Four centuries of Black American history are told in new Kronos Quartet performance : Deceptive Cadence Deep in the heart of Texas, the Kronos Quartet reflects on race relations and social unrest with At War with Ourselves – 400 Years of You, by composer Michael Abels and poet Nikky Finney.

Four centuries of Black American history are told in new Kronos Quartet performance

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The veteran explorers of Kronos Quartet will be in Texas this weekend. It's the world premiere of a new song cycle called "At War With Ourselves." The performance combines a prize-winning poet, a Hollywood composer, a choir and 400 years of history. Tim Greiving reports. And just a warning - this story includes a brief mention of racial violence.

TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: It started with an acceptance speech. Nikky Finney, a poet and professor from South Carolina, won the National Book Award in 2011 for her poetry collection "Head Off & Split."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKKY FINNEY: We begin with history. The slave codes of South Carolina, 1739. A fine of $100 and six months in prison would be imposed for anyone found teaching a slave to read or write.

GREIVING: Finney traced a line from that proclamation to the proud Black literary giants in the room. Afterward, the evening's host, John Lithgow, took the stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN LITHGOW: That was the best acceptance speech for anything that I've ever heard in my life.

(CHEERING)

GREIVING: David Harrington, founder of Kronos Quartet, saw the speech later on television.

DAVID HARRINGTON: It was clear that I had to be in touch with Nikky after hearing that because I didn't know anyone alive could give a speech like that.

GREIVING: Since 1973, Kronos has been fiddling on the edge of what concert music can be, performing everything from newfangled minimalism to Jimi Hendrix. Harrington contacted Finney about a collaboration. And after a few false starts, it's finally happening. In "At War With Ourselves," Nikky Finney condenses four centuries of Black American history into 14 couplets.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRONOS QUARTET SONG CYCLE, "AT WAR WITH OURSELVES")

FINNEY: You are given 10 square feet of space to live and three vertical inches of air to breathe.

This visual, this real thing, becomes metaphor, a metaphor for what happens over those next 400 years. There's never enough space. That first moment is really a moment of animal husbandry, not of humanity.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRONOS QUARTET SONG CYCLE, "AT WAR WITH OURSELVES")

FINNEY: Ankle iron is ordained for your frontal and temporal lobes.

Because the Black body is always seen, thought of and pictured in this moment of brutality - which it's right. But what I wanted to go to was what it takes not to be annihilated.

GREIVING: Finney and Kronos found a simpatico composer in and Michael Abels, best known for scoring the Jordan Peele films "Us" and "Get Out."

(SOUNDBITE OF KRONOS QUARTET SONG CYCLE, "AT WAR WITH OURSELVES")

KRONOS QUARTET CHOIR: (Singing) Brothers - (whispering, unintelligible).

GREIVING: Abels is a musical poet of the horrors and beauty of the Black experience in America. So, together with Texas performing arts, Kronos commissioned him to write an 80-minute score for quartet, choir and Finney reading her own words. Abels retyped those rich, visual, meaning-packed words and added a lot of extra spaces.

MICHAEL ABELS: There's a line that says your neck is believed to be leather and will be stretched and tested before the eyes of their children. Really, the most chilling part about it is not the lynching. The most chilling part is inviting the town to come watch - is the before-the-eyes-of-their-children part. So there's suddenly this break. The music stops.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRONOS QUARTET SONG CYCLE, "AT WAR WITH OURSELVES")

KRONOS QUARTET CHOIR: (Singing) Before the eyes of their children.

ABELS: And then there's this very - what I hope is very beautiful chorale on the words, before the eyes of their children, which is just the chorus by itself. And it's musically very harmonic. And it just - it's a contrast to what the words represent.

GREIVING: Abels used some of each musical style that Black Americans either invented or contributed to - namely ragtime, bluegrass, jazz and rock 'n' roll. And by stretching the 500 words into an evening-length oratorio, he was able to summon a special power - repetition.

ABELS: The final line is - the ravishing, wondrous, private inner bank of you never was on the auction block. And so I had the choir sing, your soul never was, never, never, never was, on the auction block.

GREIVING: After hearing a preview in South Carolina, that was what echoed in Nikky Finney's ears.

(SOUNDBITE OF KRONOS QUARTET SONG CYCLE, "AT WAR WITH OURSELVES")

KRONOS QUARTET CHOIR: (Singing) Your soul never was, never, never, never was, never, never, never was.

FINNEY: I'm walking around my house the next day, and I'm just going, (singing) never, never, never, never, never. And it's because repetition is holy. It got in my ear deeply. And it was like, that is the heart of this.

GREIVING: "At War With Ourselves" premieres at Texas Performing Arts in Austin this weekend. And Kronos Quartet, Michael Abels and Nikky Finney, hope to take it all over the country.

For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving.

(SOUNDBITE OF EAST RIVER PIPE SONG, "CYBERCAR")

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