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.
The essay in the program booklet for this release of Górecki's String Quartet No. 3 (…songs were sung), makes much of a supposed caesura in Górecki's creative output following the phenomenal success of Nonesuch's 1992 release of this Third Symphony, with soprano Dawn Upshaw, which elevated him practically to the level of a pop star. The essay implies that his meteoric rise to being one of the most famous and popular contemporary composers may have produced a creative crisis that caused him to wait until 2005 to finally deliver the score of his Third Quartet, which he had written in the winter of 1994-1995. In fact, Górecki's sudden notoriety seems to have had little effect on his creativity; between 1993 and 2004, he wrote 16 opus numbers.
This disc is supposed to hurt. Just look at the program: it starts with Crumb's Black Angels for electric string quartet, a work that is the aural equivalent of Coppola's Apocalypse Now, and ends with Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8, a work that is either the aural equivalent of a monument to the victims of war and fascism written in the ruins of Dresden or the musical equivalent of a suicide note written before the composer joined the Communist Party. With the spooky and evocative performances of Thomas Tallis Spem in Alium, Istvan Marta's Doom. A Sigh, and Charles Ives' There They Are!, this disc is so painful it could be the soundtrack for an unmade Kubrick movie. The question is, is this disc supposed to hurt so much? The Kronos Quartet is a harsh and aggressive ensemble with an angular approach to rhythm and structure and an overwhelming need to assert its individual and collective identity.
The Kronos Quartet continues to broaden the repertoire for string quartet beyond the Western European tradition with Floodplain, an album of music all written or arranged for the ensemble. This album moves the ensemble even further afield from the conventional quartet; the players frequently double on folk instruments, and in one of the pieces they don't use their own instruments at all, but newly invented ones, created especially for this album. The selection of music is broadly eclectic and includes arrangements of a popular Arab song from 1940 and an ancient Christian hymn from Lebanon, a collaboration with a Palestinian electronic ensemble, and an original piece by a Serbian-American composer. The album has a number of guest artists, including the Azerbaijani Alim Qasimov Ensemble, Terry Riley playing tambura and Wu Man playing electric sitar.
To say this barrier-breaking string quartet plays modern music is an understatement. All of the five composers showcased on this audacious recording were born in the 20th century. Minimalist Philip Glass is among the best known of the five, whose works cannot possibly be mistaken with anything from the baroque or classical periods. This particular foursome illustrates the grace, beauty, and even power of a string quartet, but goes well beyond. In the words of first violinist and leader David Harrington, "I've always wanted the string quartet to be vital, and energetic, and alive, and cool, and not afraid to kick ass and be absolutely beautiful and ugly if it has to be." The album-ending cover of the Jimi Hendrix classic "Purple Haze" must be heard to be believed.