Mary Cybulski

Kronos Quartet has been challenging the idea of what a string quartet does ever since violinist David Harrington formed the group in 1973 in order to play George Crumb’s “Black Angels,” an unorthodox composition for string quartet that includes electronic effects, spoken word and bowed water glasses. The quartet went on to dedicate itself to playing 20th century composers like Bartok and Schnittke alongside contemporary compositions commissioned by the group from living composers. Live documentarian Sam Green took on the group’s illustrious history in the film “A Thousand Thoughts, which makes its way to The Momentary in Bentonville Nov. 13-14.

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The experience includes the string quartet performing alongside video footage and live narration from Green. Ahead of the performance, we caught up with Harrington to learn more about what it was like to work with Green to create “A Thousand Thoughts,” how the quartet members chose from their wide-ranging repertoire for the performance and the resonances captured on wax cylinder.  

Elaborate a bit on how this collaboration for a live documentary with Sam Green came together.

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We decided that, for our 40th year, it’d be great if Sam would make a short film that we could play before the concerts. So Sam did that and I really enjoyed working with him. That led to the idea of a larger piece. He’s one of those rare people that loves living in a vast archive, which we have. So he began putting a film together. I had innumerable breakfasts with him. He interviewed each one of us and he’s a great person to talk to. That’s how it began. We had a residency at Mass MoCA, which is where the kind of final touches were put on “A Thousand Thoughts. It’s taken its shape over the months and years since then. We’ve been having a great time performing together and are really looking forward to bringing it to Arkansas.

You have such a wealth of repertory to choose from. How did you choose what would be on the slate for these performances?

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In this singular instance, it seemed to me to be important that Sam, as the director, needed to make the soundtrack. There were certain elements that all of us felt had to be there. But in general, it was Sam, having listened to everything that Kronos had recorded, who needed to make that choice. And then there were some refinements that were added later.

I started Kronos in 1973, with three other young musicians in Seattle, Washington, in order to play “Black Angels” by George Crumb. So that piece had to be in there, no question. It seemed important that the very first piece written for Kronos, “Traveling Music” by Ken Benshoof should be there. And there were certain sounds that needed to be there. It’s not really described in the film, but there’s a certain chord that was the first string quartet music I’ve ever heard — Beethoven’s E flat major Opus 127. That opening chord is what got me hooked on quartet music and wanting to play in a string quartet. There’s a variation of that chord that appears as a drone in the program. It’s not described, really, but it’s there. So there’s elements like that, that tie together the soundtrack and the action on the show.

I’d love to hear more about your earliest musical memories.

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Part of the film is dealing with the history of recording going back to Edison cylinders and music being recorded onto wax cylinders. One of my personal favorite sounds is the recording of Fritz Kreisler playing Dvorak’s “Humoresque.” I think it was recorded on an Edison cylinder in 1906. I just love that noisy, gnarly wax cylinder sound. Coming out of that is this infinitely beautiful, gentle opening of “Humoresque” performed by Kreisler, and I’ve always been inspired by that.

Elaborate on the formation of Kronos and its mission to play contemporary music.

Our work is a result of many relationships with composers and performers and instrumentalists and singers. Increasingly, we’re working with poets and scientists and activists of all kinds. I think our work is a result of these relationships. And we’re hoping to find music that feels right to us given all the different situations we find ourselves in and also, given the experiences we’ve had in life. There’s a certain resonance that you look for in a composer or another performer. There’s a certain quality to singers that we need. For example, [on Oct. 28] we’re performing with Masha Vahdat, who is from Iran. She has an amazing voice, a vocal sound. It seemed like her voice would amplify the strings of Kronos. And it’s that kind of sound that I’m looking for to bring into the group.

Waleed Shah

What did you learn about Kronos while working on this project?

There sure is a lot more to do in music. You do everything you can and then you turn around and there’s something you’ve never heard before. That’s so cool. You just want to bring it into your life and your concerts and share with your family and friends. For me, the idea that music is a living, breathing human activity is something that I’m reminded of every time we do “A Thousand Thoughts.”

What’s it like to perform alongside the documentary?

It’s pretty weird seeing your former self up on the screen. It’s a little bit like looking through a family album in public. I didn’t always have good hair days, let’s put it that way.