Andrew Alexander | 10 SEP 2019
The upcoming Kronos Quartet concert at Emory University’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, entitled Music for Change: The Banned Countries, was originally created in response to President Trump’s 2017 executive order limiting entry of refugees to the United States from Muslim-majority countries.
The concert, featuring a collaboration with Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat, consists of music from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
EarRelevant and The Alexander Report teamed up for an interview with Kronos founder and violinist David Harrington to discuss what it means to create music in troubled times.
How did the collaboration with Mahsa Vahdat come about?
We were introduced to the music of Mahsa Vahdat and her sister Marjan Vahdat several years ago by a friend in San Francisco. When we first heard her, we realized we were hearing someone absolutely amazing. Eventually her sister came to one of our rehearsals. We heard more about their stories.
It seems years ago they made a music video on the rooftop of a building in Tehran. They were singing without headscarves on, and the regime found out about this video, which went viral. They were detained and then charged.
Eventually, there were several trials. At the moment, they’re awaiting sentencing, but they’re not allowed to perform in public in Iran. Marjan is not allowed to perform in the US either; she doesn’t have the right visa.
It just seemed very natural that we would work together. It’s shocking that such amazing artists can’t have their work heard by others and also that they can’t practice their art. Performance is a central part of the practice of music. These sorts of stories are important for Americans to know right now. You find out more and more what it means to leave your country. In the last six months, both of their parents have died.
You said you were amazed by her music. What sort of qualities do you think she brings to the table as an artist?
The reason Mahsa sits in with Kronos is that she feels and thinks about the notes she makes as a musician. She feels exactly the same way that the members of Kronos feel. And that is that a musical note is an opportunity to explore the world, it’s an opportunity to put everything you know about the universe into that particular note, and you can shape it. Mahsa does that so beautifully. When we’re working together or talking about music together, you just sense that her entire being is involved in the notes she gets to make.
Her voice and style of singing are more typically combined with Persian classical instruments. How did you approach combining with her voice with the instruments in a Western classical quartet?
It was our friend composer Sahba Aminikia, who also is an immigrant from Iran to the US, who made arrangements of Mahsa’s songs for us. We all thought the combination was so perfect.
You mention these instruments are Western instruments. But it’s important to know that stringed instruments are played on every continent, maybe excluding Antarctica. (I’m not sure about Australia. When you’re right next to a didgeridoo it feels like a stringed instrument!). There are families of our instruments all over the place.
Is a violin a “Western” instrument? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. It’s definitely been used frequently by major composers in the West. But one of the greatest violinists I know of is in India. I think the violin was brought to India, but they found an entirely new technique to play the instrument so it becomes more like a voice.
I question whether we should say that instruments come from a particular place or culture. I believe it’s more fluid than that. I think of music as a continual evolution, and musicians find things they like. In that sense, Mahsa had never heard Kronos and she found us, and we had never heard Mahsa and we found her. Then we started experimenting together. That’s what musicians do. Experimenting, exploring, finding things that please them and expressing things that nothing else can express. Basically, that’s how we came to work with Mahsa.
We live in such terrible times when there’s all this reactionary anxiety around different cultures, immigration, and change. What role do you think music has to play in all of that?
There’s definitely a role for music. After September 11, I feel its been very important that music from Muslim majority countries are played at Kronos concerts and that we do everything we can to learn more about things we don’t know about. Music can teach us a lot of things.
Then you start working with wonderful musicians from different places and you realize what music and collaboration do. It gives us friends. It gives us stories you never hear in any other way about regular life in a country you may never get to visit, that you only read about on the news. There might be people who are being accused of horrible crimes and an entire culture or religion is being blacklisted.
It’s part of a musicians’ responsibility to lift our audience out of ‘un-knowledge.’ For me it’s an opportunity and a time to explore and discover. I want that for my audience as much as for myself.
Kronos has been around since 1973. What’s the secret to that longevity and all the successful collaboration, both amongst the members of Kronos and with other musicians?
We think of our work as coming from the music itself. All of us are really thrilled and inspired to get to play so many hundreds of new pieces. There’s never a dull moment. There’s lot of work, I’ll admit that. We’ve worked incredibly hard and continue to do so. Getting up every day, making sure you’re in tip-top shape, trying to make better notes than the day before, I like that. Everyone in Kronos likes that. Our composers and all the musicians we’ve performed with share that same curiosity and devotion to making their notes. ■
Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based writer and editor. Readers of Creative Loafing have twice voted him Atlanta’s Best Critic in the alt-weekly’s annual “Best of Atlanta” issue, and his features and reviews appear frequently in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Alexander Report, his new free email newsletter covering the best the arts in Atlanta have to offer, made its debut in June.