A Thousand Thoughts

Kronos Quartet and documentary filmmakers Sam Green & Joe Bini

Written by:
David E. Moreno
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“A Thousand Thoughts, a thousand questions, mine, yours, ours, theirs, questions that perhaps open up things that definitive answers would only nail shut. Kronos Quartet’s long trajectory offers a series of questions that are solid and answers are elusive. How do you find the path between predictability and instability? How do you have both a clear identity and an open door that lets in new ideas and collaborators?” Rebecca Solnit

“A Thousand Thoughts” is a dazzling, multilayered live documentary celebrating the 45-year ‘kronology’ and vanguard music of the Kronos Quartet. This live retrospective is held together by the affable writer and director, Sam Green, who offers a light-hearted narrative as he interacts  with his full screen film, a live performance by the Kronos and the audience. The film – with its rapid edits, split screen images of archival footage, includes interviews with the quartet’s members, luminary composers and collaborators–succeeds in making the film feel as if it is indeed happening in the moment. An Interactive performance between the world’s premier “pipa” virtuoso musician–Wu Man– on the screen with the violins and cello on stage, Green on his laptop computer sustains this fresh realness throughout, as does the love and admiration among everyone. The film also includes fleeting archival footage from the decades that Kronos has been performing with snippets of Jimi Hendrix to then Mayor Dianne Feinstein — now Senator — and even a history lesson of their Italian made violins with one dating back to the 17th century.

The performance moves smartly through the quartets expansive catalog, performing music by George Crumb (Selections from “Black Angels” performed on wine glasses), Laurie Anderson (“Flow”), John Zorn (“Meditation (The Blue Noon)”), John Adams (“Judah to Ocean”), and others, mostly written or arranged for Kronos. An interview with Inuk vocals with Tanya Tagaq (“Sivunittinni”–excerpt) is utterly delightful and feeling as if she is coming to us over Skype rather than being prerecorded. This compilation of their catalog is nifty and sumptuous; hopefully will make its way to an album. These musical selections and the film also sail through the several mutations and incarnations of the quartet’s changing members with David Harrington remaining the constant in this evolution. Even in tonight’s performance, Paul Wiancko (cello) replaced Sunny Yang who is out on maternity leave, joining long timers John Sherba and Hank Dutt on violins. “Kronos has gone through celloist the way Spinal Tap has gone through drummers,” jokes Sam Green.  

But first, the evening started off with a solo piano performance by longtime collaborator, minimalist composer and colorful friend of Kronos, Terry Riley. Clad in a candy-colored patchwork sport coat with hoodie, Riley added vocals to a dissonant techno jazz-like arrangement, singing about the gypsy in his soul before taking the vocals into Punjabi (a long-time student of Pandit Pran Nath) and into ecstatic gibberish. This piece was played on a digital keyboard before turning to a grand piano for a second piece which included Riley’s repetitive style and staggering chordal progression that showcased his keyboard talent with foot-stomping rhythms. Not bad for this 85-year-old musician who met Kronos back in the 70s at Mills College in the East Bay. Kronos has commissioned close to 30 works by Riley, more than any other composer. Following Riley’s quirky performance was a panel discussion moderated by Green and included Harrington, Riley and Wu Man. Sandwiched between Riley and the documentary, this Q & A made the evening super long and could have been saved for an after-performance option. It added little that the film didn’t eventually cover, a film masterfully complete and perfect in its multilayered fashion. But, perhaps this was exacerbated by the fact that the original moderator scheduled to host this panel was Rebecca Solnit, whose elegant and intelligent program added another creative layer to this performance. “We have not created a bulletproof piece of music that will prevent harm from happening…We haven’t been able to do that yet, but I think it’s possible, and I spend every minute of my waking life trying to find that.”, says Harrington in “A Thousand Thoughts.” What more profundity needs to be said?

David E Moreno

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