Photo: Marion Ettlinger.

Left to right: John Sherba, David Harrington, Joan Jeanreaud, Hank Dutt.

Founded in San Francisco in 1973 by violinist David Harrington, the Kronos Quartet evolved into their current form of David Harrington on violin, Joan Jeanrenaud on 'cello, John Sherba on violin and Hank Dutt on viola in 1978. Taking their name from the Greek God who swallowed his own children, the Kronos Quartet has built up a reputation for playing uncompromising contemporary music to ever increasing audiences and updating the somewhat 'stuffy' image of the String Quartet. Their 1986 release 'Sculthorpe/Sallinen/Glass/Nancarrow/Hendrix' (also known as 'Contemporary Works for String Quartet', released on Elektra/Asylum/Nonesuch Records) contains their version of 'Purple Haze'.

UniVibes: Could you tell me the background to how you started playing 'Purple Haze'?
David Harrington: Well, in 1980 we were doing this concert... A friend of mine had done this version of 'The Rite of Spring' [Stravinsky] for us - we had never played 'The Rite Of Spring' and obviously we probably never would unless we had somebody do a version for us... Anyway, that night we were doing that and I was wondering what could we possibly do if the audience wanted an encore. And it occurred to me that... Hendrix! That was a next step for us, I think, after 'The Rite of Spring' and so I started talking to Steve Riffkin about this and we came up with the thought of 'Purple Haze'. And so he did a version of it for us in 1980 and we've been involved with Hendrix's music since then.

UV: Has 'Purple Haze' always been an encore piece in your repertoire or have you played it within your main concert set?
DH: We've done both, sure.

UV: How do you programme it within your main concert set?
DH: Umm, well, it just depends what's happening... On this tour, for example, the first concert was at the Roskilde rock 'n' roll festival outside of Copenhagen and we did 'Purple Haze' right in the middle of the concert there somewhere surrounded by music from Uzbekistan [part of the former Republic of the Soviet Union] and Sudan and the music of John Zorn and a lot of other things. So, for me, Hendrix's music has always seemed like a very natural part of what we do. And you know, it's really interesting that when you go back and listen to, let's say, music of Xenakis or someone like that and then you turn on Hendrix... You realize that in a lot of ways the sound world that Hendrix is involved with is not a whole lot different from some of the other music that was happening in different parts of the world and in a whole different corner of the music world.

UV: In what sort of ways?
DH: Well, the kind of extension of sound and the sense of using feedback... To me his work has always seemed 'elemental'. And if he were alive today I have a lot of confidence that he'd probably be writing quartets for Kronos [laughs]. I really do!

UV: Did you commission the arrangement of 'Purple Haze' from Steve Riffkin?
DH: Yeah, we did, sure.

UV: Is he a composer or an arranger?
DH: Both, yeah. You know, I'm not even sure where he's at right now. He was in Leningrad the last I talked to him, organizing concerts for kids.

UV: Did you give him any particular directions for the arrangement?
DH: You know, the thing is what he wrote and what we play now, uhh... You could say now that the arrangement is totally unrecognizable from what he wrote. I mean it's definitely become Kronos' arrangement by this point. We recorded it in '85, umm, some things are similar but the use of feedback and certain ways we deal with different aspects in the piece and, and the fact that we use an octave divider now...

UV: Is that on the violins?
DH: No, no, on the 'cello. I mean, I don't feel like constrained by the way we recorded it at all, it's going to sound different...

UV: In what ways has your interpretation of 'Purple Haze' evolved over the years?
DH: Well, I think that now when we get into virtually any concert hall in the world, one of the sounds that our sound engineer is working for is a certain, uhh, you know, what we think of as our 'Hendrix sound'. And so it has to do with using feedback, using, you know, different sound possibilities. I mean, the first time we ever played it, it was totally acoustic. Now it's highly amplified.

UV: You actually use feedback from your instruments?
DH: Oh yeah, sure.

UV: Do you travel with the same sound engineer?
DH: Yeah.

UV: Do you improvise during it at all?
DH: Yeah, especially my part, sure.

UV: Why do you think 'Purple Haze' works in a String Quartet setting whereas other 'rock classics' might not work?
DH: Well, I've always liked the beat of that piece and to me the melody is fabulous. I've just felt very close to the essence of that music.

UV: Were the other members of the Kronos Quartet familiar with Hendrix's work?
DH: Oh, yeah, yeah.

UV: Was there any specific philosophy behind doing 'Purple Haze' such as wanting to show traditionally conservative classical audiences that rock music has a validity and a universality that is usually ignored by classical audiences?
DH: I didn't... I've never gotten that complicated! Really, for me it was just, hey, this guy was a great musician, 'I love this - let's do it!' It was really simple - it still is. For me it's exactly the same reason I would play any music and in terms of doing an arrangement the reason we would do an arrangement of any piece is to be involved with a certain person's music. And in this case it was the only way to do it since Hendrix wasn't around anymore. You know, the only way for Kronos to be involved with his music was for us to start playing it. And anytime we do a version of something it's also a way that we can show respect and solidarity with another artist.

UV: Commentators often look for a 'deeper significance' to you choosing a rock piece. [The sleeve notes of 'Contemporary Works for String Quartet', written by Gregory Sandow, state 'But above all "Purple Haze" adds an important thought to any discussion of the nature and function of contemporary music. Much of the most characteristic music of our time is not "classical". By bringing an exuberant Jimi Hendrix tune into the concert hall, Kronos also in effect performs the same service in reverse, placing contemporary classical music in the midst of the world most of its audience lives in.']
DH: Mmm. I mean I never even thought... See, for me, music doesn't work that way, it really doesn't. I don't see these, uhh, these little 'senses' around different kinds of music. I don't believe the ear works that way. I mean, you absorb all kinds of different music in your life and some of it really reaches deeply into your life and that's the music that stays with you the most and if you're lucky you'll run into some of that music in your lifetime. I feel very lucky that there are so many different composers that are writing for Kronos and so much music that we find inspiring - it's a wonderful time to be a musician.

UV: Have you played any other Hendrix songs apart from 'Purple Haze'?
DH: Well, we've been playing 'Foxy Lady' for a few years, arranged by Steve Mackey but again the arrangement has evolved over the years into Kronos'. We also did 'Manic Depression' and we never really thought that the version that we were doing was quite happening and we're putting together 'Red House' right now. This particular version of 'Red House' is incredibly difficult to play so it's taken us... It's not ready to go yet but maybe someday it will be.

UV: Are you arranging that yourselves?
DH: No, a friend of ours named Steve Mackey again, has done that.

UV: That's the person who arranged Willie Dixon's 'Spoonful' on your 1993 'Short Stories' release?
DH: Yes.

UV: Do you regard Hendrix as a contemporary composer who just happened to work within rock music or as a rock guitarist who just happens to have a song that works in a String Quartet setting?
DH: I think of Hendrix as a virtuoso performer/composer and a force in music in the same way I think of Terry Riley as a virtuoso performer and a force in music. Those are the people I tend to be attracted to [laughs], you know, when thinking about enlarging the scope of our own work. And, as I said, I feel like in one way or another if Hendrix were playing today we would in someway be involved with his work - I'm certain of it.

UV: You must have had quite a bit of negative reaction from classical purists who disapprove of mixing rock music and classical music.
DH: Oh yeah, yeah - you get that all the time [laughs]! Yeah!

UV: But you just shrug it off?
DH: Absolutely! We've been playing Hendrix for 13 or 14 years now, you know... And the fact is that for me his work feels fresh and alive - I love the sound of it. When I go back and listen to the performance he did at Woodstock of 'The Star Spangled Banner'... In my opinion that's one of the greatest performances of anything that I have ever heard. As an American who grew up in the time of the Vietnam war it's one of the most powerful artistic statements that I'm aware of and I feel very close to Hendrix in that respect.

UV: The British violinist Nigel Kennedy recently commented that he thought your version of Purple Haze' 'made the capital error in that they overlooked the rhythm of "Purple Haze".' What do you think of that?
DH: Umm, mmm... Well, I don't really know what he's talking about.

UV: Have you heard Nigel Kennedy's version of 'Purple Haze'?
DH: No, I haven't.

UV: Did you know that he's planning to record an album of Hendrix cover versions?
DH: Well, I know that he heard us play 'Purple Haze' in Detroit... He was there once. Sounds like he knows a good idea when he hears it.

UV: I believe you used to do a work called 'Opus 50' which was a collection of six rock classics.
DH: Yeah, that's right!

UV: Which songs were they?
DH: Oh, there was a lot of different things... There was a Buddy Holly tune and there was, umm, you know, an Elvis tune and... A lot of things...

UV: Are you going to record it?
DH: Well, the thing is we, you know, we're working on all... I've got 28 ideas for new albums right now [laughs] so it's... I'm not really sure.

UV: Who arranged 'Opus 50'?
DH: That was also by Steve Riffkin, yeah.

UV: Your arrangement of 'Purple Haze' for String Quartet has started a trend for other String Quartets to do similar versions of rock songs. Do you think in lesser hands it's just a cheap way to court popularity in the rock world and create some attention-grabbing controversy in the classical world?
DH: Gee, I dunno. All I can say is I would only do something that... That it felt like it was the right thing to do for Kronos at any particular time... That's the only reason I would want to do something. And I assume that other people feel the same way about their work. If that's, you know, what leads them to their next step then that's cool as far as I'm concerned.

UV: The amount of new music written increases pretty dramatically year by year and there's still a lot of excellent music from the past that remains obscure or even totally ignored. This has led some commentators to propose a theory that enough music has already been written. What do you think of this theory?
DH: The greatest piece of music has not been written yet.

UV: Can you envisage what it would sound like?
DH: Umm, no, but if we ever played the greatest piece of music and did an absolutely perfect performance of it, umm, at that point I would throw my instrument to the audience and I wouldn't need to play my instrument again [laughs]!

UV: Do you think you are ever likely to achieve that?
DH: There have been two or three notes that we've played in the last 15 years that felt like they were approaching something that I felt truly happy about, so... I don't think I need to worry about throwing my instrument at the audience [laughs]!

UV: What particular moments were they? Which particular pieces?
DH: Umm, well, I'm speaking of notes, not even minutes or anything, umm... You know, I feel like what we're looking for is, umm, you know... We're looking for experiences that somehow tell us who we are at any given point... If that's conceivable. I think music can do that. And it seems to me that in 1993 one of the greatest things we have is this incredible diversity of musical forces from every corner of the world... The challenge is to organize that material in such a way so that this diversity becomes a celebration and becomes a way of appreciating human nature even more than we did before. I mean, I feel that that's something music can do. I look at our concerts and recordings as attempts at organizing the world of experiences that we are involved with and umm... I'm just hoping that as time goes on we'll get closer and closer to experiences that feel absolutely essential to, uhh, the next step.

UV: You speak about a great diversity of musical forces that's available to musicians living in the present day but don't you ever feel overwhelmed by an information overload?
DH: Uhh... Oh, that's a regular part of life [laughs]! Yeah [laughs]! But, you know, it seems like that's part of what it is to be alive in our time right now. The question is how do you deal with the fact that, you know... Like last night ['last night' was 21 July 1993 when the Kronos played the first of four dates at London's Barbican Centre], for example, there was a wonderful composer from Uzbekistan who handed me his latest piece and there was a protest poet from South Africa at the concert and many different composers and musicians who wanted to talk about new ideas and... That's what it is to be involved in music now and... So somehow I have to evolve [laughs] in order to handle this [laughs], I think. It's just kind of the nature of things... But I'm not complaining... I'm inspired by the possibilities for the future and I think if we have time and energy, a lot of things are possible.

This interview was originally published in `UniVibes' issue 13, February 1994.

UniVibes 1994 - reprinted by permission of UniVibes, International Jimi Hendrix Magazine, Coppeen, Enniskeane, County Cork, Republic Of Ireland