UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For almost 50 years, Kronos Quartet has served as one of the most forward-thinking contemporary string ensembles in the world. Using music as a means of breaking down the social, political and spiritual barriers that separate people and cultures, the group’s catalog includes collaborations with a range of artists, including Tom Waits, Laurie Anderson, and Azerbaijani father-daughter singing duo Alim and Fargana Qasimov.
In 2017, the Trump administration imposed a travel ban restricting access to the United States from Venezuela, North Korea and a number of Muslim-majority countries — including Iran, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Syria. Naturally, Kronos Quartet responded by creating a musical program — “Music for Change: The Banned Countries.” The program includes commissioned works by artists and composers from Muslim-majority nations, including Yemeni composer Fatimah Al-Zaelaeyah, Syrian vocalist Omar Souleyman and Iranian vocalist Mahsa Vahdat.
For a 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 18, performance at Penn State’s Eisenhower Auditorium, Vahdat will join Kronos Quartet to celebrate both the subtle and overwhelming beauty that defines music from those countries. Kronos violinist David Harrington recently discussed the quartet’s history of lifelong collaborations, communing with the deeper meanings in music and exploring the ways in which the universe makes sense.
Question: Kronos Quartet has long collaborated with other artists — Bryce Dessner from The National, Terry Riley, Wu Man, and Alim and Fargana Qasimov. For the “Music for Change: The Banned Countries” program, you’re performing with Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat. What is the thread that connects you with these artists?
David Harrington: The thread is listening to and being occasionally magnetized by what other musicians are able to do. This has happened consistently throughout my life. That’s what all of us in Kronos do. When I first heard Alim Qasimov in London, maybe 20 years ago, it was in a very small room, and it felt like this man was singing right into the center of my life. It was so beautiful and confident and passionate and virtuosic. It was so many things all at once that I vowed one day we would find a way of working with Alim. In the meantime, his daughter, Fargana, was studying with him, and she became a master as well. So when we began working with him, we also got to work with her. I can say the same thing about our relationship with Riley, Astor Piazzolla, Waits, Tanya Tagaq, Anderson, you name it. If we’ve been involved with someone, it’s because something has pulled us to them musically.
This is exactly what happened when I first heard Mahsa Vahdat. Then I learned about her life story and began to understand how her voice and her artistry has been tempered by her experiences. In Mahsa’s home country, it is illegal for her to perform in public. She was arrested for singing on a rooftop in Tehran and for making a video without wearing a headscarf because she’s a woman. Then her sister, Marjan, was jailed for doing this. Mahsa has been able to fully express herself through her artistry when she’s outside of her home country. Can you imagine yourself being in the position where all of a sudden you’re not able to do what you love to do the most? It’s incredibly powerful, incredibly beautiful, and it is so very necessary for us to know about this.