentation?
“First of all, in thinking about the album, each of those singers has such a distinctive voice, a totally individual way of approaching music. I find that our sound just naturally modulates when were in the same room with each of these singers,” says Harrington. “The way we use the bows changes and it’s an incredibly beautiful, natural process of instruments and voices relating. And it happens mysteriously, magically, by ear. It’s really fun.”
Amidon and Giddens in particular are deep students of their forms, almost academic in their approach to reaching beyond the recordings of the songs. When Kronos come to work with people like this, do they come in as students or as equals?
“I think Kronos, we feel like we are continually students. Whether we are studying with Henryk Gorecki, Terry Riley or Peter Sculthorpe,” says Harrington. “I find that the musicians I’m most anxious to work with feel the same way. I think musicians are always trying to learn new things and expand their vocabulary. Or that’s what we want to do.”
As he explains, you never know when something you picked up from Riley might come in handy with Piazzolla or a lesson learnt from Monk could bring something to a Giddens performance.
By the way, the question possibly on the tip of your tongue: when a classical musician plays folk music does he have to call his instrument a fiddle?
You can call it whatever you want says a laughing Harrington, as long as “you don’t call a violin a very small cello”.
There are after all some places even the Kronos Quartet won’t go.
Kronos Quart Folk Songs is out now on Nonesuch