[Tonight is the opening of the L.A. Philharmonic's West Coast, Left Coast events that run through December 8. Rounding up our series of exclusive interviews with musicians who will be playing at WCLC (see also our chats with Terry Riley and Matmos), here's the LA Weekly's John Payne talking to David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet and Mike Einziger from Incubus.]
A conversation with David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet
LA WEEKLY: Well, how about it, David, what does it mean to be an artist from the West?
David Harrington: Well, it's interesting, I was talking to somebody about being an American musician the other day. The easiest way for one to notice one's nationality is to go abroad. I feel most American when I'm in Europe or Asia or South America. I don't really think about it that often, until I'm somewhere else. We just played in New York the other day, and I really do feel somehow connected to the West Coast. It's hard to describe in a way that resonates correctly for me, but it's sort of like a desire to be available for possibilities.
I think that does fit with Kronos; it's part of living in San Francisco, I think it's probably what attracted me to move back to the West Coast from New York, where we'd moved for a few years. It just didn't feel right to me being out there as a place for us to be centered. And it just seemed like San Francisco was pulling us.
I've always enjoyed the light there, I feel inspired by it, I feel that the resonance that people like Alan Ginsberg and John Cage, Terry Riley, Pandit Pran Nath…It's interesting that Ravi Shankar lives out here. And we were performing with Wu Man, who lives in San Diego, most recently at Carnegie hall the other night, and of course John Adams, Charles Mingus are from there, Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana. There is something – maybe it's in the water, I don't know! [laughs]
How much did the topography, the ambience, of the Western environment affect your, well, openness to music?
Well, I'm from Seattle, and there's a quality to the green of the Douglas fir trees that is unlike any green I've ever seen anywhere, and I've always just found it so expressive, so beautiful. And I started playing quartet music when I lived in Seattle, and who knows? I mean, those things are so deeply a part of us.
Can you describe the socio-political tenor at the time of your founding of Kronos. What was going on that might've started swayed your artistic path?
The Vietnam war was still going on in 1973, it wasn't over yet. And for me, I heard music by George Crumb, Black Angels, heard it on the radio one night. And that experience, I mean, I think I'd been looking for that music or something like it for a long time, and finally there it was. And basically, it was really simple: I had to play that piece. And in order to play that piece, I had to get a group going that would work hard enough to be able to do something like that.
And so, a few days after hearing Black Angels, Kronos started rehearsing, and a few months later we were playing it. Basically, I think I've been doing the same thing ever since, which is attempting to find the music that feels right to play given everything that I know is going on. And social events, societal issues, those kinds of things that I'm aware of, do influence our work a lot. Certainly our most recent album, Flood Plain, the album began as soon as I was aware that Bush and Cheney and Condoleeza Rice and all those people were going to drag the country into another war in Iraq. And it took about six years for the album to get put together. These things do take a lot of time.
What is the process in putting an album together? Is there a lot of research and development involved?
Harrington: A lot of times, I'm really interested in creating bodies of work, for example in Pieces of Africa, it started with one piece, and a few months later there might have been another, and then do another. And I began to notice that there was this kind of sound, feeling, in this music that was unlike any quartet music I knew about. And so, rarely do our albums start out as albums, they begin as individ. Pieces. There might be a piece that somehow relates. It's not unusual for me to be working on 10 different kinds of projects all at the same time, and each one of them might be in a different state of completion.
Before Kronos, you'd studied and played the music of the European serialists, and had drawn inspiration from Stockhausen, like many others. You were also touched by the non-traditions of California artists such as Cage, Partch, Harrison and Beefheart. In charting a course for Kronos, however, was there by chance a feeling that new music had become dried up and, oh, unsexy?
Actually, I've never felt that, and part of the reason I've never felt that is because when Black Angels became part of my life in August of '73, to me that piece was such a challenge and such a bold sonic and cultural revelation, and to me the string quartet as a medium was absolutely central to culture. I mean, I think that one piece basically revived the entire medium. If you compare that to any other string quartet ever written, it's very unique – sonically, everything it demands of anyone who plays it. I mean it's a very special aspect of American music.
Your ensemble has performed an incredibly broad range of musics. What draws you toward them?
I'm very selective. It might seem like the Kronos does everything, but actually we don't. I'm drawn to things that magnetize me, and I really trust my ears, and I follow them. And when I encountered Harry Partch's music, I remember hearing U.S. Highball, and I couldn't believe I'd never heard that piece before, and it just seemed kind of shocking that that piece wasn't more well known. So at a certain point it just seemed like, okay, I want to hear U.S. Highball, how are we going to do that? So I talked to Ben Johnston, who worked with Partch in the early '50s and who has written for Kronos and is a friend of ours — we recorded his Amazing Grace quartet for our second album on Nonesuch — and asked him if he would be interested in making a new version for Kronos.
In a certain way it was kind of selfish, because I just wanted to hear that piece and I wanted to share it with our audience, because I figured that if I hadn't heard it, most of our audience hadn't heard it live, so…
To take something like that and translate it into something that would work for string quartet must've been very difficult.
Our version is not going to sound like Harry Partch's version, that's all there is to it. But I feel that in any translation, whether it's a really fine translation of Rilke's poetry or the letters of Van Gogh, anything that you can think of that is a major artistic statement, a really fine translation can get you pretty close. It can get you a lot closer to the experience than if you didn't have it. I mean, if you didn't speak Dutch and all you could do was look at the letters of Van Gogh, in Dutch, and not really understand much of anything, it would be much better to have a translation of whatever language you speak.
Any time you translate something for your instrument, you're creating something new.
And some people are going to talk about what's lost and other people are going to talk about what's gained. [laughs]
Your focus onstage is rather awesome. I've always wondered how susceptible are you and your group are to the energy in the room when you perform?
To me, the audience is almost like an instrument. And however many sets of ears there are in that instrument, and they're kind of willing the musical experience out of all the other instruments in the room, including ours, to me really affects the outcome. And it's a musical outcome is something that is so clearly felt and so hard to describe, but it has something to do with creating another inward sense of knowledge.
I guess that might be something about many of the musicians on the West Coast that I find most attractive, that I think they have in common, this kind of searching for musical information from a wide variety of sources. It's almost like if you gaze out at the Pacific Ocean and watch the sun going down, you kind of wonder where it's going.
[Next, John Payne talks to Mike Einziger]
An Interview with Mike Einziger
Mike Einziger is the guitarist with Incubus, but you knew that, maybe. What you didn't know is that he's a composer of, let's say it, serious music, in the orchestral/electronic vein, the latest development of which he'll premiere at Disney Hall tonight. Einziger doesn't have a problem reconciling two sides of his creative persona, and here's why:
Michael Einziger: I grew up in Los Angeles, born and raised, and from the time I was 15 years old I was playing punk in Hollywood and Santa Monica and the Valley. Life has its own unique characteristics living in the West.
I've always tended to want to write music while I'm looking at the ocean. I've lived in Malibu for 12 years now, and I've always felt attracted to the ocean; I've always wanted to stare at it — it's got this sort of mesmerizing, hypnotic quality to it.
There is also the sort of culture that you get along with that, the surfing and skating culture. And L.A. has its own interesting cultural mix; it's a completely unique place, there's no other place in the country like California.
L.A. WEEKLY: Do you think we feel a bit less bound to tradition here as far as what's possible to do musically?
There's been a proportionately large number of artists who've come to California over the years, and there's definitely some sort of unforeseen mechanism at work. I don't know if it's in the water, in the air, if it's in the ocean, but I think it's a very inspiring place to be for its own reasons. At least on the East Coast people tend to view people from the West Coast as being, like, these hippie liberals, flighty people. And I can see the stereotype, but I actually think it's a good thing. I think it's much less buttoned-up than other parts of the country, and other parts of the world.
The first thing that I think of when I think of California as a mecca for music is all the rock music that I grew up with. And it was an interesting way to grow up, playing shows at clubs like the Whiskey and the Roxy and those kinds of places.
But along the way I discovered things like John Cage, as well. He was a monumental figure in music and really broadened the spectrum of what music can actually mean. By introducing a narrative, sort of extra-curricular things outside of music to inform the pieces, he pioneered; and the same goes for Terry Riley and his explorations with the organ. His piece A Rainbow in Curved Air is mind-blowing stuff, and it's the kind of music that young people are really embracing and trying to emulate now. It was made a long time ago, and it's maintained its integrity over all these years.
You had an orchestral piece called End Vacuum that premiered at UCLA last year. I'm told that the piece was undertaken in part because you had Carpel Tunnel and couldn't play guitar.
I was incapacitated by surgery, and wasn't able to play for a few months. I was able to sit at a keyboard and play with my right hand, and I could write music that way. So I used that as an opportunity to spend time writing music that wan't rock music, and learned a little bit about composition and spent a lot of time listening to music, which is something that I hadn't really done for a while.
End Vacuum was a very ambitious piece.
That piece is really put together like a giant quilt. My first fascination was with the stringed instruments, they have this amorphous quality that makes them different from guitars or other instruments or piano, because there's no frets, so you have total freedom with the fluctuations of pitch, and you can get all these in-between microtones, and they can fly all around in interesting ways.
There were large portions of it that I had written out, notated on paper, and that was the first time I had ever done that. But then by the end of it there was so much music that I had written that there was just no way for me to get it into a format for the orchestra's players, and one that would be competent enough for them to read. So I relied on the help of [arranger/conductor] Suzie Katayama to put it into a format that the orchestra could play.
You've taken a break from the pop wars to attend Harvard as a music major.
I'm studying theory and composition, and orchestration kind of comes as a byproduct of those things, except for when you get into the really advanced levels of it.
And now I'm actually physically writing it scores, I have these really dense score pages that I've written, and I really think that they look interesting.
How does the visual aspect of the written score play a part in the piece that you're premiering at Disney Hall?
It's all based on drawings. I found the notation process to be really difficult in the initial stages of writing, I found it to be kind of hindrance, just because I'm slow at, and it's much easier for me to draw pictures, and I feel like there are shapes that sounds form when I'm thinking about them that I've never really been able to bring into the real world — they've always existed in my mind, and I want to hear what they sound like.
So I form these very clear pictures: It's like the way that when I was a young kid I used to remember everybody's phone numbers, and the way I would remember them is that they would form a corresponding shape based on their numerical value – like my number when I was a kid was 346-3634, and so it would form a shape like on a graph. And that's how I would remember these numbers.
And I feel like when I'm thinking of music, they form these arcs and shapes that are based on numbers. So if I'm seeing these kinds of patterns and shapes in my mind, I try and assign numbers to them so that I then can follow each individual line through that shape and it will create a pitch.
So I just started drawing these shapes, and they're like frozen waves. And when I was asked to write something for this festival, I've been having this idea about these shapes for a long time, and then I thought to myself, wow, Disney Hall, I mean structurally and the curvature of the building, it is very in tune with the shape that I've been thinking about to create with sound. I'd just never heard them before.
You know, I spent last year in school studying physics as well. My science studies are not really part of my academic plan, if I even have such a thing, but I love science and I feel like it informs us better than anything about the world that we live in, and there is a lot there that is taken for granted in our experience, just having the privilege of gravity and all of these things that we don't think about every day. And so I feel like it helps me understand the world.
And I don't really see any difference between studying music and studying physics, they're all sort of weird in their own different ways. For example, according to quantum mechanics, matter has wavelike properties, and I've kind of become fixated on that. This idea of waves is very prevalent in the music that I've been writing for this particular piece. And I spent a lot of time pulling apart the idea of matter as waves not only as particles, but the idea of entanglements and how there's sort of an unforeseen mechanism at work that allows a lot to happen in the world that just doesn't show up on our instruments. And the entire mechanism of consciousness sort of evades detection.
There seems to be some sort of similarity in the way that matter behaves and the way that entanglement can occur in nature and in consciousness; they sort of both press each other to reveal themselves, but until we figure out how to quantify what those are, we're sort of stuck. And that sort of keeps me awake at night. [laughs] Not that I'm gonna be the one to find the answer to that one!
But that's something that inspires me to write music, just this idea that there has to be an explanation for that, and I guess the best thing I can do is write music. I know I'm not going to figure out what the solution to that problem is, so I guess my response to it is to just try and make shapes out of music.