The Collegian
Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Kronos Quartet perform 'At War With Ourselves' on Modlin Stage

<p>University of Richmond's&nbsp;Modlin Center for the Arts.</p>

University of Richmond's Modlin Center for the Arts.

Kronos Quartet, an award-winning San Francisco based string quartet, performed At War With Ourselves - 400 Years of You at the Modlin Center for the Arts on Jan. 21. 

Kronos was founded in 1973 by violinist David Harrington and has since released over 60 recordings and commissioned more than 1,000 arrangements for string quartet, according to its website

At War With Ourselves is described as a combination of modern musical stylings with the use of pieces from older genres to encapsulate the experience of African Americans in the New World. The 85-minute piece includes a string quartet, chorus and narrator and was originally inspired by poet Nikky Finney’s acceptance speech at the 2011 National Book Awards, Harrington said during the post-show interview with the creative team.

“Here I am watching [Finney’s speech] and just weeping,” Harrington said. “And when something like that happens to me, I don’t really have a choice, I have to be in contact with the person who made something like that.”

Finney said Harrington called her while she was doing laundry in 2014. 

“I tell this 2014 story to anyone who has a creative soul who thinks this happens fast,” Finney said. “Be patient with a good idea that you think needs to go beyond yourself.” 

Finney said the title At War with Ourselves is complicated. 

“We’re at war, culturally, " Finney said. “...Usually when we go to war with somebody, it’s them and us. But I thought that if I can put that word at the end, ourselves, we have to take a really close look and realize the work has to come from each other.” 

In 2019, Harrington contacted composer Michael Abels, best known for his work composing the scores for Jordan Peele’s movies Us, Get Out and Nope. 

“When Kronos asked me to be the composer, I was thrilled because I’ve been wanting to write a piece for them my entire life,” Abels said. “Then they showed me Nikki’s poem and I knew I wanted to work with her.”

The poem in its entirety fits on one page, Abels said. He worried that there weren’t enough words for an entire performance.

“Nikki’s poetry is packed with imagery on many different levels,” Abels said. “And you realize, people need to hear these lines more than once to really understand the meaning of this.”

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Abels expanded on the poem through his music. He took the feelings associated with each stanza and drew inspiration from different genres, he said.

“For example, with ‘You are the new country’s newest moving picture show,’ that reminded me of the early 1900s,” Abels said. 

Finney said the text went through four major iterations. 

“The first one was about 50 pages,” Finney said. “The second one was about 10 pages… And then I realized that was too long because we would have been here until Friday, next Friday.”

While nervous about allowing someone to create lyrics out of her work, Finney knew her work was in good hands. 

“I stepped out of the way and let [Abels] do what he does,” Finney said. “And that's exactly what you've heard tonight. That brilliance just kind of filled the theater alongside the words.”

The chorus is conducted by Valérie Sainte-Agathe, a San Francisco-based choral director who works with the San Francisco Girls Chorus. 

“In this project, what’s interesting is this aspect that wherever we go, there is a community aspect when we work with a chorus on site,” Sainte-Agathe said. 

The choral group working with Kronos during this performance is Tonality. They are an ensemble created to represent diverse cultures and ethnicities within the Los Angeles area, according to their website

Dr. Alexander Blake established the group in 2016 and is the artistic director. 

“We have been doing social justice work in Los Angeles for a while,” Blake said. “And when this piece came about, it was a huge opportunity for us to be involved in more projects that center around storytelling and around the sharing of difficult issues.”

In 2015, Kronos launched Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire, a project that commissions and distributes a collection of 50 new works for string quartet written by composers from all around the world for free online, according to its website. 

One of those pieces, Maduswara, was written by Peni Candra Rini, an Indonesian artist and a visiting Fulbright scholar at the University of Richmond. Candra Rini said that Maduswara is inspired by traditional Javanese literature, and the piece will be performed at Carnegie Hall in New York City by the Kronos Quartet later this month. Maduswara will also be performed at Camp Concert Hall by the UR Chamber Ensembles on April 17.

Contact executive co-editor Amy Jablonski and lifestyle editor Son Tran and amy.jablonski@richmond.edu and son.tran@richmond.edu.

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