April 25, 2019

Sam Green and the Kronos Quartet Inspire 'A Thousand Thoughts'

A performance of Sam Green and Joe Bini's "A Thousand Thoughts," featuring the Kronos Quartet, at the Wexner Center in Columbus, OH. Courtesy of Sam Green

Back in 2010, filmmaker Sam Green staked out new territory in the documentary space with Utopia in Four Movements, in which he explored the history of the utopian impulse and how it relates to the convulsions of the 21st century. This was a live documentary, with musicians accompanying Green on stage as they took audiences on this cerebral metaphysical journey. Up to that point, Green had demonstrated his documentary bona fides with, among others, The Weather Underground, which he made with IDA’s own Carrie Lozano and the late Bill Siegel; the film earned an Academy Award nomination and a DGA Award nomination.

With Utopia in Four Movements, Green was on to something. Other live documentaries would follow—The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller in 2012 and The Measure of All Things in 2014. And now, currently on tour since its 2018 Sundance Film Festival premiere, A Thousand Thoughts celebrates the life and art of the Kronos Quartet, which for over 40 years, has been challenging the template of the string quartet with a bold and bracing repertoire of sonic sensations from around the world.

I saw A Thousand Thoughts at the Ace Theater in Los Angeles last December, and though I had seen the Kronos Quartet many times over the past three decades, nothing quite thrilled me like this provocative union of artistic disciplines. As I remarked in my year-end reflections on the highlights of 2018, “I thought about the passage of time, how music and cinema had conspired to transcend it, and how I had burrowed to the center of my mind and emerged a more curious and enlightened person. That’s what good art does.”

I caught up with Green as he was readying for his New York performance of A Thousand Thoughts, happening April 25 at The Town Hall on 123 W. 43rd Street.

Talk about the genesis of A Thousand Thoughts. Did you approach Kronos Quartet or did they approach you?

Sam Green: Well, I think it was four years ago when Janet Cowperthwaite, the manager of Kronos, contacted me out of the blue—I didn’t know her—and asked if I would be interested in making a five-minute video that would show at their 40th anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall. I was a little surprised; I didn't know very much about the Kronos Quartet. I had never seen them before. I knew who they were and I probably had heard some of their music. But I was kind of intrigued; she said they have this big archive I could look through, and I like archives.

So I made that short film, and it was kind of a historical piece. To make it, I did a lot of research: I listened to all their records and I went through the archive. And I was really taken with them. So I made something I was happy with, and they were happy with it, and after the show at Carnegie Hall, as I was saying bye in the green room, Janet said, “If you ever want to do something longer, we'd be happy to do it.” And my heart kind of sank because the truth is, I really don't like most music documentaries.

It's this huge genre and it's almost always totally predictable. The tropes of music documentaries are so cliché and so worn at this point. And also, music documentaries are mostly about the story of the group or the band, and there are little bits of music here and there. So, I said, “Thank you, but no thank you. It was really kind of you to ask, but I'm not into that kind of thing.” And it just sort of weighed on me a little. They're remarkable in so many different ways, and seeing them play live is a stunning experience.

And so a month or two later I had this epiphany. I thought, Wait a minute, I've been making these live documentaries. And I went back to Janet and said, “I'll do something longer but it will be a live cinema.” And that made complete sense. You could avoid all of those boring music documentary formulas, and then also music could be at the heart of it. They could play a three-minute piece of music, which in a regular music documentary would be too long. But with this form, nobody really has concrete expectations. So I went back to them and said, “Here's what I'd love to do…” And David Harrington [the founder of the Kronos Quartet] said, “Wait a minute. Is it a movie, or a lecture, or a concert?” And I said, “It's all three.” And he said, “Sure.” So that's how it happened.

This is a great manifestation of collaboration in so many ways. Given how you presented it to them, it seemed that you really needed to be there with them from the get-go, creating the work for both film and stage. Talk about the process of collaboration with them. How did you choose the music and how did you place it in the work?

That's a great question, and this was especially complex, A, because it was a live piece and you have to work more collaboratively, but B, it's about them. So it's this odd thing where the people making the music are the subjects of the piece, which is what really interested me. There is a kind of meta-ness to it that I thought could be great, but it makes it hard to figure out how to make everything and how to navigate it.

One thing that was super important to both Joe Bini and me was that it not be a tribute. And so part of not making a tribute was making a portrait of them that was about bigger ideas. And the other part of not being a tribute was just to make it independently of them, to make sure this was sort of unauthorized; even though we worked together, they didn't have any editorial control. Joe and I really put the piece together ourselves and then brought it to them at the very end, and then we worked on it all together.

But the decision-making and the music, it's funny because David Harrington is very particular and very deliberate about putting together their concerts; he works very hard at the order of the pieces and the lineup. And so this was weird because we did all that. So it was hard for him to accept that, but I think he understood. So Joe and I were able to put something together that felt right and felt representative and worked cinematically, and I think David never could have done that himself. And he recognizes that.

Sam Green and the Kronos Quartet performing "A Thousand Thoughts" at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sam Green

What were the criteria for choosing the specific pieces—which address the ideas in your work as much they tell the story of the Kronos Quartet?

It had to be creating a portrait of them through their music. I think there are 12 or 15 pieces of music in A Thousand Thoughts; it had to be representative. So of course there had to be something by Philip Glass and Terry Riley, longtime collaborators. And there had to be a good amount of pieces by women, because the Kronos Quartet has always been very deliberate about that. And then from very early on they've worked with African composers and Asian composers.

Their repertoire is not just old white guys from Vienna, so the work had to reflect that as well.  There were some imperatives around just making a representative portrait of their repertoire, but then more than that—and this is where it gets complicated—all their pieces had to work cinematically. I work with music very closely, so I have to feel the music and it's got to inspire images in me. So that was complicated. And there were new pieces that we didn't use, and we sort of shifted things around at the end. We were going to do a piece that John Cage wrote for them, in which they all go to different parts of the auditorium or theater. They're completely independent of themselves playing, and it would've been really neat, but it was just too complicated.

There are wonderful scenes of the collaborations with Wu Man and Tania Tagaq—they on screen and Kronos performing live on stage. Talk about the rehearsal process of synching their on-screen performances with Kronos’ on-stage performances.

One of the things I really liked about the idea of making this piece is that early on I realized, Oh yeah, there can be people playing up on the screen and Kronos can play with them. It was a neat use of the form that I’ve never done before. I've made a number of other live cinema pieces, but the band was always sort of at the side and they were incidental, in a way, to what was going on on screen.

Making it work was really complicated and with Tanya Tagaq, an Inuit throat singer, it's just staggering what she's able to do with her voice. She wrote a piece of music for Kronos, and they play and she sings and occasionally they do this in concert. There is a recording of it, so when Kirsten Johnson and I filmed with Tanya Tagaq in Toronto, I had her listen to them playing this piece of music and sing over it.

So I got her voice and her singing on the screen and then they had to figure out how to play with her. That took a lot of rehearsing, because it's an odd piece of music. It's not sheet music where you follow along and everybody can figure it out. It's pretty murky in the composition. So they learned how to play with her, and it's gotten better and better.

The piece is about what's happening on the screen in a cinematic form of engagement for audiences, then what's happening on the stage and in the room and the way performance engages with the audience where you're there and it's happening in the moment.

So those are radically different ways of being in a film or in a concert. And so, tangling those up together is an interesting and odd thing.

I wanted to talk about audience engagement. Given that A Thousand Thoughts is a documentary, a lecture, a concert and a multimedia performance, did you go through the process of creating an on-stage persona, i.e Sam Green the filmmaker, the narrator and the intermediary between the work and the audience?

It’s funny; Joe Bini and I are both credited as directors, writers and editors. It's the first time I've worked this closely with somebody on a live cinema piece. Joe is a phenomenal editor and filmmaker and is super smart. And from very early on, he was very interested in my character.

In the beginning it made me cringe because I'm not a performer. I'm just being myself up there. But he was very deliberate about directing me in a way—and I think it made the piece 100 percent better. He did have ideas of me as a character and he helped to shape that a little bit. And I think that helps to have a central presence there. 

But I wanted to address something you said about whether it’s a concert or a multimedia performance. It's interesting because there are a lot of different ways to describe it and in different fields they call this different things. So in the performing arts world there are people who do lectures with images on the screen, and in that form it's called “lecture performance.” But I've always been really deliberate in calling this “live documentary” because I do see this as a documentary film. What I'm trying to do is to broaden the form, or the sense of what a documentary can be, so it's important to be deliberate about that in the name, so people know. 

You tell the story of the Kronos Quartet in a unique way: You dig into previous documentaries and news features about them; there is a vérité footage of David Harrington shipping in Amoeba Records; there are the interviews that you and Kirsten Johnson shot; and there is Kronos live on stage. That lends a fuller understanding of who they are. The interviews are particularly striking The intention of engaging with the audience really shines through. Talk about your tech setup—did you use an interrotron?

We used an interrotron. It was important to me, especially because the images are going to be huge up on the screen. There's a certain relationship that's a little different than if you're watching a documentary on your laptop or your phone. So it was very important to have [the interviewees] looking straight out into the audience and not off to the side.

It was a completely DIY setup where we had a little camera, and we had a teleprompter on the front of the lens that was connected to a little camera that looked at my face. So my face was on the lens, but people could look in the lens. It was a clunky setup and we were able to make it work, but I also did a real wide lens and I was very close to the subject; they were a foot away from the lens. It took a while for people to not be weirded out by the setup, but once it worked you got a really intimate sense of the space and the expressions on their face, but with a wide enough lens, you also get a sense of space in the room.

One of the conceits in the film is the act of listening. There’s a moment in the piece in which you implore the audience to take a moment of silence and really listen to the room, and you capture a lot of your interviewees in the act of listening. It recalls to me something Albert Maysles once said about an aspect of his work: he loved filming people in the act of listening. He cited examples like Vladimir Horowitz listening to a playback of one of his performances, and Gimme Shelter, with the scene of the slow pan over individual members of the Rolling Stones listening intently to a playback of “Wild Horses”—just capturing their expressions and thoughts and the kind of places you imagine the music is taking them to. What were your intentions with the act of listening and the role it plays in A Thousand Thoughts? 

That's a great question, and those are both amazing examples. For this piece, it seems very important to inspire people to listen in an engaged way. Normally with a movie—and especially now, when there is such great sound design—whether it's a documentary or fiction film, we listen in a very passive way.

But what I wanted to do is to get the audience to lean forward a little and engage and listen closely. And you'll get way more out of an experience if you do that. And so early on, as you mentioned, there is this sort of intervention where we turn the lights up and ask everybody to just take 30 seconds and listen to the sound of the room. And when you do that, it's a remarkable experience. Your ears perk up. That pays off because you really feel the music later.

But to address the other part of your question, I love the way people look when they're listening to things. Because they're not self-conscious. They're sort of transported somewhere else, whether they're having feelings or memories, or the music is triggering something. It's great to watch that. I think that also signals to people, This is about listening closely.

Another theme you explore throughout, and what is echoed by the Kronos Quartet and their mentors, is ephemera, and the idea of utopia as this ever-receding horizon that you’re constantly approaching, of music as air and time, of life being right here right now. In embracing the ideas of ephemera, there’s a countervailing force of timelessness, that you want to create something that is, as David Harrington puts it in the film, “bullet-proof,” that will defy ephemera in your creative process. Was that your impulse?

Well, you're touching one of the big themes of the piece, and I think in a way it's about the impulse towards fixing things in time, recording things, grabbing things, fixing them for posterity, and then the ephemeral nature of life and of music and of our experiences. And this is a great tension of our experience. And in a way that piece is about that. And ultimately it's a losing game to try to fix things because we'll all be gone in 50 or 70 years, and there may be recordings of this, but eventually they'll be gone.

And so there is a certain way in which the ephemeral gets the last laugh, and ultimately everything is pretty ephemeral. One of the things with the live cinema work I've done throughout the past nine years has been an exploration of this idea of the ephemeral. And I've always felt that that is much closer to our experience of the world than recording and fixing and those kind of permanent things.

And so in this piece, in a way, the form and content are interwoven. It's a piece about the ephemeral and about the ephemeral nature of music and of life and our experience. And the form is about that too. It's not something you can watch on Netflix or YouTube or iTunes. You have to be there, and it only exists in the memories of everybody who was there that night.

The Kronos Quartet performing in Krakow, Poland in 2014. Photo: Wojciech Wandzel

We talked about Joe Bini before. Can you talk a little more about his role in the collaboration?

Well, Joe, as I mentioned, is kind of a legendary editor. He edited all of Herzog's films for 20 years and has edited movies for Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold. I met Joe a couple years ago at a Sundance documentary editing lab, and we were both advisors. He gave a talk about cinema, and I just loved what he said about images and the power of images. We became friends after that and at a certain point he said, “Hey, we should work together sometime.”

And then I was in the middle of putting this Kronos piece together and I said, “Why don't we work together on this?” And it was a very organic collaboration. Joe lives in London but we would get together in New York.

If you're writing for the page, it's one thing. If you're writing for a disembodied narrator, it's a different thing. But writing for talking is very particular, and Joe was great at that kind of writing. And I said,  “Joe, how did you get so good at this?” And he said, “I wrote voiceover for Herzog for 20 years.” But we wrote it all together. But with this piece, the directing was really in the writing and editing together.

I've never had a collaboration that was so effortless. Not that we didn't work hard, but there was no tension between us and no conflict. My measure of a good collaboration is always, Is it better than either person would've made by themselves? And the answer here is 100 percent yes.

I wanted to talk about your love of archives. This is a work about being in the present moment, but it’s so vital to tell the story of the Kronos Quartet, how they came to be and how they evolved as artists. Talk about the challenge of reconciling past and present.

When I went through the Kronos archives, I was vaguely aware that they've been around for a long time, but I didn't know that when they started in the ’70s, classical music, and the string quartet tradition in particular, was totally stodgy. People wore tuxedos, and played this repertoire that was boring old dead white guys from Vienna.

But the Kronos Quartet were young people who dressed in a contemporary way and played “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Jimi Hendrix. They were totally radical. And the funny thing is now we would never think twice about that. You can see classical and pop traditions mixing and it's not a big deal. We don't realize that Kronos helped change that. And so, when I understood a little bit about their history and the significance of that, you appreciate them more. It was important with A Thousand Thoughts to communicate some of their history.

One of the great things about documentary is seeing people over the course of a lifetime. So showing them on Sesame Street in the early ’80s and then cutting to them now, there is a delight that comes from that. Anyway, it was important to get their history, and that also fits with the idea of archives, and archives having to stop time, and the ultimate futility of that. All those ideas are intertwined.

The Kronos Quartet and Sam Green performing "A Thousand Thoughts" at NYUAD Arts Center. Courtesy of NYUAD Arts Center

How did you come up with the title A Thousand Thoughts?

I’m horrible at titles, and this one really confounded me.

They put out a record called A Thousand Thoughts, and on it is a piece of music called “A Thousand Thoughts,” and it's an old Danish or Swedish folk song, also called “A Thousand Thoughts.” Nobody even knows who wrote it. And so first of all, I just liked the sound of the title.

And it evokes something of a lot of ideas together that aren't fixed. It’s about a lot of things. So I like that, and I liked that it referred to this record of theirs that was based on a song that went way, way back. And it said something about music.

At the end of the work, you call it an inquiry, which implies something that’s open-ended, that you transfer to the audiences for us to absorb and process, and hopefully apply to our own lives. Why do you call the piece an inquiry?

Well, I think I like that word because it connotes in some ways a sort of incomplete and provisional exploration or meditation. I'm not making the definitive Kronos biopic. I don't want to make that, and I couldn't do it anyway. I'm making a meditation on the Kronos Quartet and time and the ephemeral and the power of art to change people's lives and change the world.

And there's a lot of ideas, but it's an inquiry. It's mulling this stuff over. It's not necessarily hitting you over the head with the answers. It's bringing questions. So, “inquiry” fits that. It's a discovery. The live documentary film is all about that. It's somebody in front of you talking about their questions and their thoughts and their investigation of something. It's in some ways a very humble form, which sounds funny to say, but I think it is.

Getting up in front of people and chewing things over and going on this inquiry—there is humility in that. It's not that I'm a disembodied narrator who's going to tell you what to think. It's the opposite of that, actually.


Sam Green and the Kronos Quartet perform A Thousand Thoughts April 25 at The Town Hall in New York City, then at Guild Hall on June 21 in East Hampton, NY. And be sure to mark May 8 in your calendar, when Green comes to Los Angeles as part of IDA's Conversation Series


Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.