Kronos is a quality act. No quartet currently performing has done more to bridge the divide between popular and ‘serious’ music, and although others have served contemporary repertoire with equal dedication (the Arditti Quartet being among the most notable), Kronos take top laurels for imagination, presentation and an intuitive sense of what best ‘connects’ with a non-specialist music-loving audience.
The 20th century has not been kind to most standard classical music forms. The piano sonata, the concerto, the symphony – none of them have disappeared entirely, but none remain in a state that could be called even remotely healthy. The same was true of the string quartet until 1973, when violinist David Harrington got some friends together to play contemporary music and offered his old high-school composition teacher a bag of donuts if he'd write a piece for them…
Hurricane Sandy was a horrific natural disaster that no one would care to relive, except perhaps for the brilliant polymath Laurie Anderson. In Landfall, her 70-minute multimedia piece featuring the Kronos Quartet, she doesn't revisit the storm so much as ruminate – sometimes with dry wit – on the idea of how we handle loss. With a dream-like blend of electronics, acoustic instruments, high-tech software and voice overs, she searches for meaning in the mystery of it all.
This stirring release was written by acclaimed composer/sampler artist Bob Ostertag, and performed alongside the Kronos Quartet. A stark response to the AIDS epidemic (with the proceeds of all sales of this disc going to AIDS research), the quartet follows an opening sing-spiel narrative before diving into a section of Ostertag's cut-up loops of crowds cheering, and intense string work from the quartet.
Kronos is a musical institution over 40 years in existence, championing and commissioning contemporary, even avant-garde and multimedia, classical compositions but the quartet started slow, in a period of experimentation when classical, rock, and jazz began to explore each other's domain. The Turtle Island Quartet, founded in 1985, shares similar roots, and the chamber jazz group Oregon, founded in 1971, also skirts Third Steam with their bass, guitar, oboe, and percussion.
For Terry Riley's 70th birthday, the Kronos Quartet commissioned him to write a piece for them, and he decided to include pipa player Wu Man (who also sings), as well as drum, rattle, various toys, and synthesizer. It's the most eclectic piece Riley has written for Kronos; he outdoes himself in the number of world music traditions, Western styles, and eccentric instruments he incorporates into The Cusp of Magic, whose title refers to the summer solstice.
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.