When David Harrington, violinist and founding member of the highly acclaimed Kronos Quartet, was about 12 years old, he discovered the Columbia Record Club.
The year was 1961 and for about a penny, Harrington was able to select five or six LPs with which to start his music collection. Having just picked up a biography of Beethoven and in the midst of learning about the composer’s late quartets, he selected a recording of the Budapest Quartet playing Beethoven’s Op. 127.
“I instantly fell in love with the E-flat major chords at the beginning of the piece,” Harrington says of that first listen.
“I was addicted. All I wanted to do was make that sound myself. So I went and checked out sheet music from the Seattle Public Library, called up some friends from the Seattle Youth Symphony, and shortly after found myself in a practice room at the university playing that piece.” This would become the experience that set the course of his life. “I knew from that moment that all I wanted to do was play quartets.” Forty years and over 50 recordings later, Harrington and the Kronos Quartet continue to push the boundaries of what quartet music is today. I caught up with Harrington to ask him a few questions about his violin as he was preparing to head out to the UK for more music making.
—Heather K. Scott
Tell me about your instrument and bow.
I play a 1721 Carlo Testore violin (according to the label). And I use one of the earliest handmade French carbon-fiber bows.
What’s the condition of your instrument?
It has been cracked a lot over the years. So when I got the instrument, it had had many repairs. It was well cared for previously (but I have no idea how many wars it has seen, how many trips across the Atlantic it has been on). I got this violin from a music foundation in Seattle, Washington, that was going out of business. My friend Mark Sokol had played this violin when we were both kids playing in a quartet together. In fact, the first world premiere that I was involved in at age 16, Mark played the Testore that I now play. The premiere was by Ken Benshoof, and Ken later wrote the very first piece for Kronos. When we played that world premiere of Traveling Music No. 4 in 1974, I used the same violin.
Is this your primary instrument?
Yes. On almost every recording that Kronos has ever made, and every concert I’ve ever played, I’ve played this instrument. An interesting note: There were several performances and one recording where I had to use a different instrument because of a mishap—my case went flying out of a plane’s overhead bin. I had too many family photos under my instrument, and although I had a suspension case, the violin wasn’t really suspended because of the photos, which transmitted the shock of the instrument’s fall. I ended up with a great big crack on the top of the instrument that had to be fixed. In the meantime, I had to use a borrowed instrument. Our recording of All the Rage by Bob Ostertag was the only one I’ve ever made that wasn’t with this violin.
How does your Testore compare to your previous primary instrument?
My primary instrument before the Testore was a violin I had bought when I was a kid, and I now use it as my second instrument. It is a 1732 Giovanni Francesco Celoniatus made in Turin.
As for how they compare, it’s hard to know now because I have restrung the Celoniatus instrument, and I use it for Geeshie Wiley and Omar Souleyman and the Iranian lullaby, where I need to sound like a blues singer, a Syrian keyboard, and a bagpipe. So, I have two As and two Ds—it’s a scordatura instrument, which I play in fifths (unisons). And it works great. It sounds exactly the way I need it to sound.
What gift does your instrument bring to your playing that can’t be found in any other instrument?
The gift that my Testore gives me every day is contact with every concert I’ve ever played with Kronos. This violin has been with me through all the births I’ve known in my family, and all the deaths. It means a great deal to have this particular instrument because of that personal connection, and because I feel like we’ve learned a lot together. When I’ve needed to sound like an organ or a different instrument, a specific kind of voice or some aspect of nature, this violin has always been there with me.
When I’m hearing the up-close sound of this instrument—and having to deal with its idiosyncrasies, and all of my own problems—this violin feels like home. It’s a part of the vocabulary that I’ve been trying to work with for the past 42 years: There’s a recognizable sound within the instrument. I recognize myself within this instrument.
I remember when Veda Reynolds, my teacher of 30 years, would play this violin she really had a rough time (it takes some getting used to). I wish it were more powerful in some ways and I wish it had certain other things (like if it auto-corrected my intonation!). But, in the end, I treat it as a member of my innermost family—I love it for who it is. As Mister Rogers said, “I like you just the way you are.”
The idea of spending even a minute of my life wanting another instrument is absolutely impossible for me. There are hundreds of other violins that probably sound better, but there will never be another violin for me that helped bring African string-quartet music into being, that has been at every rehearsal and concert of Terry Riley’s quartet music, or that has experienced Black Angels as many times as my Testore.
What does your violin teach you?
Its deficiencies are teaching me things about how I need to transform my own body to get it to do things that it hasn’t done yet. Rather than blaming the instrument, I’ll just blame my lack of imagination for what it’s not able to do yet.
There are many things that I need to learn about the way I approach the instrument to get it to sound the way I need it to sound.
Have you thought about the people who have handled this violin before you?
Yes: I remember when I first got this instrument, it smelled like cigarettes because Mark Sokol used to smoke!
Do your violin’s previous players resonate in your instrument? Your performance?
When you think about an instrument that has been in the world for a time, you do imagine the other people who have played it. And you wonder what kind of music this instrument might have played.
If this Testore was truly made in Italy in 1721, it could have been involved in a premiere of a Mozart opera or Verdi’s Requiem. Who knows what music this violin might have been involved in playing. Bach was still alive at that point. It’s kind of cool when you think about it!
I remember the first time I played Jimi Hendrix on this instrument. This violin has been through a lot with me. But eventually it’ll go to somebody else, and they’ll take it where they want to go. That’s the wonderful aspect about handmade instruments.
How did you come to be in possession of your instrument?
It was good luck. Totally good luck. If the person who was running the foundation in Seattle hadn’t known me and hadn’t known that I needed an instrument—and that I would likely take good care of it—I probably wouldn’t have gotten it. I didn’t have enough money to own an instrument. I think every young person who’s getting an instrument needs to be thought of as someone who eventually will take their instrument to unknown territories—and we all need some good luck.
The overpricing of instruments is a tragic situation for musicians, and ultimately for audiences, too. The huge concern about the name of the instrument and its pedigree and all that, that’s tragic as well.
I think it’s most important to find an instrument that you like, one that you can work with. Particularly, one with which you can mold the sound. So much of creating a sound on an instrument has to do with the way you hear, the way you’re listening, and what you’re trying to achieve.
So, there’s what you’re hearing inside, what you’re listening to, and what you’re getting out of the instrument. Additionally, you’re modulating your body to arrive at the sound you need, and it’s not actually the instrument that is making this happen.
The sound is coming out of the instrument—but it’s also coming out of the person who’s playing the instrument.
What drew you to this instrument?
It was the sound. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, one of the first pieces that I played with Mark Sokol, David Campbell, and Audrey King was Beethoven’s Op. 127—with that great E-flat-major chord. When I first heard this instrument play that sound, I knew it was the right instrument for me. And I feel that my real instrument is the string quartet—not just a violin. I like the way it sounds with Sunny’s, Hank’s, and John’s instruments—the way it can blend and be part of the group. This is so much more than just a violin.
Describe your instrument’s personality and temperament.
I think of my instrument as a quiet presence that can take on many characters and colors. It sounds the way I need it to sound in any music that I’ve played so far in my life and with the Kronos Quartet. As my friend Osvaldo Golijov once said, “It should sound angry at God.” My violin can sound like that, and as gentle as a rose petal.
If you were to liken your instrument to a personality, does anyone specific come to mind?
For me, it would be a whole stage full of actors and actresses. No one in particular that I know of; it’s probably a combination of a lot of different kinds of characters, colors, and fragrances. I think of it as a very sensual instrument.
Does your instrument sound better in certain settings than in others?
My instrument loves to be right next to an audience—literally two or three feet away. Maybe that’s because I like that, too! And, I think all instruments like halls that have a nice resonance, where the air feels like it’s ready to be activated by the friction of bows.
What are your instrument’s strengths and limitations?
I’d say its strength is the variety of colors it can get. Weaknesses probably have to do with certain ranges. It’d be great if—and I work on this all the time—the highest notes were more commanding, and I think that maybe as a kid I just didn’t like the highest notes, and maybe that has remained with me.
You always wonder about how the instrument and what’s inside of you are working together or not working together.
We were recently listening to and editing Kronos recordings, and there are certain pitches where I can hear this instrument singing, and it feels like it loves certain notes and loves to be played on those notes.
So, if every piece had plenty of those particular notes, then who knows what would happen!
If given the ability, what would your instrument say to you if the two of you sat down for tea?
I think we would be whispering very intimate things to each other. Even upon our first meeting, without any doubt.
Love at first sight is a very important part of life.