Eight Days of Steve: David Harrington

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1985 (I guess it must’ve been) was the first time I sat down with Steve Reich to ask him to write for Kronos. 

He said then that he hadn’t written a string quartet (although years later I found out that there was a student quartet, from when he was at Juilliard), and he didn’t seem all that interested in writing for the medium. He later sent me the score to Vermont Counterpoint, saying that I was welcome to turn it into a string quartet for Kronos. But I was determined that he should write a new piece, and I don’t give up easily.

A few months later, Kronos programmed Clapping Music as the opening piece of a concert. I had convinced my colleagues John Sherba, Hank Dutt, and Joan Jeanrenaud that it would be a terrific way to start a show: clap in rhythm at/to the audience. Performing the piece that night was thrilling. But what we didn’t realize until we had finished Clapping Music and sat down to play was that your hands swell up a bit when clapping for so long. That night we played Shostakovich after Clapping Music and I could hardly feel the fingerboard...

Afterward, I wrote Steve a letter telling him that Kronos had just played his first “string quartet” -- meaning Clapping Music -- and invited him to come to our performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where we were performing Terry Riley’s Salome Dances for Peace. He came (bringing György Ligeti with him), and at that time, Steve, like Kronos, had recently signed with Nonesuch Records.

I could feel the pendulum swinging toward a new piece for Kronos by Steve Reich. It didn’t hurt that my friend David Huntley, from Steve’s publisher Boosey & Hawkes, also supported the idea of Steve writing for Kronos. And around that same time we performed a concert in Betty Freeman’s home in Los Angeles. Betty was a wonderful patroness of music -- she had commissioned Salome -- and had heard that we shared an interest in Steve’s music. She offered to commission whatever Steve might write.

Eventually Steve agreed to write a string quartet. (As I said, I don’t give up easily.) He had several ideas originally: One terrific thought involved using Morton Feldman’s voice, but there was another idea, about trains and the Holocaust. He asked for my reactions about what would work best. My opinion is always to go with what has the greatest personal resonance.

Eventually, we began receiving cassette tapes in the mail, with mock-ups of Different Trains. It was incredible hearing this piece gradually come to life. When the piece was completed, we saw that he hadn’t written one string quartet: he had written four, layered on top of each other. For Kronos to realize the piece, we went into Russian Hill Studio in San Francisco with Steve and our longtime record producer Judy Sherman for nine days. We recorded all four quartets of Different Trains. As each day’s recording was done, the piece came more into focus. By the time the sessions were completed, it was clear that the world of string quartet repertoire had a vibrant and essential new addition.

The world premiere of Different Trains at the South Bank Centre in London in 1988 was a major moment for Kronos. It was a defining moment for us, when we realized that our concerts could encompass personal and historical events so powerfully. The effect of Different Trains continues to this day, as composers from so many backgrounds, cultures and religions have been drawn, like iron filings pulled by a magnet, to the emotional and sonic roads that were paved by Different Trains.

Steve Reich is beginning to write his third piece for Kronos, and I’m thrilled. What an adventure this will be!

Photos by Zoran Orlic from Kronos's production Visual Music, which opens with Reich's Pendulum Music for microphones, amplifiers, speakers, and performers.


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