"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).
Green went in chronological order, relating how David conceived the quartet while he was living in Seattle, after hearing a recording of George Crumb's Black Angels on the radio in 1973. (Kronos played several sections, including the air raid opening and the haunting "God-Music", played by bows on water glasses.) It tracks their move to San Francisco, the assembling of the various lineups (David, Hank and John have been in the quartet since 1978; Sunny joined in 2013), their far-flung travels, their artistic triumphs and personal tragedies (Hank lost his partner in 1994, longtime cellist Joan Jeanrenaud had a stillborn child the next year and left Kronos after contracting MS in 1999, and David lost a child in 1995.)
From a technical perspective, the performance (concert? screening? lecture?) was certainly impressive, especially when you consider all of the possible things that could have gone wrong with cues, lighting, projection, etc. And Kronos' playing - of music by Terry Riley, Philip Glass, John Zorn, Laurie Anderson, and throat singer Tanya Tagaq, among others - was its usual astonishment of fire and precision, not in the least diminished by time. ("Kronos", David reminds us, is the Greek god of time.)
While the film went to great pains to celebrate Kronos' long career, longevity itself isn't unusual in the string quartet world: the Juilliard Quartet has been around since 1946 (albeit with replacement members) the Emerson Quartet has been playing together since 1976 with three of its original members, and the Guarneri Quartet played well into their 5th decade before retiring in 2009. What is remarkable is that Kronos has persisted by playing only new music, requiring a constant stream of commissions and collaborations with artists - men and women - from all over the world, and across all genres. One of the more memorable scenes shows David shopping in San Francisco's Ameoba Music, his arms chock full of African music, folk, jazz, rock, and a half dozen other CDs. He looks like he can't wait to get home and listen to all of it.
Where the evening went less well was with Green's ongoing narration, which suffered equally from trying to dumb things down for an audience he (wrongly) presumed knew nothing about string quartets or contemporary music - especially cringeworthy considering the VIP audience included people like Nonesuch's Bob Hurwitz, Kronos' label for the past 30 years - as well as a grandiose conceit about music as some kind of Utopia, which came across as half-baked. Green is a talented filmmaker, but his bloated prose and superfluous presence onstage served only to distract from the supreme artistry of the four musicians seated to his right.
Fortunately, Green's better instincts kicked in at the end, offering Kronos the final word with a fun, uplifting arrangement of Ervin T. Rouse's fiddle tune "Orange Blossom Special". Sometimes - usually - music this vital and engaging doesn't need any window dressing. Or, as Philip Glass put it, "Music is a place." It's enough just to be there, listening.