Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington on getting life advice from historian Howard Zinn, balancing hope for the future with despair over the present, and 50 years of creating and performing music. By Miriam Cosic.

Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington

David Harrington, violinist and founder of Kronos Quartet.
David Harrington, violinist and founder of Kronos Quartet.
Credit: Mark Allan

David Harrington has been a political and musical radical since, as a mop-haired young man in the early 1970s, he formed a musical group specifically to perform George Crumb’s anti-war piece Black Angels. Harrington’s musical curiosity was such that when he and a new girlfriend agreed to bring a favourite record to share on their second date, he took a copy of Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, earning him “eternal points for cringey music”. She walked in with a copy of Joan Baez’s Farewell Angelina.

All these years later, the Kronos Quartet remains admired and extensively laurelled by the musical world, and Harrington and Regan are still together, coddling their grandchildren and arguing about music. Kronos’s first concert in November 1973 included Crumb, Anton Webern, Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith and a new piece by Harrington’s teacher, Ken Benshoof.

“When we got home that night, I asked Regan what she thought of the night,” Harrington says via Zoom from his home in California. At 73, his face is heavily lined and his voice is slower and even more magisterial than when I first met him, although the glint in the eye, the ready ear and lurking grin are still there.

He pauses. “She looked right at me and said, ‘Where are the women composers?’ And it was like you could have splashed ice water on my face. I didn’t know a woman composer. I didn’t know one.”

In the intervening 50 years, Kronos has remained but much has changed, including the recognition of female composers. The quartet is visiting Australia from March 1, part of its worldwide Five Decades tour and, the group says, its last. Like much of its past five years, the programming is informed by the quartet’s “50 for the Future” project. Kronos has taken the labours of 50 composers – 25 men and 25 women from all over the music world – and collated a library. With its commissions over the years, it all adds up to about 1000 pieces from a star-studded inventory.

“What we’ve attempted is to make a body of work, freshly written, that’s freely available to anyone in the world, 24 hours a day, to listen to our recordings and to download the scores and the parts,” Harrington says with a kind of urgency. “You can go onto our website and look at all of those pieces and hear them.”

Many of these works will be played on the Australian tour, with the program rotating from city to city. Harrington reads some of the names, which range from the famous to the soon-to-be: Angélique Kidjo, Aleksander Kościów, Tanya Tagaq, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Nicole Lizée, Laurie Anderson. He grins: “We’re playing a lot of stuff in Australia!”

Harrington is in a reflective mood and our conversation has a nostalgic tone. We talk about world events since we last spoke in 2013. And since the time before that. About when the so-called coalition of the willing took us into Afghanistan and Iraq, or when his country was busy in Vietnam. “When I started Kronos, I had this large collection of recordings from every place the United States was starting a war, or involved with in anyway,” he says. “That started in the ’60s, and my collection has not stopped.”

He advises me to listen to one of Kronos’s most recent recordings: an opera named M Lai that came out on the non-profit record label of the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. “It’s the story of how the M Lai massacre occurred in the American war in Vietnam – which is the way I prefer to call that war, not ‘the Vietnam War’,” Harrington says. “[It] tells the story of the guy who actually stopped that massacre, who was a young helicopter pilot named Hugh Thompson. It is about his last few weeks of life and how he’s reflecting on what happened.”

It’s not as if Harrington’s version of history is obsessed with his youthful heyday, however. Iran, for example, is on his mind. Kronos will perform in Adelaide with the glorious Mahsa Vahdat, an Iranian singer and dissident who now lives with her husband in Berkeley.

The quartet has been collaborating with Vahdat since they recorded an album with the singer and her sister, Marjan, in 2019. Called Placeless, it contains 14 songs composed by Vahdat to poems by Hafiz, Rumi and several contemporary Iranian poets, including her husband, Atabak Elyasi. As one critic put it, “The beautiful, ornamented melodies sigh, cry, and speak to something deep within every human being ... a great reminder of how fresh and different classical music can sound.”

“Mahsa has an amazing voice,” says Harrington. “An amazing bearing. Even in every rehearsal we’ve ever had with Mahsa, she gets right into the centre of the notes that she sings. She is a very inspiring musician for us.”

Harrington’s humility is reassuring in our social-media-driven world, lying alongside self-assurance and an easy authority. It comes, perhaps, from his knowledge across so many subjects, from his ability to get things done, from the confidence of a likeable person and from the music always having the final authority.

Though the musicians are path-breakers, Kronos is also famous for some luminous recordings of the classical and Romantic string quartets written since Joseph Haydn pushed the genre with 68 of them, as well as its definitive interpretations of the Modernist repertoire – not to mention Harrington’s own absorption with the history of string quartets in particular.

“Not a lot of people know this,” he says confidentially. “But I probably have the largest collection of recorded performances of Schubert’s C major quintet in the universe.” He laughs. “I think that piece has so much humanity, in just the best parts of what a human being can accomplish. And when I think that it was written in the last few months of Schubert’s life, he never heard it live and it remained in somebody’s cupboard in Vienna for years. So he died in 1828 and the piece was not played until the 1850s. And I’ve thought so many times, ‘What if there had been a fire?’ That’s how close we almost came to [its] annihilation.”

Harrington quickly segues back to current affairs. “In thinking about what’s going on in so many places in the world today, and how dangerous it is with all the armed violence. Ukraine. And then there’s the climate issue...”

That leads him to another of his compelling stories, about his meeting with the great American historian and philosopher Howard Zinn. “I became a grandfather for the first time in 2003 and that for me was a totally transforming moment. It’s like the happiness and the hope for the future is just so powerful.

“And then at the same time, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, that whole cadre of warmongers... Even a violinist could tell you what was going to happen in the world. So on this side,” he says, gesturing, “I couldn’t help myself just soaring with promise and happiness; and on this side, I felt, ‘Oh my god...’ ” And so an extensive, developing, paralysing depression began.

“The question I kept coming back to was, why should I play music for strangers, be away from my family for six months a year? Why should I be doing this?”

Harrington didn’t try to ignore that question. He tried to think of an authoritative voice he respected highly and came up with Zinn. “I called him up out of the blue. I’d never met him, but I knew his voice,” Harrington says. “And I knew somebody who did [know him]. I got his home phone number and called him.

“So here I am, and the phone is ringing, and my hand is shaking. And Roslyn Zinn, Howard’s wife, answers the phone and I could hardly say my name. And she says, ‘Of course! Howard and I have been fans for 20 years. He’ll be home in an hour and he’s waiting for you to call him.’ ”

Harrington explains Zinn. “He’s our greatest historian. If you have time to read one more history of the United States, make it Howard Zinn’s. That book is like the Bach of American history.” Within a month, Harrington was in Zinn’s office. “And that’s when I asked, ‘What can a normal person do, given the state of the world that we live in?’ ”

Zinn told him three things. “First of all, musicians and artists aren’t ‘normal people’ and that’s because musicians and artists are constantly in the process of finding and searching for ways to work together to make the world a more beautiful place. You can’t do anything by yourself. You need a community and a support system around you if you want to achieve anything, and musicians know this well.

“Second, you need to take every opportunity you have to share your feelings about how the world can be improved and what can be done. Bring it up in conversations with family and friends, during interviews, basically anytime you get a chance to speak up for people and for the ideas that most concern you, do it.

“Lastly, those in power are actually afraid of people involved in the arts. Musicians and artists and the communities that surround the work you do are much more invested in finding workable solutions to pressing problems, rather than resorting to war, repression and violence. You are an antidote to their fractured world view, and that is why people like you scare them.”

Harrington is on a roll. He talks about the great musician Mahalia Jackson and how, if it weren’t for her, we would never have had Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. King was sticking to the words his speechwriter, Clarence Jones, crafted for him about segregation, discrimination, financial disenfranchisement and voter suppression. Jackson was there and lost patience. She shouted: “Tell them about the dream, Martin.”

Harrington contacted Jones after learning about this incident on the 50th anniversary of the speech in 2013, then looked up an elderly Jackson in nearby Palo Alto. The result was Peace Be Till, commissioned from the young composer Zachary Watkins in 2017, when Carnegie Hall invited Kronos Quartet to take part in a festival called The ’60s: The Years that Changed America.

“What is it that Mahalia sensed at that moment? What kinds of skills or qualities does it take to have the instinct to know this timing?” Watkins told the online paper KQED at the time. “Timing is part of the art we do.”

Harrington too has impeccable timing. “We got Clarence [Jones] into a recording studio and he told the whole story for us. And, furthermore, he read from the ‘Letter from the Birmingham Jail’, which, as Clarence himself says, is the symphony of the civil rights movement. It was Clarence that got the letter out of jail.”

Another quote from the KQED story pops into mind. “Very quickly, he and I were talking, and basically he told me the whole story,” Harrington said of his chat with Jones. “He mentioned that he’d grown up wanting to be a clarinetist, and he studied at Juilliard. When you start adding things up, Martin Luther King surrounded himself with musicians.”

Kronos recorded Peace Be Till in the past few weeks, along with Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, rearranged for string quartet, which they have performed live several times. “When we played our version for the first time, and one of the music critics said it was like late Beethoven, I was so proud of that,” says Harrington.

“What they mean is, if you listen to the cavetina from Opus 130 at the right moment, your inner life will expand immeasurably. You’ve probably heard that when Beethoven finished that, he was weeping. And there was something about that piece that somehow defines the essence of the string quartet.”

Just as Harrington has himself come to define the essence of the string quartet in the 21st century.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 28, 2023 as "Titans of time".

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