Without disrespecting the formidable prowess of the Kronos Quartet, the contemporary string quartet was upstaged in its live performance last Thursday at Zellerbach Hall by a guy at a piano and the filmed performance of an Inuk throat singer and a pipa player.
The ambitious two-part program An Evening With Kronos Quartet began with celebrated minimalist composer and keyboard player Terry Riley performing a solo piano set. That was followed by a brief panel conversation and the night’s featured event, A Thousand Thoughts, a documentary presented with the quartet playing the score live and Sam Green narrating. Along with filmmaker Joe Bini, Green wrote and directed the documentary, which premiered in 2018 at the Sundance Film Festival, receiving high praise from critics and audiences.
A concert by Kronos often comes with surprises. Known throughout its 45-year history for dressing and marketing itself like a punk band — cool shades, black leather jackets, frosty facial expressions resembling teenagers whose parents chaperone their lives 24/7 — respect comes not only for the quartet’s technical chops and meticulous artistic standards, but for its constant innovation. Kronos has commissioned more than 1,000 new works or arrangements for string quartet, released more than 60 recordings, and given thousands of performances worldwide. A project launched in 2015, 50 for the Future: The Learning Repertoire, distributes online free original works composed by 25 women and 25 men.
Even so, Riley’s too-short 25-minute set was a stunner, even for Riley. “I surprised even myself,” he said in an impromptu interview during intermission. “I don’t usually come out and sing.” Dressed in paint-splattered beret and a colorful, patchwork jacket, his long white beard flowing gracefully, self-surprise likely came from the gypsy in his soul, a steal from the song’s title, “Gypsy in my Soul.” The melodic song cast an incantatory spell, an effect transcended when Riley turned his attention from the digital keyboard he had been playing to a grand piano behind him, launching into “Shape of Flames,” an excerpt from the album Shri Camel, and finished with “Ebony Horns.”
With the bass hand often skipping or plowing through loops of simple, 3-5-note motifs or exploring whole-tone, pentatonic or raga scales and bold chords, Riley’s right hand rained a shower of notes, dancing hellbent across the keyboard. At other times, his two hands were like bosom buddies engaged in deep conversation, or performed marvelous contests of combative, acrobatic agility. It was both the year’s best local dance performance — fingers on keys — but also a wonderful journey led by a gypsy tour guide who’s spent years absorbing the culture in America, Europe, Asia, and India.
The evening’s second half began with Green’s introduction of his “live documentary” format; a presentation unique and completely unrepeatable because the live concert was not filmed, recorded, streamed or sold as a DVD after the performance. In other words, you had to be there to see and hear it. The documentary is chock full of tremendous archival and recent photos and film clips that establish place, time and characters: a car with a “KRONOS” vanity license plate; footage shot from an airplane window or on location while on international tours; a metronome keeping the beat; composers with whom they’ve worked listening to music we cannot hear on headsets, their faces a mesmerizing — and often funny — blend of joy, concentration, happiness, curiosity, and fatigue. An image of a bag of donuts explains the “payment” Kronos made to one composer for a new work in the string quartet’s early years; scenes of violinist David Harrington shopping for records and CDs underscored his voracious appetite for new music; comments from the quartet filled in the group’s history, and statements from longtime collaborators like Riley, John Adams, Philip Glass, and Laurie Anderson added depth and context.
But two episodes towered above other fine moments in the documentary, with the dour-face Kronos performing the music live onstage and above them, their collaborator projected on a large screen. Canadian composer, vocalist and Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq, in an excerpt from her piece written for Kronos, Sivunittinni, provided an astonishing vocal panorama. She sounded like ten voices at once, a punk rock star, a wild animal in heat, a woman giving birth, nightmare whispers, battling warriors and things indescribable in any language. After the astounding, virtuoso display, Tagaq simply giggles and says, “That was fun.” And it was, tremendously.
The film’s other highlight: pipa master Wu Man in a sunlit room, her charismatic energy and impressive technique on the four-stringed Chinese instrument leaping off the screen. “Silk and Bamboo,” an excerpt from Man’s Two Chinese Paintings, travels through ritualistic, graceful passages to accelerate into a grand race requiring dexterity if not athleticism. Throughout, Man beams, sways; looking for all the world as if she’s riding without effort on a riverboat. It’s a most impressive, uplifting experience.
The panel conversation, while revealing a few glimmers of insight, perhaps suffered from the absence of Bay Area writer Rebecca Solnit, who at the last minute was unable to serve as moderator. The absence of her probing mind and a brain surgeon’s precision with language — evident in her essay included in program notes — was perhaps the night’s only disappointment. Even so, without feeling contrived, the panel was evidence that music is indeed bridge-building. How else would it seem natural and inevitable that these three folks’ lives would intertwine and their work become irrevocably joined? Think on it: a gypsy counterculture professor at Mills College who stored his compositions in his head instead of on paper; a slim young man so captivated by George Crumb’s Black Angels he created a legacy contemporary string quartet; and a young pipa player who knew so little English when she first spoke to Harrington her answers to his questions were “Yes, yes, and yes.” Sounds like the intro to a “they met in a bar” joke. Instead, it is grand testimony to the unifying power of music.
Editor’s Note: Terry Riley: Sun Rings, Kronos’ 2019 Nonesuch Records album, won the 2020 Grammy Award for Best Engineered Album, Classical.