"I believe music is one of humanity's greatest discoveries," David Harrington says.

View Comments

Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet
February 27
Perth Concert Hall

"I believe music is one of humanity's greatest discoveries," David Harrington says. "There is something that happens when you put two violins, a viola and cello together that can add up to so many dimensions of human experience."

The founding member of the Kronos Quartet is talking about the string- quartet sound which has enthralled him since he first heard the late Beethoven Quartet as a 12-year-old.

"I put on a record of the E-flat Opus 120 and fell in love with the sound of those E-flat major chords. I wanted to make that sound. And it's been the same thing ever since," he says.

The exploration of the string-quartet sound has consumed Harrington, now 64, for his entire career. It was the driving force behind the formation of the Kronos Quartet which over the past 40 years has become one of the most famous new-music ensembles in the world.

Harrington formed the group after hearing George Crumb's Vietnam War elegy Black Angels. "I was 23 and searching for a way to express myself after the confusion of the Vietnam War," he says. "I heard Black Angels on the radio and there was no question; I had found what I was going to do and how I was going to do it."

Harrington grabbed some friends - John Sherba and Hank Dutt are still in the ensemble, cellist Jeffrey Zeigler joined in 2005 - and formed a quartet dedicated to new music.

"It was impossible to do in American society at the time," he says. "Musicians are not something society cares much about. But I decided the only way was to totally jump in. It's a policy I've stuck to ever since."

Leaping in the deep end has paid off. The Kronos Quartet now has a reputation that spans the globe with a hectic touring schedule supported by nine administrative staff at their San Francisco base. The Grammy award-winning quartet has commissioned more than 750 works from artists as diverse as Philip Glass, Nelly Furtado, Nine Inch Nails, John Zorn, Astor Piazzolla and Tom Waits.

One of Harrington's favourites was a quirky piece by Australian composer Jon Rose.

"I learnt from Jon Rose that barbed- wire fences can be musical," he says. "I wanted our audiences to know that musicians can turn these objects of confinement into music. So we brought Jon's fences to America and performed his Music for Four Fences on them. It was totally sane but it looked quite weird on the surface."

Harrington describes the group as an activist ensemble.

"We are attempting to rethink the role of music and instruments, to expand the frame of reference," he says. "I want our work to challenge earlier ideas about the function of the string quartet."

On a recent trip to Copenhagen the quartet premiered Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's Theatre of Voices which is based on Pachelbel's Canon.

"The piece starts out as variations on Pachelbel and then goes totally berserk," he says. "It is absolutely thrilling. Many people know that melody yet somehow this piece makes you feel like you're hearing it for the first time. It is really fun and beautiful; the musical past coming alive in a new way."

The very latest commission involves American poet/composer Laurie Anderson and will be premiered with the composer first in America then in Perth next month. The piece, Scenes From My New Novel, is a sequence of songs featuring elaborate visual and electronic effects. The quartet will also perform a concert featuring Steve Reich's WTC 9/11 - memories of September 11 - pitched against folk-inspired works.

"A lot of what the audience will hear will be new and I hope they won't feel confined by the traditional definition of the string quartet," he says. "I hope they will be able to enjoy exploring and learning something new - I've never met somebody who doesn't."

After 40 years of avant-garde music is Harrington ever tempted to sit down and play Beethoven?

"The idea of going back never occurs to me," he says. "The past and present are actually working together all the time, there's no real divide. I prefer to spend my life thinking about the next great piece that needs to be made."

In 2011, the Kronos Quartet's contribution to music was recognised with the Avery Fisher Prize and the Polar Music Prize, two of the most prestigious awards given to musicians. But Harrington says the real reward has been along the way.

"I've had so much fun," he says. "The work we're a part of is so gripping, I can put all my imagination into this. The awards were the frosting on a cake that already tastes great."