“Music for Change,” cancelled in 2020, comes back in revised form Jan. 13
By Peter Alexander Jan. 11 at 1:30 p.m.
The Kronos Quartet has some unfinished business in Boulder.
The path-breaking string quartet was scheduled to perform at Macky Auditorium in March of 2020, but like most performances around that time, their concert was cancelled. Now they will return to Macky with a revised version of that same program scheduled for Jan. 13, and—fingers crossed!—so far the visit is still on.
The original 2020 program, titled “Music for Change: The ‘60s, the Years that Changed America,” was organized around protest songs from the 1960s, arranged especially for Kronos. The centerpiece was to have been a celebration of Pete Seeger’s music for his 100th birthday.
Many of the same pieces are on the program for this year, although the Pete Seeger celebration has been replaced. Music that has survived the transition include arrangements of the “Star Spangled Banner” inspired by Jimi Hendrix‘s famous 1969 performance at Woodstock and “Strange Fruit” inspired by Billie Holliday; “Glorious Mahalia” by Stacy Garrop which features the recorded voices of Mahalia Jackson and Studs Terkel, and “Peace Be Till” by Zachary James Watkins, which incorporates the recorded voice of Clarence B. Jones, Martin Luther King Jr.’s speechwriter.
Added to the program for 2022 are another Mahalia Jackson arrangement, “God Shall Wipe All Tears Away”; an arrangement of John Coltrane’s “Alabama”; “Colonizer (Remix)” by Tanya Tagaq arranged for Kronos; and Michael Gordon’s “Campaign Songs #1,” one of a series of short pieces recorded by the Kronos players separately during the height of the pandemic.
“I wanted to play a concert like we’re going to do in Boulder, years ago,” David Harrington, Kronos’s first violinist and guiding spirit says. “It’s taken many, many years to arrive at the kind of work that we’re able to do now.”
The program opens without Kronos playing a single note, with Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music featuring four microphones swinging freely above speakers, creating feedback as they cross directly over the speakers. Eventually all four microphones stop above the speakers, creating a bed of constant feedback from which the Hendrix-inspired “Star Spangled Banner” emerges.
“It’s audacious, the idea that we can start a program with microphones,” Harrington says. “I love that! It sounds like fog to begin with, and then slowly it gets more and more together, to the point where there’s a fabric of pulsating feedback. From that is going to be the ‘Star Spangled Banner’.”
Other works on the program stand out for their impactfulness. One of these is certainly the arrangement of Abel Meerepol’s “Strange Fruit.” Famously sung at the height of the Civil Rights struggle in the 1940s and ‘50s by Billie Holliday, the song describing a lynching became a tortured anthem for the anti-lynching movement. Rejected by Columbia Records, Holliday’s recording on the Commodore label was later entered in the National Recording Registry.
“’Strange Fruit’ is at the solar plexus of American music and American culture,” Harrington says. “The quality of (Holliday’s) voice is definitely in my ear. When we play that piece, her voice is singing inside of me.”
Another piece that came from the Civil Rights struggle is an arrangement of John Coltrane’s “Alabama.” Coltrane wrote the piece as a response to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four African-American girls. “The way certain musicians are able to respond to events, and attempt to create a counterbalance, to me is so inspiring,” Harrington says.
Reflecting the breadth of Kronos’s interests, both musically and politically, is “Colonizer (Remix)” by Tanya Tagaq. An Inuk throat singer from Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay) in Nunavut, Canada, Tagaq wrote the song as a response to performing in what she characterizes as “symbolically colonial spaces.”
“’Colonizer’ is a statement,” Tagaq has written. “There is guilt in complacency. Accountability means taking action.”
The political implications of the program are not accidental, but come out of Harrington’s thoughts about his family. “In 2003 I had just become a grandfather for the first time, and I was thinking about the world (my granddaughter) was going to grow up into,” he says. Historian Howard Zinn told him that political leaders are actually afraid of artists like Kronos, because they know the artists cannot be controlled.
“I thought to myself, if those types are actually afraid of people like me that use violins to communicate, then I am doing what I can do,” Harrington says. The desire to make the world a better place for the coming generations through Kronos’s programming grew from that thought.
Another quality that characterizes Kronos’s is adventurousness. Their repertoire has ranged over the world and across many musical styles. “I’m so glad that we’ve had the years that we’ve had to explore,” Harrington says. “The only thing that happens when you explore is you find things, and then you want to find more.”
That adventurousness is fueled by Harrington’s curiosity. “How could anybody not be curious?” he asks. “I want to do the most (I can to) ensure that I keep curiosity alive. Learning new things is humanity at its best.”
Not that he thinks he has found all the answers. “People think I know something about music, but I don’t know how it works,” he admits. “As listeners, we’re all in the same boat. You never know when something in music is going to penetrate to the deepest possible place within yourself.
“It’s almost incalculable.”
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“Music for Change”
David Harrington and John Sherba, violins; Hank Dutt, viola; Sunny Yang, cello
Brian H. Scott, lighting designer, and Scott Fraser, sound designer
- Steve Reich: Pendulum Music
- “Star Spangled Banner” (inspired by Jimi Hendrix, arr. Stephen Prutsman and Kronos)
- Michael Gordon: “Campaign Songs #1”
- Stacy Garrop: Glorious Mahalia, featuring the recorded voices of Mahalia Jackson and Studs Terkel
- Antonio Haskell, arr. Jacob Garchik: “God Shall Wipe All Tears Away” (inspired by Mahalia Jackson)
- Tanya Tagaq (arr. Tanya Tagaq, Kronos Quartet, and Joel Tarman): “Colonizer (Remix)”
- Abel Meeropol, arr. Jacob Garchik: “Strange Fruit” (inspired by Billie Holiday)
- John Coltrane (arr. Jacob Garchik): “Alabama”
- Zachary James Watkins: Peace Be Till featuring the voice of Dr. Clarence B. Jones
7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 13