War and music: The Kronos Quartet at the San Francisco International Film Festival

Wednesday night, San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet came to the San Francisco International Film Festival to present their music-and-moving-image piece, Kronos Quartet Beyond Zero: 1914-1918. I was in the audience.

This was not the usual silent movie presentation. The Quartet commissioned Aleksandra Vrebalov to write the music. Then they commissioned Bill Morrison to create a new film, made up of old footage, to match the score.

The theme is World War I. The work is intended to be an anti-war piece.

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Since this was first and foremost a concert, let me start with the music. It was beautiful and haunting. Appropriately for the subject matter, it had a sad and tragic feel to it. But not all of it was live. It started with an old recording–Bartok playing one of his own pieces (no, I didn’t recognize it; I was told). Occasionally, we could barely hear voices, and instruments not played by the Quartet.

Bill Morrison’s montage seemed less about the horrors of war and more about the horrors of nitrate decomposition. The images came from contemporary newsreels and cinematic propaganda–rolls of film people haven’t looked at nearly a century. They ranged from bad condition to barely watchable. Yet Morrison seemed to revel in every blob of jellied nitrate, finding a strange beauty in the disintegration.

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But when you looked through the rotting film to the original images, they just weren’t that interesting. Soldiers marching. Soldiers eating. An occasional dead body. The result was more of a lightshow than an anti-war statement.

But the lightshow and the haunting music worked well together. I give this presentation (I can’t quite call it a film) a B+.

After the presentation, the quartet returned to the stage for Q&A. Neither Vrebalov nor Morrison was with them, but Drew Cameron–a papermaker whose work added to Morrison’s imagery–joined in. Some highlights:

  • On the process of creation: "It began with our relationship with Vrebalov. She’s written some wonderful pieces for us. And we began to realize that it’s been 100 years since the outbreak of World War I.
  • "When you think of it, the recording of music was very new at that time, and people were just beginning to have music in their homes."
  • "This was the first time we’ve played this at a film festival. The smell of popcorn was just great. We should have that at concerts."
  • "Sometimes as I play I feel that I’m really in the trenches and I can’t get out."
  • "A lot of times when war is portrayed in a visual way you see a lot of blood and gore. Here it’s in the film itself…that the film is decaying."