Kronos Quartet and Terry Riley with WU Man - The Cusp of Magic (Nonesuch)
20 Feb 2008
"comfortably moving from quiet flickers and swellings into unified intensity..."; release - '08
Kronos Quartet are a weird bunch. I find it strange how they've enjoyed considerable notoriety (even to the point of being once mentioned in an episode of Friends) without ever really writing much of their own music. What's more, I'm inclined to think this is more of a Terry Riley album than a Kronos Quartet one. Verdant, lush forests on the cover invite you to listen in relaxed solitude, and it's yet another album for people like me that have no friends, people who don't really enjoy parties, who are unemployed and have a lot of time on their hands. Oh GOD.
The music is pretty slow moving, for example, the introductory feel of the first one and a half tracks is 15 minutes long. It's not that they're bad or boring, but once you get beyond this point the album seems to get a lot more unusual, and a lot more rewarding. A lot of this is because of toys. At various points, the strings are off set by the sound of children's toys, and whilst at first you cannot help but cynically think they have been thrown in there to liven up an otherwise quite conventional album, after listening more closely you realise that there is a sort of 'wild track' to this entire recording that is integral to its tension, particularly the more stripped back areas of the recording, whether it be jangling bells, children's toys or merely a quiet investigation of timbre going on in the background coming from one of the string players.
Wu Man's input on the album is also fantastic. The thinness of the Pipa (a Chinese stringed instrument) cuts through the thick swelling of the quartet with ease and adds a percussive element to the recording. Towards the end of the record the tracks become much more intense. It's mainly due to the harshness of the chord resolves played at a sort of unsettling timing. Kronos Quartet truly do have a knack of getting a great deal of power for a four piece. A great deal of this is achieved through the dynamic of the sound, the Quartet comfortably moving from quiet flickers and swellings into unified intensity.
Some of the melodies on this recording are brilliant. I have to admit it's often the more simple bits that really grab me. The basic chord progression that runs through the last track 'Prayer Circle' works as a fantastically powerful beast to hang things off of, by the end of the track the intensity has built into a sort of agitated force, but the sort you can enjoy lying down on a sofa.
Where as I can imagine that a lot of people think that it is a shame that Terry Riley is making such a comparatively tame comfortable piece of music, to me there is a simple joy to this album that can only come from the mind of someone who has spent along time experimenting and now wishes only to have fun, which he is perfectly entitled to.