For all its wide stylistic span and just plain good listening, Kronos's Released 1985-1995 is problematic in that it doesn't acknowledge the group's decade-long pre-Nonesuch history with so much as a footnote…
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.
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.
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.