Kronos Quartet searches for utopia in “A Thousand Thoughts”

    The live-cinema concert not only details the history of the world-renowned ensemble, but also the fleeting nature of music

    A performance of "A Thousand Thoughts." Photo by Walled Shah.

    On March 27, in Austin, Kronos Quartet will remind you that all music is temporary, and that everything will eventually end in oblivion — but in a way that’s more humanity-affirming than you’d expect.

    “A Thousand Thoughts” is a live-cinema experience directed, written, and edited by Joe Bini and Sam Green, with accompaniment by Kronos Quartet. Unlike common behind-the-music-esque documentaries, the film not only details the history of the world-renowned ensemble, but also delves into the philosophical pursuit of utopia and the fleeting nature of music.

    The performance, held at Bass Concert Hall, is presented in partnership with University of Texas’ Butler School of Music and KMFA 89.5.

    The idea for the project first began to solidify when Sam Green made a short film called “Meet Kronos Quartet” for the group’s 40th anniversary in 2014. During the interviews Green conducted for the short, David Harrington (the quartet’s founder and first violinist) discussed his idealistic pursuit for the “bulletproof” piece of music — a composition so beautiful that it could essentially save the world. The ambition of this statement deeply resonated with Green and got under his skin.

    “There was something so compelling and powerful about what he was saying, but at the same time — it’s impossible,” Green says, in a recent phone interview. “You’re making an experience for people that will eventually all just fade away, nobody will be around to remember it anymore. In some ways, that sentiment was the whole basis for this project.”

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    When Green later pitched the concept for “A Thousand Thoughts” to Harrington, he was confused as to whether the project would be a movie, concert, or lecture.

    “I told him it would kind of be all three and he said ‘I love it let’s do it,’” Green recounts. “That’s something that I love about them — they’ve been around for 40 years and they’re still curious and up for anything.”

    The film features interviews from famed composers, past and present quartet members, and clips and images assembled from Kronos’ immense archives. Onstage, Green manually cues the film’s scenes and provides a live narration that lies somewhere between scholarly exposition and spoken-word poetry. All the while, the Kronos Quartet musically relives their history by performing the works that shaped their careers, including pieces by John Adams, Wu man, Terry Reilly, and much more.

    “A Thousand Thoughts” is the fourth live-cinema piece directed by Green, his first foray into the form being 2010’s “Utopia in Four Movements.” While his past works have also featured live music, this project marks the first in which a music ensemble is the primary subject. Green notes that music documentaries are well suited for live-cinema because unlike typical films, the music can actually take precedence.

    “The truth is I really generally can’t stand music documentaries. They’re always so formulaic, its 15 seconds of music and then people talking,” Green admits.

    “Kronos is not Led Zeppelin, where where all the shit that happened in the hotel rooms is interesting — their music is the most compelling thing.”

    By placing live music at the forefront of “A Thousand Thoughts,” Bini and Green also expand the traditional conventions of cinema. Instead of simply accompanying the visual images happening on screen, Kronos Quartet and the music they’re performing are instead framed as active, and even primary agents in the presentation. Green remarks that this is philosophically-contrary to the how the medium of film is usually perceived.

     

    “In cinema, you are transported to another place and another time, you are completely engrossed in what’s on the screen,” Green says. “Performance, in some ways, is the exact opposite. You are in the space with those people — you’re right here now, and the past and present don’t exist.”

    In toggling between, and even combing the best aspects of film and musical performance, “A Thousand Thoughts” presents a fluid counterpoint between the two mediums, which is only made possible by its live presentation. Green surmises that the format is a “great way to move people with the power of cinema, but also to grab them with the immediacy of performance.”

    Performance of “A Thousand Thoughts.”
    Photo by Wojciech Wandzel

    The live-quality of the show also has thematic intentions. Unlike most documentaries (or really any film), “A Thousand Thoughts” is not and will not be available on any viewing service or home release — and probably never will be. Green argues that this element of impermanence adds a weight to the project that is not often felt in today’s media. “Remember when we had to order something from Netflix and they would send it through the mail? I mean, it sounds like the 1800’s, but that was about 20 years ago,” Green muses.

    “Even then, you had expectations, you looked forward to it, and there’s something about all that  that made the experience more meaningful. This is something that you can never see on Netflix, you cannot watch on Youtube. You have to be there.”

    Like Harrington’s search for a bulletproof piece of music, the form of “A Thousand Thoughts” is forever fleeting, but Green believes the journey of its presentation is utopian in its own right.

    “I don’t think a film can make a huge difference. What I do think is that films, books, music and art can strike people very deeply and in some small way, become a part of them. That’s my highest aspiration for the things I make.”

    In searching for utopia with passion, precision, and even humor, Green, Joe Bini, and Kronos Quartet have constructed a remarkable work that explores the character of one of the world’s most prolific quartets, and in the process acts as a love letter to the ephemeral nature of music and life itself.

    “We’ll travel hundreds of miles to get there, you’ll turn your phone off, we’ll have an experience together that will never happen again in the same way,” Green says.

    “There’s something radical about that.”

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