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.
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.