There is no string quartet that has ever been written that can compare length and diversity with Terry Riley's Salome Dances for Peace. Morton Feldman has written a longer one, but it is confined to his brilliant field of notational relationships and open tonal spaces. Riley's magnum opus, which dwarfs Beethoven's longest quartet by three, is a collection of so many different kinds of music, many of which had never been in string quartet form before and even more of which would – or should – never be rubbing up against one another in the same construct. Riley is a musical polymath, interested in music from all periods and cultures: there are trace elements of jazz and blues up against Indian classical music, North African Berber folk melodies, Native American ceremonial music, South American shamanistic power melodies – and many more. The reason they are brought together in this way is for the telling of an allegorical story. In Riley's re-examining Salome's place in history, he finds a way to redeem both her and the world through her talent.
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.
Pieces by nine very different composers make up this fascinating collection of works for string quartet entitled Short Stories, performed by the Kronos Quartet. Elliott Sharp's Digital (1986) is a hard-edged rhythmic study using the instrument bodies as drums, with objects inserted in the strings to create rattling, shaker, and tambourine-like sounds. Steve Mackey's arrangement (1989) of the classic Chicago blues tune "Spoonful" (1960), by the prolific Willie Dixon, exaggerates the gestures of the song and employs complex harmonies and modernistic devices like string crunches, etc. John Oswald's Spectre (1990) opens with the naive sound of the quartet tuning up.
This may be the single most powerful piece of music that the Kronos Quartet has ever recorded, and perhaps that Terry Riley has ever written. This is because Requiem for Adam is so personal, so direct, and experiential. Requiem for Adam was written after the death of Kronos violinist David Harrignton's son. He died, in 1995, at the age of 16, from an aneurysm in his coronary artery. Riley, who is very close to the Harringtons and has a son the same age, has delved deep into the experience of death and resurrection, or, at the very least, transmutation. Requiem for Adam is written in three parts, or movements. The first, "Ascending the Heaven Ladder," is based on a four-note pattern that re-harmonizes itself as it moves up the scale. There are many variations and series based on each of these notes and their changing harmonics, and finally a 5/4 dance as it moves to the highest point on the strings. The drone-like effect is stunning when the listener realizes that the drone is changing shape too, ascending the scale, moving ever upward and taking part in the transmutation of harmony.
This late-'80s work finds the minimalist composer mixing acoustic and taped material to great effect. The disc's centerpiece is "Different Trains," a work that frames Reich's impressions of his boyhood train trips between his mother in Los Angeles and his father in New York; Reich also intersperses references to the much more harrowing train rides Jews were forced to take to Nazi concentration camps. Using the fine playing of the Kronos Quartet as a base, Reich layers the work with the taped train musings of his governess, a retired Pullman porter, and various Holocaust survivors – vintage train sounds from the '30s and '40s add to the riveting arrangement. And for some nice contrast, Reich recruits guitarist Pat Metheny to create a similarly momentous piece in "Electric Counterpoint" (Metheny plays live over a multi-tracked tape of ten guitars and two electric basses). Two fine works by Reich in his prime.
During the rehearsals for the string quartet version of "White Man Sleeps," a strong artistic bond developed between the work's performers, the renowned Kronos Quartet, and its composer, Kevin Volans. This led Kronos to commission a second-string quartet from Volans, especially written for the musicians. Like "White Man Sleeps," it is a stunning piece of music, recommended to every world music lover who wants to cross the bridge to contemporary, modern music. The work comes in three movements, each one with a different character. Most remarkably are the Ethiopian influences in the beginning bars of the first movement (compare this motive with the vocal style of the distinguished Ethiopian singer Aster Aweke) and the joyous Southern African dance-like motive featuring after the more contemplative opening of the second movement. The slightly melancholic song-like structure of the short third movement draws the work to a close.