When all is said and done, the Kronos Quartet — violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Sunny Yang — might be remembered as the most eclectic musical ensemble in history.
Pick a composer, artist, genre, tradition, spot on the map or time period: The Kronos has likely touched it. Concert venue? Been there. The original body of work alone is astounding; over 40 years, the group has commissioned hundreds of works, from composers like Ástor Piazzolla, Tanya Tagaq, Wu Man, Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Zakir Hussain.
On April 15, at Wesleyan University in Middletown, the Kronos Quartet premieres a new arrangement of John Coltrane’s somber “Alabama” (1963) by trombonist and composer Jacob Garchik, who started working with the group more than a decade ago. (Coltrane wrote “Alabama” in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing on Sept. 15, 1963, that killed four African-American girls.)
Garchik spoke about the process of transcription, arranging Coltrane’s music and how working across musical traditions teaches lessons about music he never expected to learn.
Q: How did you start working with the Kronos Quartet?
A: I actually knew David [Harrington] when I was a kid because I went to school with his daughter. And over the years I saw them play — they played at my high school where we were both students. I was aware of them for a long time. I met him once because his daughter and my brother did an exchange program in Russia and he came to my parents house. I think that was probably like 12 years old or something like that. And he was already somebody that I knew about. I knew about the Kronos Quartet and I was a fan.
So then, many years later in 2006, I was playing in a Balkan band called Slavic Soul Party. We did a double bill with Kronos Quartet in Prospect Park and I got to talking with him. He remembered who I was. I talked to him about doing arranging of Balkan music for Slavic Soul Party, and then a few weeks later he asked me to arrange something for Kronos, a very difficult transcription of music from Iran.
Q: From there, it spread to music from all over the world?
A: I always like to say: I’m an expert in none of it. It’s so far-flung. There’s no one person who’s going to know about all the different types of music. They probably could get someone who’s an expert in the music of Ethiopia, for example, who knows much more than me, because it’s a lifetime of study just to learn about that one music. But then, the next month they’re doing a project with musicians from Korea, or something like that. I just try and study each project that comes up. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can to be faithful to the original.
Q: How did you approach “Alabama?”
A: I’m a jazz musician, so this is a piece I’ve heard many times since I was a teenager. I’m a huge Coltrane fan, too. I have been for a long time. It was very familiar, very close to what I’m interested in. The original has three parts to it. The central part is improvised by the Coltrane Quartet. There’s also a live version that's on YouTube. It’s very helpful: you can see that the introduction is completely the same, and then the middle section is improvised. The final section is a recapitulation, where you get to confirm to yourself that the middle section is really improvised.
With that in mind, the question was what to do with Kronos. They’re not jazz musicians. We decided to focus on the introduction and the recapitulation, which are very striking and very unique in the jazz canon, almost like these meditative mantras or chants. It’s supposedly based on this speech by Martin Luther King Jr. [after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing]. That’s really what the arrangement focuses on: It’s an interpretation of the mood of that material.
Q: Did the process of transcription — getting inside it — change how you feel about the music?
A: It’s always interesting when you hear a piece many times over the years, and then you actually sit down and write it out in notation. You learn the things you didn’t hear, just because you're studying it so carefully. I was definitely getting into Coltrane’s compositional process a little bit, wondering how he did it. I have no idea how he notated it originally, so I did my approximation of that.
There’s one moment where the Quartet plays these four chords. That was very interesting, to try to figure out what he was trying to do. It’s a mysterious process that Coltrane went through, and I was learning about it as I created the arrangement.
Q: Was there any source material you consulted, or did you just stick to the recordings themselves?
A: I tried to find a recording of the actual speech. Apparently it was a press conference on the steps of the courthouse the day after the bombing, and it was televised, or maybe it was on the radio. That’s how Coltrane heard it. I couldn’t find a recording. I was wondering how closely Coltrane’s melody came to emulating Martin Luther King. I’m assuming Coltrane didn't have a recording of it, so maybe he was just going off his recollection of King’s speech cadence when he composed his melody. But I couldn’t get to the bottom of that.
THE KRONOS QUARTET performs at Wesleyan University’s Crowell Concert Hall in Middletown on April 15 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $35. The program also features works by the Who, Islam Chipsy, N. Rajam, Yevgeniy Sharlat, Fodé Lassana Diabaté, Nicole Lizée, Rhiannon Giddens, Aleksandra Vrebalov, Tanya Tagaq, Mario Galeano Toro, Terry Riley and others. wesleyan.edu