Cellist Joan Jeanrenaud's first solo album since leaving her 20-year gig with the celebrated Kronos Quartet finds her exploring areas that aren't exactly a huge departure from the type of edgy modern music she played with her old group, but it does show what she can do when given her own space to work with. The results are impressive. Most of the compositions are for solo cello with looped cello parts captured digitally or on tape, while one is written for cello and computer-generated sounds and another for cello and "electronics." The composers are a combination of names familiar (Steve Mackey, Philip Glass, Hamza el Din) and new (Mark Grey, Jeanrenaud herself), and while the pieces aren't all equally interesting there are several works of stunning beauty here. One of the most engaging is el Din's "Escalay + 17:10," with its looped Egyptian melodies, and another is Jeanrenaud's own "Altar Piece," which makes extensive use of electronic tone alteration and layering, and on which she exercises masterful control of whispery artificial harmonics. But the album's highlight is a piece by Karen Tanaka entitled "Song of Songs." Inspired by the Old Testament book of the same name, which is essentially an extended love song, Tanaka builds a sweet, simple, and beautifully textured work out of cello and computer-generated sounds. As always, Jeanrenaud's playing is virtuosic but never showy. Highly recommended.
Vladimir Martynov, born in 1946, is one of the cohort of composers that includes Arvo Pärt, Giya Kancheli, and Valentin Silvestrov, who grew up under the influence of the former Soviet Union and abandoned the modernism of their youth to embrace a tonal language of greater simplicity with an aesthetic informed by an intimate spirituality. In spite of the similarities in their backgrounds and journeys, each has a distinctive sound, and Martynov, who is perhaps the least well-known in the West, brings a new perspective to the tradition of European music shaped by mysticism and minimalism. On the surface Martynov's music doesn't have an immediate resemblance to minimalism (apart from the directness of its tonal language), but like minimalism it uses repetition as a structural element and it is concerned with the perception of the passage of time, which it tends to stretch out with almost unbearable poignancy into what commentator Greg Dubinsky describes as "a prolonged state of grace." His harmonic vocabulary is characterized by the fecund tonal richness of post-Romanticism without the angst or decadence sometimes associated with the music of that era.
What's interesting about the latest outing from this prolific chamber group is not so much that they've chosen to create string quartet adaptations of music from the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance – after all, these are folks who have commissioned arrangements of Jimi Hendrix and Bo Diddley, so we've learned not to be shocked – but rather that they've chosen to juxtapose the works of Machaut, Pérotin and Tye with pieces by John Cage, Moondog and Harry Partch, among other twentieth-century notables.
On their 2000 release, the Kronos Quartet has appeared with an album worthy of their name. On Caravan, the quartet uses songs from the world round, with all of them rearranged as needed to fit a string quartet. There are compositions from Yugoslavia ("Pannonia Boundless"), Portugal ("Cancao Verdes Anos" and "Romance No. 1"), India ("Aaj Ki Raat"), Mexico ("La Muerte Chiquita"), Turkey ("Turceasca"), Romania, Hungary, Iran, Lebanon, and Argentina. There are guest artists left and right on the album: Hindustani tabla great Zakir Hussain aids on the Bollywood work "Aaj Ki Raat" (Tonight's the Night).
This album features the original version of "White Man Sleeps," written in 1982, and "Mbira" from 1980. If you think landmark European 17th/18th century baroque instruments and African musical structures are irreconcilable opposites and you are open enough to change your mind, this is the album for you. These pieces of Kevin Volans belong indeed to the most exciting developments in contemporary music. "White Man Sleeps" features harpsichords and a viola da gamba in African tuning and conventional (non-African) percussion, and "Mbira" is played on percussion and harpsichord.