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Resonance: Mỹ Lai (Kronos Quartet)

Resonance: Mỹ Lai (Kronos Quartet)
Resonance: Mỹ Lai (Kronos Quartet) | Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

For our playlist series Resonance, we ask curators to find points of connection and conversation between different, potentially diverse recordings in the Smithsonian Folkways catalog. In this iteration, David Harrington of Kronos Quartet traces the musical path from his early formative listening experiences to the Quartet's latest recording Mỹ Lai.

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This playlist began to take shape while I was a student at Roosevelt High School in Seattle from 1965-1967. The orchestra teacher, Ronald Taylor, had a terrific record collection in the school music room and that’s where I first encountered music from Africa, blues, and various musical traditions from throughout Asia, as well as works of Stravinsky and Bartok—I remember wanting my violin to one day sound like the musical palette I heard in that collection. At the very same time, there was the backdrop of the nightly TV news: the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement—terrible sounds of war, scenes of injustice, senseless violence, protests…

Standard Records and HiFi, an amazing record store two blocks from Roosevelt High School is where I spent hours using the listening rooms when I should have been in English class, or was it Geometry class? I first heard the Vietnamese Dan Bau, Thelonious Monk, and many others at Standard Records and HiFi. There, I encountered Folkways recordings for the first time. What Folkways made available for listeners to experience was amazing, beautiful, disturbing—you could hear a live teach-in, or music from forbidden North Vietnam, or sounds from the war itself—everything seemed connected.

After all this time has passed, it’s clear what really happens: one musical experience leads to another. As a violinist who loved to play string quartets and explore the world of music, the late 60’s and early 70’s was filled with experiences that have remained central to the work I’ve done with Kronos. Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” and George Crumb’s “Black Angels” are conjoined in my imagination. Every once in a while, if you are lucky, you get to hear something that entirely changes your perspective. My playlist is a little excursion into some of those seed-like experiences that eventually led to our recording of Mỹ Lai.

David Harrington, Artistic Director and Violinist of Kronos Quartet
Track 1

Koukouya Horns and Drums (Ivory Horns, Drums, Solo Voice)
By Koukouya singer with drum, five ivory-horn players
From Music of Equatorial Africa

The mesmerizing fabric of this music, the responsibility each musician has for a ‘thread’ in this fabric, the unusual (to me) sound, all caught my ear and continue to catch my ear. This music suggests musical/societal roles are clear and recognized, and that every participant is essential.

Track 2

Been In the Storm So Long
By The Moving Star Hall Singers
From Been in the Storm So Long - Spirituals & Shouts, Children's Game Songs, and Folktales

This song, sung with such deep sorrowful richness, seems to say everything about the Civil Rights movement and the war.

Track 3

We Shall Overcome
By Martin Luther King, Jr.
FromWe Shall Overcome

The wonder of MLK’s soaring voice, his miraculous instrument that brought so many along with him, his courage, his incisive words—a central voice in shaping a response to what was happening at the same time as my own direction was forming.

Track 4

We Shall Not Be Moved
By Marchers
From Freedom Songs: Selma, Alabama

Songs emerged that bound communities together and strengthened both the individuals and the groups themselves. I find a noticeable resemblance to the first two tracks in the playlist.

Track 5

Funeral Song - Doh Dam Mutai
By Dodam mutai funeral song with kanhi fiddle
From Music of Vietnam

I remember wanting to know what music in Vietnam sounded like, and then Mr. Taylor got this recording. There must have been so many funerals during the war—what music was played during those funerals?

Track 6

No More Auction Block For Me
By Odetta
From Best of The Vanguard Years

When I first heard this song sung by Odetta, its power and directness blew me away—its musical connection to ‘Blowing in the Wind’ was unmistakable and I began to notice how all music and musicians seemed connected.

Track 7

Waist Deep in the Big Muddy
By Pete Seeger
From Headlines and Footnotes: A Collection of Topical Songs

Pete Seeger’s voice seemed to be everywhere in the late 60’s. Many years later I found out this song was written during WW2. It was also part of the soundtrack for the anti-Vietnam War movement.

Track 8

Mỹ Lai Lullaby
By Jonathan Berger, David Harrington, Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ, J.B. Lenoir, Kronos Quartet
From Mỹ Lai

Jonathan Berger told me the story of the Mỹ Lai massacre and of Hugh Thompson, who along with his courageous young helicopter crew stood up to that particular eruption of senseless violence. At that moment I felt Kronos could become involved in a response to an evil, and bring together some of the ideas we had been exploring for many years.

Track 9

Freedom Is a Constant Struggle
By Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers
From Barbara Dane and the Chambers Brothers

Barbara Dane and The Chambers Brothers capture so much in this song. Somehow I missed this recording until just recently, as I was looking through the entire Smithsonian Folkways catalog for this playlist. What a huge discovery! How beautifully far ahead of their time they were!

Track 10

School of Porpoises
By unspecified
From Sounds of Sea Animals, Vol. 2: Florida

And speaking of discoveries in the Folkways catalog, how great is this recording of a porpoise ensemble!

Track 11

Star-Spangled Banner - Kronos Version, Inspired by Jimi Hendrix
By Kronos Quartet
From Kronos Quartet Plays Sigur Rós

The trajectory of my musical world would be unrecognizable if I had never encountered Jimi Hendrix’s performance of the Star Spangled Banner. In one instant, the way I hear it, he made an unflinching statement about where we were as a country. The least Kronos could do was follow his leadership.

Track 12

Music of Classical Theatre - Nam Chien
By Hat bo music for classical theatre
From Music of Vietnam

I slowly encountered more of the music of Vietnam beginning in the late 60’s and 70’s. With every new addition to my collection, the creativity of the sounds and instruments always captivated my ears. The world of Vietnamese music is vast.

Track 13

I.F. Stone
By I.F. Stone
From Berkeley Teach-in: Vietnam

Voices of leadership and insight emerged in my consciousness. For me, the voice of I. F. Stone is essential and his words remain grounded in truth. I always love hearing him speak.

Track 14

Classical Quintet Ngu Tuyet: Monostring Bau
By Dan bau of the Ngu Tuyet classical quintet
From Music of Vietnam

This is the first recording I ever heard of the Dan Bau, and it seems to be an essential element of Vietnamese culture. I’m struck by how the sound of the Dan Bau somehow relates to American blues.

Track 15

The Arithmetic Lesson
By unspecified
From Good Morning, Vietnam

How can the sounds of a kids classroom in wartime not demand we stop madness?

Track 16

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?
By Kronos Quartet, Sam Amidon, Brian Carpenter, Lee Knight, Aoife O'Donovan
From Long Time Passing: Kronos Quartet and Friends Celebrate Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger’s centennial was in 2019. I had hoped the Kronos album would be completed in time to celebrate that event. We were a year late but some things are timeless and “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” belongs in that category.

Track 17

The Rainy Season: Many Toads
By unspecified
From Sounds of a Tropical Rain Forest

I think frogs make some of the most wonderful sounds in nature. I love all of the Folkways frog recordings! When thinking about this playlist how could frogs not be included? Frogs are one of the indicator species we must pay attention to as we deal with environmental ruin and devastation.

Track 18

Wahine Ui (Beautiful Young Woman)
By Kalama's Quartet
From Early Hawaiian Classics: 1927-1932

Finding out that Kalama’s Quartet is a part of the Folkways catalog was a moment of true happiness. This recording, and this song especially, has so much gentle sweetness—definitely part of an antidote to violence.

Track 19

Mississippi Goddam - Live At Carnegie Hall, New York, 1964
By Nina Simone
From Nina Simone In Concert

Nina Simone keeps getting bigger every day. What a great musician. What a force. What a leader. Mississippi Goddam!!

Track 20

The Cost of War
By unspecified
From Good Morning, Vietnam

I remember hearing sounds of immense suffering on TV during the Vietnam War. We have ears for a reason and we must listen to reality as it unfolds. Our ears can lead us to truths. Powerful forces want to erase and sanitize so much knowledge of our shared reality.

Track 21-23

Black Angels: I. Departure / II. Absence / III. Return
By George Crumb, Kronos Quartet
From Black Angels

With "Black Angels"—I heard it on the radio in Seattle in August of 1973—all of a sudden I had my response to the war in Vietnam. Everything seemed to be present in "Black Angels"—Hendrix, Schubert, bowed crystal glasses, sounds previously unimagined—it’s a string quartet like no other before or since. It was clear what I had to do. I had to play “Black Angels” by George Crumb. Kronos started rehearsing on September 1, 1973.

Track 24

First Landing: Flight
By Jonathan Berger, Harriet Scott Chessman, Kronos Quartet, Rinde Eckert, Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ
From Mỹ Lai

Jonathan Berger’s “My Lai” with Rinde Eckert, Van-Anh Vo, and Kronos provides a musical shape to these last 50 years—a circle of concern, celebration, and of courage has emerged, and I can now clearly hear how so many experiences in my life are related.

Track 25

Please Settle in Vietnam
By Lightnin' Hopkins
From Po' Lightnin'

Lightnin' Hopkins! I first heard him at Standard Records and HiFi in 1967. What a voice of reality. What a guitarist!

Track 25

We Shall Overcome
By Kronos Quartet, Sam Amidon, Brian Carpenter, Lee Knight, Meklit, Aoife O'Donovan, and Nikky Finney
From Long Time Passing: Kronos Quartet and Friends Celebrate Pete Seeger

One of my favorite songs is “We Shall Overcome.” We recorded this version with 3rd grade students from San Francisco’s Unified School District. My daughter, who is a third grade teacher, lent us her classroom and organized all the student singers. We are also joined by all of the guest artists and one of America’s great poets, Nikky Finney. For me, the sound of kids having fun together is always the most hopeful sound there is.