Of the many artists whose work the longstanding Kronos Quartet has commissioned, none has been approached more often than Terry Riley. Riley is one of the founding fathers of minimalism, the late-1960s classical sub genre where repetition of a number of varying length musical fragments creates an ever-shifting landscape often defined by its hypnotic and transcendent nature. As a composer, Riley has evolved significantly since his classic A Rainbow in Curved Air (Columbia, 1969), a trance-inducing masterpiece of overdubbed keyboards, saxophones and percussion. He's moved on to a post-minimalist approach that retains some of the repetitive qualities, but possesses richer narrative and less of the mathematical precision that often defined early minimalist works.
While Riley has written over twenty pieces for Kronos, The Cusp of Magic is the fourth full album to be released. Following Riley's musical journey with Kronosfrom the expansive Salome Dances for Peace (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1989) to his painful elegy for a tragically deceased son, Requiem for Adam (Nonesuch, 2001)his continually expanding frames of reference, musical and otherwise, are crystal clear. Riley has always looked to the potential of cultural cross-pollination from locales including India to the Middle East. The Cusp of Magic looks further east to China, with guest Wu Man singing and playing pipa throughout this six-movement suite.
Kronos is an equally voracious assimilator of music from abroad, sourcing music from distant places including India, Argentina, Africa and Mexico. Here, Kronos and Wu Man layer a variety of percussion, toys and "noise makers" over their traditional instrumentation, creating a larger soundscape extending far beyond a simple confluence of Chinese tradition with contemporary classicism. Still often relying on repetition, Riley's opening title track builds dramatically with rhythmic pulses, thematic particles and the use of strings texturally rather than melodically gradually evolving, fashioning a shape that reveals itself over repeated listens.
Lute-like in appearance, Wu Man's pipa possesses a sharper tone, at times sounding more like a banjo. The contrapuntal blend of string quartet and pipa on "Buddha's Bedroom" ultimately dissolves into a sparer, song form feature for Wu Man's soft voice, more directly referential to the Orient, before a vibrant instrumental ending blends firm rhythm with more abstract designs.
Kronos and Riley's cutting edge approach to performance and composition has, at times, involved greater extremes, but The Cusp of Magic is largely defined by unorthodox beauty, where ethereal and occasional abstruse simply add to an overriding arc with occasional ambient injections (the brief quote from Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker" on toy piano and bird sounds ending the spare tone poem of "The Nursery").
Few string quartets on the scene today are as intrepid as Kronos in the exploration of unconventional form and methods to extend the reach of a centuries-old instrumental configuration. Few composers possess a body of work defined by such a rich palette of references as Riley. It's no surprise, then, that Kronos and Riley have collaborated so often and so well, with The Cusp of Magic providing further evidence of a truly rare musical symbiosis.