• By: OLM Staff

Music and Beyond with the Kronos Quartet

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Photos by Jay Blakesberg

David Harrington, founder and violinist of the renowned Kronos Quartet, pauses for a moment. If he had a violin in his hand you could almost hear the notes in his head before they are played but it’s a different kind of instrument that he is pondering before finally saying with a bit of a chuckle: “You know, I always thought she sounded like a string quartet herself.”

He is speaking of Polaris Prize-winning Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq, a musician Kronos will be featuring in a specially commissioned piece making its Ottawa debut tonight at Music & Beyond inside Dominion-Chalmers United Church. If ever there was a group that embodied this festival's name it’s this one.

Along with Tagaq’s “Sivunittinni”, a scan over the evening program is enough to reveal the eclectic nature of the Quartet’s repertoire. There’s “Children’s Hour of Dream” by jazz virtuoso Charles Mingus, an arrangement of “At the Purchaser’s Option” by bluegrass banjo player Rhiannon Giddens, and even a classical spin on The Who’s “Baba O’Riley”! When you’ve been together for over four decades with more than 900 works and arrangements under your bows, selecting pieces to perform should be easy, right? To Harrington, however, it’s like placing a kid in a candy store and saying “have at ‘er!” Where do you even begin?

“I feel our repertoire is kind of like a tool box and we try to keep all our tools sharp and ready to go. Some tools are sharper than others. We try to be aware of what we may have played in that city before and then give them something we haven’t done. At this point we rarely, if ever, repeat a program,” says Harrington, who never tires of any of the pieces they play.

Harrington says he feels there is really no set definition of music and that the Quartet is in a continuous state of evolution. One work, he explains, has lead to another with most of the pieces they perform now having not been in existence when the group first performed back in 1973. If they ever believe they have made a perfect musical expression, he says, then it is time to do something else.

“I still feel like I’m just getting started. Every day I take my bow out, my violin out of the case and try to make better notes than I did the day before.”

For somebody who still feels like he is closer to the beginning of the journey then the end, the mind reels at what may be to come when you try to fathom the group’s already staggering output. With multiple compositions and 3,000+ performances, Harrington tells Ottawa Life that the Quartet’s endurance is fueled by their ability to shift so dynamically as well as their growing number of collaborators. Over the decades they have worked with Philip Glass, experimental musician Tom Waits, poet Allen Ginsberg, and Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor to give you an idea of how open minded the foursome are when it comes to expanding their repertoire.  

“We’ve had amazing music written for us from all over the world. Each one of the composers that has contributed to our work has given us new perspective and energy. We’ve learned so much.”

One such composer that will be featured this evening is long-time Kronos friend and collaborator, Terry Riley. When asked about their continued relationship with the minimalist movement pioneer, Harrington does not hesitate this time with his reply stating that Riley is one of America’s greatest. Period.

“There’s nobody that I’ve ever met that has music flowing so continuously through his imagination daily.”  

With four selections, also showcased this evening will be the Quartet’s Fifty for the Future Project. Launched in 2015, the project is a commission of 50 new works by 25 men and 25 women slated to be rolled out over a 5 year period. Designed mainly as a training ground for students and emerging musicians, Harrington says the idea was born out of a desire to ensure new musicians had more access to compositions then he did back when he started out.

“I thought how we know a lot of young composers and we wanted to find a way to make a repertoire that’s going to be incredibly interesting, thrilling, fun, challenging, and available 24 hours a day to every musician in the world free of charge,” Harrington says of the project that has a $2 million budget for grants and sponsorships for the works. He is proud what it has already added to not just the group's always growing musical spectrum but, also, globally.

“It takes so much music to make a world of music, so many new points and variety of languages and cultures to really contribute to the overall story. I want the work of Kronos to always be involved in that.”

Kronos Quartet
July 5, 2017 / 7:30 PM

Dominion-Chalmers United Church
355 Cooper St Ottawa, Canada

Tickets: $20 – $65