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Kronos Goes to the Movies

April 2, 2018

“There are a million ways to make a terrible documentary about the Kronos Quartet,” says Sam Green. So, the Oscar-nominated documentarian decided that the best way to capture the storied ensemble’s ever-expanding creative universe was by not making a film.

Instead Green has found a singular path, avoiding the various clichés and worn-out tropes that all too often derail films about musicians. He’s created a hybrid multimedia experience that turns Kronos’s four-decade-plus sojourn into an open-ended query about the nature and purpose of music itself. Drawn to projects about utopian dreamers and schemers, he connected with an ensemble that seeks nothing less than to save the world.

Written and directed by Green and Joe Bini, A Thousand Thoughts — A Live Documentary by Sam Green and Kronos Quartet premiered to rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and the San Francisco International Film (SFFILM) Festival presents the West Coast premiere at the Castro Theater on April 10 (only the fifth time the work has been staged). In evoking the protean nature of Kronos, the project feels more like a four-dimensional essay with hyperlinks than a documentary, and its subjects came to Sundance with “no idea what the response might be,” says violinist and Kronos founder David Harrington.

“Is it a film? Is it concert? Is it a lecture? What the hell is it? It uses Kronos to get into questions and issues larger than any of us. I’m kind of in a daze when we’re done, thinking about so many things that have happened over the past 45 years.”

Standing onstage with his laptop, Green delivers the heady but conversational narrative with the calm, receptive tone of a therapist. Playing a file of Thomas Edison’s 1888 wax cylinder recording of Arthur Sullivan’s “The Lost Chord” (“ripped from YouTube; I didn’t even buy it from iTunes,” he says), Green makes it clear that he’s taking a wide-angle view of the ensemble’s grandiose vision.

When Green first quotes Harrington in a recorded interview the stakes are impossibly high. “We have not created the bulletproof piece of music that will prevent harm from happening, you know, a young child can wrap around herself, or a grandparent can wrap around his family,” the violinist says. “We haven’t been able to do that yet, but I think it’s possible and I’m looking for it and I spend every minute of my waking life trying to find that. That’s our job.”

During the course of the performance Green pulls up archival footage and filmed interviews, summoning key Kronos collaborators such as Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Tanya Tagaq, Steve Reich, and Wu Man. But it’s Kronos’s presence on stage that provides the singular frisson. The production can only take place with the ensemble on hand, and the pieces they’ve selected speak to the range of their vast repertoire.

It’s a magical and ephemeral experience,” Green says. “You can’t stream it or watch it on Netflix. The only record of it is in your memory. I love that. That’s what life is like and music is like. There’s something just right about the form, especially in this day and age when we’re overwhelmed with options.”

Though Green wasn’t particularly versed in European classical music or contemporary music, Kronos approached him in 2013 about making a short film for the group’s 40th anniversary the following year. Delighted with the piece, Harrington and Kronos’s managing director Janet Cowperthwaite told Green that if he was ever interested in making a longer piece about the group they’d be game. Dubious at first, he started thinking that the live documentary format he introduced in 2010’s Utopia in Four Movements might work for Kronos. But first he had to immerse himself in their music.

“In order to make this experience, Sam became the composer in a certain way,” Harrington says. “In 99.9 percent of all the concerts we play, we make the program, and we create the musical narrative and the contrasts. In order for this to work, we trusted Sam to make the soundtrack. We commented on it and certain changes were made, but he listened to every piece we’ve ever recorded. I bet he knows our music better than I do.”

Green was a San Francisco resident when he first gained national attention, co-directing the 2004 Academy Award nominated documentary The Weather Underground with Bill Siegel. In some ways, Kronos offers a mirror image of Green’s unsentimental investigation into the radical 1970s group, a self-described revolutionary cadre that sought to tear down a society it saw as corrupt and racist to the core. Kronos also seeks to build a new world, but by uncovering and building unforeseen resonances between foundational European string instruments and the whole wide universe of sound.

It’s a process that echoes a strain of Jewish mysticism, a story that seeks to explain the fallen state of the world. The Kabbalah says that at the creation of the world God filled 10 vessels with divine light. Unable to contain the divine force the vessels shattered and holy sparks scattered across the earth. Humanity’s job is to find and gather the sparks, thus repairing the world.

No one has done more to usher a global array of sacred musical sparks into Kronos’s repertoire than Jacob Garchik. A San Francisco native and son of San Francisco columnist Leah Garchik, he’s an esteemed jazz trombonist who has written dozens of arrangements for the quartet over the past 12 years (including many of the pieces heard in A Thousand Thoughts).

In another singular cinematic adventure, Kronos commissioned Garchik to write the score for The Green Fog: A San Francisco Fantasia, a sly homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo directed by Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson. “He’d never written a piece for us, but Jacob has done more arrangements for us than anyone else, and in the widest array of styles,” Harrington says.

Commissioned by the San Francisco Film Society (now called SFFILM) and Stanford Live, the film premiered last April as the closer for the San Francisco International Film Festival (now the SFFILM Festival). Kronos performs the score with the film at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall on April 6 (with a pre-performance talk by Guy Maddin).

While Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score for Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece hovers in the background, it’s not a direct source for Garchik. “About a minute in, they used one shot from Vertigo, the only thing actually lifted from the film, and they asked me to use the exact same music for those five seconds,” he says. “I love Hermann, but this doesn’t really have anything to do with him. It’s my impression of a Hollywood film score from the 1950s and ’60s, the musical language of the classic Hollywood film scoring of Korngold, and Hermann and Newman, but it’s for string quartet.”

Constructed entirely of footage lifted from other films shot in San Francisco, the movie was, like A Thousand Thoughts, designed to be experienced with Garchik’s score performed live by Kronos. After the premiere, Kronos recorded the music so The Green Fog can now be screened without the quartet. Friday’s performance is the fourth time Kronos has performed the score. The program also features a piece performed with and composed by throat singer Tanya Tagaq.

In the serendipitous world of Kronos, Garchik’s connection with the group seems entirely natural. Growing up in San Francisco he went to school with Harrington’s kids, and the violinist has known him since he was a tyke. When Garchik went off to New York in 1994, he became an active part of the edgy Downtown jazz scene, and he’s recorded with celebrated ensembles such as alto sax legend Lee Konitz’s Nonet, guitarist Mary Halvorson Octet, and drummer John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, while also releasing four albums as a leader.

He reconnected with Harrington in the summer of 2006, when Kronos was performing the score to Dracula with Philip Glass on a double bill with Slavic Soul Party at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. “I heard their sound check and I met the leader, who said you should check in with our tuba player and trombonist. His name is Jacob Garchik. I hadn’t seen him for years. We caught up with each other and it seemed like such a natural relationship, and from that point on he started doing arrangements. It was a crazy night. In the middle of the storm scene in Dracula the show got rained out, and 10 thousand people had to leave Prospect Park because of lightning. Sometimes reality is just so cool.”

A Los Angeles native based in the Berkeley area since 1996, Andrew Gilbert covers jazz, international music and dance for KQED's California Report, The Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeleyside and other publications.