Time, Death, and Music in A Thousand Thoughts.


Written by TeenTix Newsroom Writer MICKEY FONTAINE and edited by Teen Editorial Staff Member ANNA MELOMED

Kronos Quartet2 credit Lenny Gonzalez

Despite music’s being a universal aspect of human culture, it evades definition. You would imagine that after hundreds of thousands of years of innovation and evolution, we would have answers to fundamental questions like, what is music? It’s fundemental yet elusive, so should it merely be enjoyed rather than questioned? The icon of New Music, The Kronos Quartet, proves why curiosity will always be relevant in Sam Green's multimedia documentary and concert, A Thousand Thoughts.

The Kronos Quartet is among the most esteemed and forward-thinking in New music. Considering this, documenting their history, motivations, and long artistic journey is no easy task and could never be achieved through conventional means. Sam Green explores the ephemeral nature of music, time, and life, all while presenting the group's rich history on the big screen.

After seeing this film, many of its thought-provoking points left me wanting an inside perspective, so I talked to violinist and founder of the Kronos Quartet, David Harrington, about the film's ideas and the group's history.

“A Thousand Thoughts is unique; we have never done anything quite like this.” This quote from David highlights just how experimental the form of A Thousand Thoughts is. It’s a documentary, a concert, a lecture, and even some form of collective meditation, all woven into a single story.

A story that begins with the irony of The Lost Chord, one of the first pieces of music ever recorded. It’s about an organist absent-mindedly stumbling upon a single holy chord that can absolve the world of pain, then forgetting it. Sam Green chose this song for its irony. Recording it contradicts its message of loss and impermanence. This irony was one of the key topics in the film. It is also one of those forever unanswerable questions: Where does music go? David said in the film that after a note fades into nothing, all that remains is your interpretation of its meaning.

If music is so formless, how can one stay motivated to create it?

“We’ve never lived in a time where music can have such a wide-ranging ability to comment on real-world events and issues. So I am more inspired than I've ever been, actually, about what can be done and what will be done. And that keeps me jumping out of bed every morning as early as I can,” said David Harrington, elaborating on how Kronos channels social and political topics through its music.

In the film, Kronos performed one of the first pieces the group ever played, Black Angels, an avant-garde electroacoustic work by George Crumb. This piece is endowed with political and philosophical allegory, including references to the Vietnam War, Christian symbols, and, in Crumb's words, the “Voyage of the soul.”

This is what makes New music new. Kronos is helping to bring conventions of classical music into the present by using it as a vessel for social change and commentary. But was this motivated by ideological interest? Or just natural curiosity about the future? This relates to a broader question: Is New music inherently political? I asked David if he and Kronos intentionally push music forward or simply follow its natural path of evolution, to which he read out the program for their upcoming concert at the Library of Congress.

It was a vast and eclectic set of American classics and New music, ranging from House of The Rising Sun and Strange Fruit to WTC 9/11 by Steve Reich and Flow by Laurie Anderson. New music is commonly equated with a desire to break the rules and go against expectations. Curiously, this menagerie of music didn’t stand out to me as radical or reformist; it combined aspects of new and old, popular and experimental, into a diverse program that could only come from an innate love for all music rather than a desire to force change.

This was also a theme in A Thousand Thoughts. In one part, David Harrington describes his routine of going out and searching for records at music shops as he gathers CDs and records of equal diversity, from Haydn to Kendrick Lamar.

David describes this motivation to understand and enjoy various forms of music from around the world, saying,

“I'm aware that the string quartet is one of the most powerful artistic assemblages Western culture has created. But I remember, at age 14, walking by the globe and thinking there are a lot of other cities in the world, a lot of other countries, a lot of other religions and cultures and languages. What do they sound like? What can they offer to this medium? And I think it's fair to say that I spend most of my time trying to fill in those blanks.”

Music will always have those blanks; When one question is answered, another arises, or the answer is forgotten like the lost chord. It’s timeless and simultaneously momentary, evading definition. Passed down through generations, it is greater than the sum of its parts. Each culture, time, and style contributes to a grand, fundamentally human timeline of traditions that are constantly being forgotten and reinvented. Kronos, or Chronos, literally refers to the Greco-Roman personification of time.

David and The Kronos Quartet maintain hope and aspiration for the future of music despite its cyclical nature. “We have not created the bulletproof piece of music that will prevent harm from happening. A young child can wrap around herself, or a grandparent can wrap around his family. 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.”

Fundamental questions like “What is music?” may never truly be answered, but the beauty comes from the attempt, even if it’s sometimes futile.

Lead Photo Credit: The Kronos Quartet, photo credit: Lenny Gonzalez

The TeenTix Newsroom is a group of teen writers led by the Teen Editorial Staff. For each review, Newsroom writers work individually with a teen editor to polish their writing for publication. The Teen Editorial Staff is made up of 5 teens who curate the review portion of the TeenTix blog. More information about the Teen Editorial Staff can be found HERE.

The TeenTix Press Corps promotes critical thinking, communication, and information literacy through criticism and journalism practice for teens. For more information about the Press Corps program see HERE.

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