On their 2000 release, the Kronos Quartet has appeared with an album worthy of their name. On Caravan, the quartet uses songs from the world round, with all of them rearranged as needed to fit a string quartet. There are compositions from Yugoslavia ("Pannonia Boundless"), Portugal ("Cancao Verdes Anos" and "Romance No. 1"), India ("Aaj Ki Raat"), Mexico ("La Muerte Chiquita"), Turkey ("Turceasca"), Romania, Hungary, Iran, Lebanon, and Argentina. There are guest artists left and right on the album: Hindustani tabla great Zakir Hussain aids on the Bollywood work "Aaj Ki Raat" (Tonight's the Night).
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.
Their first release since 2009's critically acclaimed Floodplain, Music of Vladimir Martynov includes three works written for Kronos by the leading Russian composer: The Beatitudes (1998, rescored for Kronos, 2006), Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished) (2009), and Der Abschied (2006). Kronos' artistic director and founder David Harrington says Martynov's music "straddles various points of musical history and time; the music seems to me to reflect and absorb humanity in such a beautiful way."
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 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.