Stephan Thelen's compositions for his band Sonar have a minimalist groove that clearly relates to other groups in the experimental sphere like Swiss pianist and composer Nik Bärtsch's band Ronin. These works for string quartet are not stylistically far removed from Thelen's Sonar music, but the classical chamber music context establishes them in the world occupied by composers like Steve Reich.
Thelen's desire to compose for the Kronos Quartet was the driver for this album. He composed the title piece with them in mind, but they decided to commission a new piece for their Fifty for the Future: The Kronos Learning Repertoire project. Thus the piece Circular Lines was born. Composed in 2016, it was recorded in 2017, and opens the album with relentless rhythmic propulsion that does recall Sonar's music. With its 3-against-4-against-5 polyrhythms It is also the most rhythmically challenging piece Kronos has played (which is saying something).
The composition is also full of melody, usually riding on top of the rhythmic continuum. So it is both propulsive and lyrical. After a dramatic opening gesture the music moves gracefully through a series of events. The sound is far from monolithic: there is even a bit of a breakdown at about the eight minute mark. An insistent repeated figure brings it to an exciting conclusion.
Kronos violinist David Harrington encouraged the Polish, all-women Al Pari Quartet to play Circular Lines to strengthen their internal rhythmic cohesion. Impressed by their performance of it, Thelen began working with them. They went on to record World Dialogue for this album (in place of Kronos). The piece was written in 2006 when Thelen was experimenting with additive rhythms. It is indeed fascinating rhythmically, but it has a rich harmonic structure which may be even more interesting. It is unusual for a minimalist composition to have such a large amount of harmonic movement: it moves backwards through the cycle of fifths all the way from the key of G back to G12 key changes in all.
Thelen wrote a new piece for the Al Pari Quartet called Silesianamed for the region of Central Europe (located mainly in Poland) where the group lives. They asked him to base the composition on traditional Silesian music, which gives it the most traditional sound on the album. It shares his characteristic rhythmic drive, but the Eastern European material is a bit reminiscent of Béla Bartók's string quartets. The ending is especially striking: a gradual decrescendo promises the sound of an electronic fadeout, but a final dramatic gesture provides a satisfying finale.
Thelen makes a stunning debut as a New Music composer here. Hopefully the Kronos Quartet's marquee appeal will help it gain the attention it deserves.
Circular Lines; Chaconne; World Dialogue; Silesia.
Stephan Thelen: composer; Kronos Quartet: David Harrington: violin; John Sherba: violin; Hank Dutt viola; Sunny Yang: cello. Al Pari Quartet: Marta Lucjan: violin; Alicja Miruk-Mirska: violin; Magdalena Maier: viola; Elżbieta Rychwalska: cello.
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