Talking Pictures: Natural choice

Talking Pictures: Natural choice

Kronos Quartet addresses environmental issues through music

The San Francisco-based music ensemble Kronos Quartet (left to right: John Sherba, Sunny Yang, David Harrington and Hank Dutt) often draws musical inspiration from environmental films. Photo by Jay Blakesberg.

By David Templeton

“I think a lot of what I watch or read ends up in the work of Kronos, one way or another,” says David Harrington, acclaimed violinist and founder of the San Francisco-based music ensemble Kronos Quartet. “And as it so happens,” Harrington adds, “I tend to watch a lot of documentaries.”

For example, he recently saw a documentary about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

“So I wouldn’t be surprised if we did a piece of music dealing with that sometime in the near future,” he says with a laugh.

Harrington might be laughing, but he’s dead serious.

The master musician has just finished a daylong rehearsal with his fellow Kronos members—violinist John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Sunny Yang. The group has been rehearsing, in part, for this Sunday’s open-air show at Rancho Nicasio Restaurant and Bar. It’s a location Harrington and company have performed at several times in the past, and one that Harrington appreciates for the vividness of its gorgeous outdoor setting. The natural world—and the damage humankind routinely wreaks upon it—is a common theme in many of the films Harrington has been thinking about lately.

“Have you ever seen Vietnam 40 Years After: Children of Agent Orange?” he asks. “One of the reasons I wanted to do the opera, My Lai—which Jonathan Berger proposed to us—was because I’d just seen that documentary. The story it told was just so incredibly awful. To think about what our country, and our military, had done to the people, the culture and the environment of Vietnam, it was just shocking.”

My Lai is an emotionally searing opera by composer Berger and Bay Area novelist Harriet Scott Chessman. Kronos performed the premiere last October at Stanford University. It is just one of dozens of Kronos’ projects to carry a pronounced environmental and social message.

Hurricane Sandy (2012), and its effect on New York City, inspired Laurie Anderson’s 70-minute composition “Landfall,” which Kronos first performed with Anderson in 2013. Derek Charke’s 30-minute “Dear Creator, help us return to the centre of our hearts,” is a response to the composer’s visit to Alberta’s ecologically sensitive Athabasca Oil Sands. And last year, Kronos performed a number of works about climate change for a program titled “Music for a Sustainable Planet,” at the International Conference on Sustainable Development.

Since the subject seems to be “cinematic influences,” Harrington goes on to mention another film that’s had an especially powerful influence on him personally. It’s 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi, the stunning and groundbreaking documentary that used images of nature together with jarring footage of urban life.

“When I first saw Koyaanisqatsi, back in the ’80s, the experience was just … ”

Harrington pauses, searching for a word big enough to describe the emotions he felt after watching the film that many have called the most devastating environmental film of all time. He never finds the word.

“I’d certainly been concerned about environmental issues before Koyaanisqatsi,” he says, “but something about that film just did a number on me. It deposited something in my consciousness that gave me a new way of seeing the world—and the precarious position we are in.” That was right around the time Kronos began collaborating with Philip Glass, who composed the iconic Koyaanisqatsi score. Kronos eventually recorded Glass’ score for the 1985 film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.

“Much later,” he continues, “I saw Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, about the human suffering in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina—that was another movie that affected me deeply. I thought it was devastatingly, incredibly, fabulously well done, and so catastrophic. It was just shocking.

“And the damage isn’t over yet,” he says. “In the same way that Chernobyl isn’t over, and won’t be for millennia. We recently did a song cycle with Mariana Sadovska, from Ukraine. It was called “Chernobyl: The Harvest.” I’d seen several documentaries about Chernobyl, and the meltdown of the nuclear power plant there. Mariana Sadovska gave me a book about the elders of Chernobyl, people who’d lived there for their whole lives, but then left after the explosion. And now, they are moving back to Chernobyl, and they are bringing their music back. They want to write their songs there, and they want to die there.”

One has to wonder if such enormous worldwide problems—nuclear radiation, chemical defoliation, global warming, state-sized masses of pollution in the Pacific Ocean—aren’t too large to be solved by mere songs, or operas and musical compositions, or even hard-hitting documentary films about those problems.

“Well, from the standpoint of Kronos, and the work we do,” Harrington says, “I feel like our job is to be aware of those sorts of issues, to the maximum extent that we can be. And then to try and create experiences that give energy to our audience to help in the solving of those problems. So, while our problems may be absolutely vast and large, larger than any of us, we might be able to point out some directions for the future. I’m thinking about this all the time, trying to find ways that feel musical, to bring these sorts of issues into the concert hall, into our work.”

Harrington mentions that his grandkids recently participated in a coastal cleanup day, and came home talking of the astonishing pile of plastic they collected on the beach.

“It was enormous,” he says, “and who knows where it all came from? Maybe some of it broke off of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It’s possible it came from another country. The world is small, and we’ve become so connected, in so many ways.”

Although such connections bring obvious problems, Harrington believes it’s through exploring those very connections that the solutions to our problems can be found.

“The more we try to demonstrate our connectedness,” Harrington says, “in our education, in our conversations, in our films and in our music, the better our chances are of figuring it all out. To me, those are positive steps, and we should all be trying to take those steps as much and as often as possible.”

Kronos Quartet performs on Sunday, June 12 at 4pm as part of ‘BBQs on the Lawn’ at Rancho Nicasio Restaurant and Bar, 1 Old Rancheria Rd., Nicasio; $35; ranchonicasio.com.

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