Philip Glass, Eleanor Wachtel; photo by Tim Matheson

For four decades, San Francisco’s Kronos QuartetDavid Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Sunny Yang (cello) – has combined a spirit of fearless exploration with a commitment to continually re-imagining the string quartet experience.

Last Saturday evening, Eleanor Wachtel of CBC Radio’s Wachtel on the Arts interviewed prominent American composer and long-time Kronos Quartet collaborator Philip Glass ahead of the Kronos’ special 40th anniversary concert, in conjunction with UBC Faculty of Arts’ 50th anniversary. The Philip Glass piece, String Quartet No. 6, was a co-commission between the Chan Centre and several American performing arts centres.

Wachtel began the conversation by asking Mr. Glass how he came to know Kronos Quartet.

Philip: I’d heard about a young quartet in the 70’s and took an interest in them as we were both on the path to cultivating a similar audience, as well as possessing a love for and dedication to music. Their aim of reaching the highest level of performance possible is my favourite aspect of the quartet. The Kronos Quartet and I were both touring at the same time in London. We wound up dining at the same restaurant when a conversation struck up about possibly working together (at the time, Glass had already been approached about scoring the music to Dracula).

Philip Glass, Eleanor Wachtel; photo by Tim Matheson
[Philip Glass, Eleanor Wachtel; photo by Tim Matheson]

Eleanor: Why not use an orchestra to record the soundtrack?
Philip: A quartet is much more affordable; why use an orchestra?

The soundtrack was subsequently composed by Glass and performed by the Kronos Quartet. Philip went on to muse about Bela Lugosi and how Glass had once been told that Lugosi was buried in his Dracula suit when he died.

Kronos Quartet
[Kronos Quartet; photo by Jay Blakesberg]

As Philip Glass knows the Kronos Quartet very well, he writes specific parts with each of its members in mind. Philip’s father was involved with music (he owned a record shop in Baltimore); Glass later discovered that the string quartet was the most intimate expression of a composer’s work.

Philip is currently working on an opera based on Franz Kafka’s The Trial for Music Theatre Wales. He’s also working on a memoir (the first draft is complete). He decided to write about the world he sees, rather than about himself. He’s lived through what he calls a fascinating period, from the Vietnam War to the present, has worked with numerous great collaborators, and feels lucky to have met so many interesting people.

“We musicians are citizens of the same country.” – Philip Glass

When pondering what music is, Philip corrects himself and realizes that music is a place, a place that he lives in much of the time. Where the music comes from is much more of interest to Glass.

The concert celebrated the ensemble’s 40 years of innovation with the world premiere of Philip GlassString Quartet No. 6, as well as selections from Kronos’ critically acclaimed 2009 album Floodplain. In addition, the Kronos performed a Canadian premiere of Hymnals by Montréal-based composer, Nicole Lizée, as well as other works, some written for Kronos, others arranged for them.

Several encores followed the two-hour concert. To cap the night off, the group performed Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze. Violinist David Harrington announced that the quartet hadn’t yet the chance to perform Purple Haze at the Chan, so they sat down and got to business. The group received standing ovations and left the UBC campus with fond memories of an incredibly special evening.

The complete interview will be aired on CBC 1 on Tuesday, November 19.

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