San Francisco's world-renowned Kronos Quartet has charted an impressive course around the globe, commissioning more than 600 works — and releasing more than 45 records — with composers from China, Russia, Vietnam, and Iraq since its inception more than 30 years ago. Founding member David Harrington cites an unusual source of inspiration for working with composers from other countries: American foreign policy. Whenever the U.S. gets into a conflict or war, Harrington says it always makes him want to find out about the other country's music. It's a way of connecting to and partnering with cultures that American politics tear apart. "We are trying to be a witness to some of the things that are happening," he explains. "Every concert we play is an attempt to find balance in a world that's very unbalanced."
This year, the string quartet released a recording of Icelandic act Sigur Rós' Flugufrelsarinn; performed with Tom Waits at Neil Young's Bridge School Benefit, and with the queen of Bollywood film soundtracks, Asha Bhosle, at WOMADelaide; and collaborated with Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche. Kronos also released music by Polish composer Henryk Górecki and recorded Terry Riley's The Cusp of Magic with pipa virtuoso Wu Man for release in 2008, among other projects.
Harrington has an insatiable appetite for new music. Over the course of our three-hour conversation, he shows enthusiasm for everything from Swedish pop act Shout Out Louds (a recommendation from his daughter) and cellist Erik Friedlander to field recordings of underwater seals, Southwestern beetles, and singing dog teams of the Canadian north. "If somebody really loves something, I have to find out about it," he says, sitting in the Kronos practice space next to a plastic shopping bag of his favorite CDs. "If somebody really hates something, I have to find out about it. And as much as I like to go to Amoeba, I don't believe in categories. They have no meaning for me."
With tastes both esoteric and populist (The Lawrence Welk Show first inspired Harrington to pick up the violin), Kronos' leader offers a list of musicians who brought his continents a little closer in 2007.
Damon Albarn, Monkey: Journey to the West
Damon made this fantastic [theater] piece using a Chinese legend. It's like an opera, but it has acrobatics and dance. I met Damon in July and he's now writing a piece [for Kronos]. But that event that he and his team created was just beautiful. He's really inspiring.
Valentin Silvestrov, Bagatellen und Serenaden
Combine John Cage's touch on the piano with Morton Feldman's touch on the piano with my granddaughter's touch on the piano and you'll get the touch of Valentin Silvestrov. He's just exquisitely beautiful. He's from the Ukraine.
Alim and Fargana Qasimov, Music of Central Asia Vol. 6: Spiritual Music of Azerbaijan
Alim Qasimov is one of the great singers of the world — after Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, there's Alim Qasimov. Fargana is his daughter. She's sung with him since she was a little child.
Joe Henry, Civilians
I don't think enough people know about him. He's a great producer. He visualizes sound in a really complete way. His band is fantastic, and he's someone we'll be working with in the future.
This is a group that started out as a string quartet. They're from Iceland. I think one of them is married to the keyboardist of Sigur Rós. I met them on tour when we were in Iceland and we rehearsed with Sigur Rós. A lot of people probably wouldn't call Amiina a string quartet on recordings because there isn't a lot of violins and viola and cello; there's a lot of other instruments and sounds.
Valgeir Sigurdsson, Ekvilibrium
Valgeir is an amazing producer. He produced a recording that we made with Kimmo Pohjonen. I would define Kimmo as the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion. We played with Kimmo at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, opening their 25th season, and he wrote this amazing piece we did with Kimmo on accordion.
Múm, Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy
This is their new album that just came out. There are so many sounds and instruments you feel like you're discovering music. I love that feeling, like, "Wow, I've never heard that before; what an interesting way to combine things."
Ruby, Misheet Wara Ehsasi
What I love about this album is not necessarily the songs but the sounds of the instruments — there's some strings in some of these songs that are really cool. Ruby is from Egypt. I don't really know much about her, but I just love the sound of her voice. You can think of the voice as another instrument when you don't know the language, and I almost think of that as an advantage.
Nathamuni Brothers, Madras 1974
This is a cool record that was made on somebody's porch in India. The Brothers' group is called a brass band, but it's not really a brass band. There's a certain genius in India for taking something and just making it become something else.
Michael Hearst, Songs for Ice Cream Trucks
Everybody likes ice cream! When I heard this I was like, "Oh, I want to make a kids' album" — maybe because I'm a kid myself.
I love it when somebody does something and the bar just gets higher. That's what happened here. [British-Sri Lankan M.I.A. created Kala at different locations around the world after being denied a visa into the U.S. to record.] Our government is harassing a lot of people. It's getting more and more expensive for presenters to bring musicians in from ... Islamic countries. It's getting harder to get good information and music is information.
Ge Gan-Ru, Lost Style
Margaret Leng Tan [who performs on Lost Style] is, like, the foremost toy piano player in the world. On ["Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!"] she's playing all kinds of toys that she found in Chinatown in New York.
Various, Ethnic Minority Music of Southern Laos
Ethnic Minority Music of Southern Laos is one release of some 35 [releases] on that label. I think I have all of the Sublime Frequencies releases. The Iraqi piece we play I first heard when this particular label released a collection of Iraqi pop music from the '70s and '80s. Basically, I get everything they do — you never know what you're going to hear. There's amazing stuff on this.
Joe Meek, Vampires, Cowboys, Spacemen & Spooks: The Very Best of Joe Meek's Instrumentals
Some people will say this is cheese; I think it's cool. This is a great double CD. Before [Beatles producer] George Martin, this was the guy, but he died tragically. I think through an accident of timing he got overshadowed, but I love him. I feel better every time I hear "Night of the Vampire."
Bettye LaVette, The Scene of the Crime
Someone sent me The Scene of the Crime, which I can recommend. I have a great idea — at least I like it — for an album of songs, and now I've finally heard the right voice to join us. We'll see if she might be interested.
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