Film

Kronos Quartet Tells Its Story in a Live Documentary

The venerable string quartet is touring A Thousand Thoughts, playing live accompaniment for a documentary about its history and music.

Kronos Quartet performing at the Sacrum Profanum Festival in Krakow in September 2014 (courtesy Cinetic Media)

There’s a healthy tradition of screening movies with musicians performing the score live. After all, for decades, this was how films had any sound at all. Today this generally takes the form of revival screenings of old silents, or special events that showcase a film with a grand musical score — think of the many iterations of 2001 with a live orchestra. But with A Thousand Thoughts, directors Sam Green and Joe Bini have put together an entirely different experience. It’s a biographical documentary about the venerable string group Kronos Quartet, designed to be played with musical accompaniment by … Kronos Quartet. The result is being referred to as a “live documentary,” though even that seemingly paradoxical categorization can’t fully capture how unique this performance is.

Kronos Quartet is well regarded for its willingness to explore beyond the traditional boundaries of classical music, playing a broad range of sounds and genres over more than four decades. The various members of the group have collaborated with the likes of Thelonious Monk, Phillip Glass, Central Asian throat singers, and many more. They’ve performed the scores for films by directors like Michael Mann and Darren Aronofsky. (You might best recognize them from their work on “Lux Aeterna,” composed by Clint Mansell for Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.) An unconventional subject deserves an unconventional biography, and A Thousand Thoughts disregards convention in pursuit of an immediate, intimate experience with its subject.

Kronos Quartet performing the premiere of A Thousand Thoughts at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival (courtesy Cinetic Media)

At each performance of A Thousand Thoughts, the current members of Kronos Quartet — David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt, and Sunny Yang — take their place on stage with their instruments in front of a screen. Joining them is Green, standing at a console from which he controls a series of video clips, made by himself and Bini, which are projected onto the screen. The video segments vary from biographical snippets about the group’s history to interviews with former and present collaborators to archival clips of their concerts. Green and Bini have worked out an overarching structure for the show, but there’s also room for Green to improvise which clips he throws up at points. The quartet adjusts their music as needed.

The result is that audiences get the rare treat of simultaneously seeing artists perform and learning their stories. And because of its format, no two instances of the show are the same. This is a live collaboration between film and music, where both elements actively inform one another, rather than the usual paradigm whereby one supports the other (music supporting film in a movie theater, sometimes film supporting music at concerts or other performing arts events).

Kronos Quartet performing A Thousand Thoughts at NYU Abu Dhabi in February 2018 (courtesy Cinetic Media)

Cinema is an art form that’s experienced with a lot of immediacy. Everything is happening right in front of you, in real time (with many interruptions ranging from montage to the most simple cut). But this is an illusion. Unlike with a play performed before you or what you see in your head as you read a novel, everything in a film is in fact set in stone (or light, rather). It’s been meticulously shot and edited, all past-tense. But the nature of A Thousand Thoughts defies this, incorporating what you could call “active editing” to introduce a dynamic element to the preordained nature of cinema. This hopefully marks only the first of many similar experiments; it would be interesting to see such a format applied to other artists across a variety of fields. For now, don’t miss a show if one plays near you. It’s a fascinating, entertaining work even if you don’t count yourself a fan of Kronos Quartet.

Kronos Quartet performing A Thousand Thoughts at the Wexner Center in January 2018 (courtesy Cinetic Media)

A Thousand Thoughts continues to tour nationally. It will be performed at Town Hall (123 West 43rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) on April 25.

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