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 20th century has not been kind to most standard classical music forms. The piano sonata, the concerto, the symphony – none of them have disappeared entirely, but none remain in a state that could be called even remotely healthy. The same was true of the string quartet until 1973, when violinist David Harrington got some friends together to play contemporary music and offered his old high-school composition teacher a bag of donuts if he'd write a piece for them…
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.
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.
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.