We begin with a testimonial of dissonance. By the end, there is grace.
In a marriage of cinema, poetry and election anxiety, Stanford Live unlocked a new film last week, Kronos Quartet: Testimony, one of the most powerful projects ever to include the legendary ensemble.
Testimony features Kronos performances inside an empty Bing Concert Hall paired with poignant spoken word clips by several young Bay Area poets, including San Jose’s Jarvis Subia and Saratoga’s Anouk Yeh, all reflecting on this moment in our nation’s history. The film was viewable free of charge through Nov. 2, and now remains available only to Stanford Live members and Stanford students as part of Stanford Live’s full season.
The film opens with a gloriously cacophonous version of the Star Spangled Banner, performed by Kronos Quartet depicting the current state of our nation with the utmost perfection. Inspired by the Jimi Hendrix version, Kronos plays the national anthem on stage, wearing Covid-era masks for an empty concert hall.
Of course, this is not the first time the quartet has tapped the Jimi experience. Way back in the ’80s, Kronos recorded a boundary-shattering version of Purple Haze. I am not the first one to say this, but if Jimi Hendrix was alive today, he’d jam with Kronos Quartet.
The ensemble appears in black and white, but interspersed with color shots of the poets later featured in the film. No fireworks are necessary. It’s all in Stephen Prutsman’s arrangement. This version should be required listening at every sporting event. And that’s just the opener.
Aside from Kronos, we get several young local poets. “Hood Proverbs” by Stanford senior Darnell “DeeSoul” Carson, for example, depicts the anxiety that black kids grow up with, knowing their innocent hand movements might be used by police as an excuse to start shooting. In another blistering example, Saratoga’s teenage phenom Anouk Yeh, performs her piece, “Back Porch: A Response to Andrew Yang’s Op-ed on the Pandemic,” in which Yeh takes on Yang’s asinine suggestion that Asian Americans should just accept all the racism, suck it up, act patriotic and keep doing their duty as the model minority.
As if that wasn’t enough, Kronos then breaks into the classic Irving Berlin tune, “God Bless America,” but is updated with Black Lives Matter posters and shots of Colin Kaepernick and his teammates gracefully taking a knee to protest centuries of racial injustice.
Berlin’s music comes alive against footage of multilingual voting signs and the long overdue removal of confederate monuments to white supremacy, all against the backdrop of Stanford’s empty Bing Concert Hall.
After God Bless America, the film then cuts to local poet, Jarvis Subia, saying, “We turn on the TV and there is a riot. I put the heat on the skillet and the oil riots against the eggs. I put meals on plates and my family riots to eat. I go out to my car and I notice a ticket, so I riot to Twitter, a mass of text tweets marching in unison towards another riot.”
Subia continues for another minute, savage in his depiction of America’s inequality, with nods to San Jose’s overpriced condopocalypse. All in all, it’s gorgeous to see San Jose and Saratoga represented here.
Even though the film is now only available for paying Stanford Live members, the clip of vocalist Meklit’s tear-jerking rendition of “The President Sang Amazing Grace” remains free for all to watcha good thing because it’s the highlight of the project.
Originally written and recorded by Zoe Mulford, then popularized even more by Joan Baez, the tune is a powerful homage to the moment Barack Obama sang Amazing Grace during the funeral of state senator and pastor Clementa C. Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina. Pinckney was one of those murdered in his own church by a white supremacist. This version, arranged for Kronos with Meklit on vocals, appeared on the quartet’s recent album “Long Time Passing: Kronos Quartet and Friends Celebrate Pete Seeger.” The old folkie would have been proud.
By the end of the film, anxiety seemed to veer toward hope. At presstime, pre-election, I tried to imagine the same for America.