Kronos Quartet Looks Back In Anger — And Hope
By: Brian Slattery, June 19, 2019
The Kronos Quartet‘s performance at the Shubert Theatre on College Street Tuesday night began not with instruments, but with microphones. It was a performance of a Steve Reich piece; by swinging the microphones over speakers, the quartet produced a growing, whistling choir of feedback that rose as the musicians — David Harrington and John Sherba on violins, Hank Dutt on viola, and Sunny Yang on cello — left the microphones swinging and seated themselves with their instruments. They began to play, but the sound that came from them was its own squall, drenched in distortion. It was the “Star Spangled Banner.” It was the quartet channeling Hendrix. It was also a challenge.
The night’s program, part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, might have been called “Music for Change: The ‘60s — The Year that Changed America,” but it wasn’t an easy trip down memory lane. Through the quartet’s championing of younger composers, and through the musicians’ astonishing skill at their instruments, the program itself questioned the program title’s statement. How far have we really come from that time? How much really has changed?
After the “Star-Spangled Banner” and a haunting rendition of “House of the Rising Sun” arranged by Jacob Garchik (born in 1976), the quartet was able to dig deep into the legacy of the 1960s thanks to Glorious Mahalia, an ingenious and emotional piece by composer Stacy Garrop (born in 1969), which used as its centerpiece the audio from a 1963 interview that historian Studs Terkel recorded with gospel singer and activist Mahalia Jackson. Even in speech, Jackson’s voice is musical, and it might be tempting to read solace into that. But neither Garrop nor the quartet were fooled. The more Terkel and Jackson talked, the more honest Jackson became — a move Garrop anticipated by setting the interview to music that invoked anxiety and anger much more than spiritual uplift.
In playing Garrop’s music, the Kronos Quartet showed why the group is considered among the most accomplished in the world. Its exploration of tone, forgoing the simply pretty for qualities that ranged from airy to austere to gritty to rich, brought out the shades of emotion in Garrop’s piece from moment to moment even as the music built a dramatic arc. Jackson spoke of the injustice she saw throughout her life, the way people who lauded her while she was on stage treated her like garbage the moment she was off it.
“This is the big question, Mahalia,” we heard Terkel’s voice say. “The split in people.”
But Jackson dug deeper. She reminded Terkel that as a white man he couldn’t possibly hope to understand. “How do you fare in America because you’re black?” she asked. She felt that perhaps progress was being made, but “so slow that we’re choking.” She talked about how the struggle and its constant frustrations and fear, the severe pushback she felt all the time, were in danger of making her hateful.
“But I don’t want to hate,” she said, “I want to love.” To its immense credit, the music didn’t turn this into a triumphant moment. It kept its eyes on the struggle, just like Jackson did. Her call to unity, after all, was not entirely peaceful as she imagined a day when people could “sing together, shout together — and also fight together.”
All too often, Jackson didn’t sound like a voice from the past. The ways she voiced her perceptions of racial injustice were all too easily applied to today. Without diminishing the accomplishments of the civil rights movement, it was a sobering reminder of all that remained to be done, and a quietly withering indictment for anyone looking to mythologize the ‘60s into something they weren’t.
For the middle third of the program, the quartet invited musician Lee Knight to the stage to recognize that musician and activist Pete Seeger would be 100 years old this year (he nearly made it, dying in 2014). A tall, imposing man with a banjo and a sonorous yet gentle voice, Knight ably channeled Seeger in performance and spoke knowledgeably about him. Performances of “Wimoweh,” “Step by Step” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” which could easily have been treacly, were instead sincere and affecting. During “Step by Step” Knight read a bit from Seeger’s writings, which conveyed the stubborn optimism of a man whose life conveyed the wisdom that activism was always a long game.
“I honestly believe that the future is going to be millions of little things saving us,” Knight read, from an interview Seeger gave in 2004, “I imagine a big seesaw, and at one end of this seesaw is on the ground with a basket half-full of big rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air. It’s got a basket one-quarter full of sand. And some of us got teaspoons, and we’re trying to fill up sand. A lot of people are laughing at us, and they say, ‘ah, people like you have been trying to do that for thousands of years, and it’s leaking out as fast as you’re putting it in.’ But we’re saying, ‘we’re getting more people with teaspoons all the time.’ And we think, ‘one of these years, you’ll see that whole seesaw go zooop in the other direction,’ and people will say, ‘gee, how did it happen so suddenly?’ Us and all our little teaspoons. Now granted, we’ve got to keep putting it in, because if we don’t keep putting teaspoons in, it will leak out, and the rocks will go back down again. Who knows?”
After a blistering take on Gershwin’s “Summertime,” the quartet ended its program with Peace Be Till,a piece by composer Zachary James Watkins (born in 1980) that similarly set an audio interview to music. Watkins and Garrop as composers employed very similar approaches to their material, but where Garrop honed in on Jackson’s struggle, Watkins’s music brought out the almost eerie ineffable in its subject — a fitting move, given that the subject was Clarence Jones, a lawyer who became Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s confidante and who helped him draft his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
We first heard Jones speak of how King made a disciple of him. But then Jones turned to the pretty astonishing story of the “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington in 1963. It turned out that Jones drafted the first few paragraphs — he believed he was just handing King a page of talking points, “a summary of ideas that we had talked about on at least two or three occasions,” but King ended up using much of the text. King then elaborated on Jones’s points, getting to about two-thirds of the way through the speech.
And then, according to Jones, when King first uttered “I have a dream,” none other than Mahalia Jackson, standing behind him, said, “tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!”
King then took the notes he had made, surveyed the quarter of a million people assembled to hear him, and pushed his notes aside. Jones remembered turning to the person beside him and saying, “these people out there — they don’t know it, but they’re about ready to go to church.”
King them spoke extemporaneously. “That portion of the speech which is most celebrated in this country and around the world,” Jones said, “that is not the speech that he planned to give.” He improvised. He made it up, like the best musicians around, and in the process, he changed the world a little. Watkins’s accompanying music, and the Kronos Quartet’s performance of it, gave voice to the wonder of that, and of witnessing that kind of genius, that in an explosion of vision and creativity contributed more than a few teaspoons to making the change that we hope is still to come.
Original article can be found here