I feel that what musicians do naturally is make notes. That’s what we do. The biggest challenge in life is to make a great note, one that has as much information as you can possibly put in about how you understand life and how you understand the world. By the very act of attempting that, you’re challenging yourself to become aligned with what you know to be real. In a way, I could say that that is a political statement. It all depends on how that is defined.
As a kid in high school, I began to hear African music. Until that point, I had only heard music from Europe and America. Very early on, I resolved that there would be African string quartet music. Is that a political statement? Pieces of Africa was an attempt [by Kronos] to rebalance the world of string quartets that we knew. It’s an attempt to find balance in a very unbalanced world, and that’s a lot of what we do. I see our works as a way to get to know voices, instruments, and places that it would not be possible to know about without music. The last 30 years have been spent trying to find and maintain a balance in the world.
One of the things I do privately is I have a collection of recordings from all the different places where the American military is involved. I have a collection of music from Afghanistan, from Iraq, from the Philippines. I add to that collection all the time—I try to hear all the music that is possible to hear from those places that we don’t hear enough about, where a lot is being hidden from us, or the true situation is too complex for us to understand. I think of myself as a listener before anything else.
That’s one thing I do privately. But I think of a concert as a public musical event, as a place where the performer and the audience can learn more about the world. Any time you’re questioning yourself and your surroundings or what you hear—on television, on the radio, in concert—you’re involved in change. Change is something that I think a lot of people in power are afraid of. It’s one of the reasons why artists have traditionally been scorned or prevented from doing their work.
When I heard George Crumb‘s Black Angels in August of ’73, the war in Vietnam was still happening, and for me there had been quite a period of searching for the right sound to play, the right music to play, and all of a sudden, late at night on the radio I heard this piece, and I thought, that’s it. That feels right for right now for me. Interestingly, Crumb didn’t want it to be thought of as a political piece, even though he wrote in tempore belli on the score—in time of war. For me, it is the piece by an American composer about the war. I don’t know if George Crumb knew there would be so many more wars in the world.
Musicians—we use our ears to explore the world. For example, the other night I couldn’t sleep, and I was watching television, and there was an amazing program with Ahmed Chalabi, whom I had never heard speak. He’s an Iraqi businessman, and apparently, from what I have heard, he’s basically the guy that convinced the Bush administration to invade Iraq. All I can say is, as a musician, hearing that guy’s voice was absolutely scary. And I trust my ears.
On the other hand, the summer I heard Black Angels was the same time I first heard the voice of I.F. Stone. That voice was absolutely kind, and at the same time he could be so cutting to people in power, about government foibles and what was going on. To my ear, he was truthful, someone I could believe in. I asked Scott Johnson to make a piece for us using Stone’s voice. We got access to a talk he gave, and Scott made a piece.
So I’ve been attracted by voices, by many different things that it is possible to do in concerts. In 1994, it was our premiere at Carnegie Hall, and I was thinking, what can Kronos do in Carnegie Hall for our debut? I thought, the best thing we can do is call up Allen Ginsberg and ask if he would read “Howl” with us. And it turned out he’d never been to Carnegie Hall. It was his first time. It was amazing to hear the voice of this poet who got to the nerves and sinews of our time. It’s one of the great poems of our times.
I remember the first time we played the Hendrix-inspired version of the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock-decibel levels. The first time we did it was in Chicago this summer. I was very proud to be able to do that. It’s a piece many people in the world have heard. I remember when I first heard that version, I thought is was one of the greatest versions I had heard—without saying a word, the sound and style of that interpretation said a whole lot about the time we were living in.
There are so many things that have never been inside a concert hall, there will never be a lack of new things to bring into a concert hall—it’s been a sheltered, cloistered place. A lot of important sounds have not been heard. I’ve always thought of the string quartet as an amazing opportunity to be involved with this great tradition, where some of the greatest minds have written some of their greatest pieces. I want to take advantage of that to make this form more inclusive of reality as it’s becoming apparent. And so, as I say, there’s no end of amazing things that can be done.