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.
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.
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.
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.
Nonesuch releases Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11 on September 20, 2011. The album marks the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, which is the subject of Reich’s piece. Commissioned for and recorded by Kronos Quartet, WTC 9/11 is scored for three string quartets and pre-recorded voices. The album also includes Reich’s Mallet Quartet, performed by Sō Percussion, and Dance Patterns, featuring members of Steve Reich and Musicians, as well as a DVD with a live performance of Mallet Quartet by Sō Percussion.
For this Elektra/Nonesuch release, the Kronos Quartet interprets Witold Lutoslawski's 1964 String Quartet, an uncommonly difficult piece since the four musicians are commanded to play their parts ad lib, as if they were alone. Lutoslawski was influenced by the random procedures of John Cage, but he also wished to maintain dramatic structure, so string quartet includes rigidity in time measures. The balance between freedom and structure provides for a surprisingly appealing recording.
Some people would quickly run away from the music of someone who claims to admire the music of Berg, Crumb, and Cage. Franguiz Ali-Zadeh admires all of those composers and uses similar techniques in her composition, but she also finds inspiration in the music of her native Azerbaijan. With all of this, she creates especially evocative, picturesque works that invite listening more than once. Oasis, the opening work on this disc of her music featuring the Kronos Quartet, begins extremely quietly with water droplets, and then the quartet enters with desolate harmonics, depicting the desolation of the desert. Later in the piece, voices of those taking refuge in the oasis are heard. Ali-Zadeh's music is full of sounds beyond that of the traditionally played instruments of the string quartet and the piano, sounds that enhance and become part of the music. Sometimes it is techniques such as pizzicato, harmonics, col legno, or preparing or playing the strings of the piano; other times it is added instruments, as in Mugam Sayagi, or recorded sound, as in Oasis.