"The string quartet repertoire was probably changed more by (Kronos Quartet) than by any other group." - Philip Glass
What is a string quartet? That seems to have been the essential question on Sam Green and Joe Bini's mind when they set out to make the documentary film A Thousand Thoughts, about the pioneering, peerless Kronos Quartet. The film, which received its New York premiere last night at The Town Hall, reminds us how Kronos has spent the past half-century upending just about every convention associated with the string quartet. Instead of tuxedos or concert black, they've typically worn the colorful, trendy outfits of a rock band (though they've toned it down considerably in recent years.) Instead of being marooned to classical radio or stuffy recital halls, they appeared on Sesame Street and at experimental music festivals. And, instead of playing the core repertoire by Haydn, Beethoven or Schubert, Kronos almost exclusively plays music by living composers, with more than 1,000 commissions to date, including their ongoing Fifty for the Future project with Carnegie Hall.
When Green pitched the project to Kronos founder and Artistic Director David Harrington (whom I met at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville four years ago) he called it a "live documentary", in which Kronos would perform live and Green would provide running commentary to the film. (Green's other projects include The Love Song of R Buckminster Fuller, featuring live accompaniment by Yo La Tengo.) Harrington signed on immediately; Thursday's performance was the 18th since the film's premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2018.
Green was given full access to Kronos' extensive archives, housed in their San Francisco rehearsal studio, and the film is largely a pastiche of his never-before-seen findings: video and audio recordings, photographs, old clippings of reviews (yikes!). It also includes interviews with composers, managers, musicians - and, of course, the four members of Kronos: Harrington, John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Sunny Yang (cello).