Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on May 19th 2009 12:00PM by Steve Hochman
"He took me to a record store," Harrington reminisces. "I just wanted to get a sense of Lebanese music and basically he helped me pick out 30 or 40 representative albums. And in going through these later, I heard this incredible son sung by Fairuz, when she was a very young woman. It blew me away."
The song, 'Wa Habibi,' (a video of a later Fairuz performance is here) tantalized and mystified Harrington with repeated listening.
"It sounded like it could have been Jewish music or Islamic or Christian," he says. "It turned out it was a song for Easter time. And I asked [composer-arranger] Steve Prutsman to make a version of it for us to play."
And that piece became a staple of Kronos concerts about eight years ago -- not long after the events of 9/11 charged perceptions of the Middle East with the air of suspicion and fear. It was a perfect statement: music that sounded, to Western ears, Islamic but intended to convey a Christian message of devotion, acceptance and sacrifice.
It was an entirely different marketplace in which Harrington found the seeds of another one of the album's key pieces.
"Eventually I was casting about on MySpace several years ago and came upon this band from Palestine called Ramallah Underground and I loved their music," he says. "It was something I'd never heard before. So I got in touch with them and asked them to write for us. And they did the track for 'Tashweesh.' "
It's a striking collaboration, with Kronos playing over the electronics assemblage created by the Palestinian group, a perfect representation of the title, explained in the liner notes as meaning "interference or static, and by extension miscommunication and not hearing or understanding correctly," as you can hear here:
Kronos Quartet, 'Tashweesh'
As the liner note entry sums up: "Both enervation and elegy are at its core."
Context can mean everything. Context can mean nothing. One piece Harrington associates with his own visit to Beirut. And another from sitting in front of his computer. One predates 9/11, the other coming well after the series of events it led to were well in place -- both, as with all the music on this album, recorded during the George W. Bush presidency but released in these early days of the Barack Obama administration. Their version of the Iraqi song 'Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me' (with backing track compiled by Lev "Ljova" Zhurbin, one of three on this album arranged by the Moscow-born, New York-based composer-musician) became the Kronos concert opener in the early years of the ongoing war in Iraq, well before Abu Ghraib gave a less romantic connotation for the title and sorrowful tone.
And all in all, 'Floodplain' is itself a stitched-up patchwork of pieces generated in different circumstances and intents.
As those two examples illustrate, some have personal associations for the musicians with their travels to the lands in question. And some none at all.
"We have been to Turkey and Serbia," Harrington notes, naming two of the other countries represented in the collection -- an arrangement of 'Nihavent Sirto,' a piece of emotional contrasts by the essential Turkish composer of a century ago, Tanburi Cemil Bey, representing the former, the astounding 21-minute, gauzy turmoil of " . . . hold me, neighbor, in this storm . . ." by young composer Aleksandra Vrebalov inspired by the latter.
"But it's like there are so many places I'd like to go," he says. "In a way, music can just do its job on its own. I remember as a kid when I first started playing quartet music at about 12, and at a certain point a year or two later realizing that all the music I'd played was written by composers that lived within a few miles of each other in Vienna, Austria -- which at that point I'd never been to. I began to realize at that age that music is basically an act of imagination, and I remember looking at the globe and wondering what all the other music from these other countries was like. And I have basically been doing that ever since, trying to explore that way. I wish there was a lot more time in life for exploring and actually visiting places."
And, of course, in more than 30 years and dozens of albums Harrington and his Kronos co-founding violinist John Sherba and violist Hank Dutt (now rounded out by cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, who joined in 2005) have pretty much redefined the reach and scope of the string quartet, largely eschewing that Viennese legacy in favor of contemporary voices (an ongoing, long-term relationship with minimalism-and-well-beyond pioneer Terry Riley) with over the years and increasingly global view. Kronos has been crucial in introducing such border-busting composers as South Africa's Kevin Volans (his 'White Man Sleeps' was the title piece for one of Kronos' first albums, released in 1987), China's Tan Dun (the 1997 recording of 'Ghost Opera') and Argentina's Osvaldo Golijov (his European Jewish music-influenced 'The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind.')
In the last decade there have been several key albums centered at least loosely on regional and/or cultural relationships, including 2000's 'Caravan' (Roma-derived connections between Asia, northeastern Europe and the Mediterranean), 2002's 'Nuevo' (featuring collaborations with various Latin American artists) and 2005's 'You've Stolen My Heart' (music of the great Bollywood composer R.D. Burman, sung by his wife, the iconic "playback" singer Asha Bhosle). The readiness to expand the traditional string quartet with other instrument and performers continues on the new album. A version of North Indian sarangi great Ram Narayan's 'Raga Mishra Bhairavi: Alap' has Riley and Chinese musician Wu Man -- the latter normally heard on pipa but here taking up the electric sitar -- joining in. And on the Azerbaijani tour de force 'Getme Getme,' Kronos team with the mugham ensemble led by father-daughter singing duo Alim and Fargana Qasimov. (That, by the way, was recorded in concert last fall at London's Barbican Centre, and marks the first official live recording released by Kronos.)
But isn't it different having music from places they've actually been as opposed to ones they have not?
"That's hard to say," Harrington insists. "For example, there are several tracks on 'Floodplain' that came about first as experiences I heard on recordings, heard something in the sound I thought could be added, like an added element that could be in our music or an instrument we could work with to find a fresh new color."
He cites the track 'Lullaby,' which originates in the south of Iran and is heard in this album via an arrangement by Kronos and Jacob Garchik.
"I was one of the first people in the U.S. to get the 'Rough Guide to the Music of Iran' CD," he says. "I got a preview copy of it -- I'd read about it and thought, 'I have to hear this!' I'd read about that track recorded in southern Iran, influenced by African music and knew I had to hear it. And when I head it I thought, 'This is incredible.' I had no way of placing it in all the music I had heard in my life. And as I thought about it, I thought there might be a way we could make a sound like this."
The solution was in Harrington employing a scordatura "detuned" violin, with two A strings and two D strings and all the notes played in 5ths, he explains.
"And 5ths are notoriously chancy on the violin, but you can take advantage of that to sound kind of like a bagpipe."
It was that which in turn inspired Vrebalov, a Serbian native who had moved to the U.S., in her composition, which echoes sounds of Serbian Orthodox chant, Catholic church bells, Muslim calls to prayer as well as folk music and even a recording of the composer's grandmother singing -- the sounds that overlap throughout the Balkans.
"Serbia is such a crossroads of events and issues," he says. "These are the layers and you don't sometimes realize them until you find something else that suggests them."
Even with his awareness of that, he couldn't anticipate the events that would give the piece extra meaning to the group.
"And ' . . . hold me, neighbor . . . ' was premiered, coincidentally, the day the American embassy was taken in Belgrade," he says. "So everywhere were images of that embassy in Serbia burning and there we were playing this piece."
Context is everything. Or nothing. And ultimately, Harrington believes that his context for the discovery/creation of this music is irrelevant, or at best barely relevant, for the listeners' experience.
"I was thinking this morning about the layerings of time and in a way feel that 'Floodplain' brings together different times," he says. "We're always looking to define our work more cogently, more completely than we have in the past, and thinking of our album 'Early Music,' or the way that works with 'Nuevo' and now with 'Floodplain' and the layering of time -- the way musical time works, always different when you listen to something. It depends on the music you've heard. The music you've heard always influences the music you will hear next. Each of us is on our own personal journey and that's one thing beautiful about music. We each have our own soundtrack, our own relationship to music."