The Kronos Quartet Explodes Its Range On Two New Collaborations

Mar 15, 2018
Originally published on March 19, 2018 1:53 pm
Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Music critic Milo Miles has a review of two new albums by the Kronos Quartet. They're each collaborations - one with a group from Mali, the other with Laurie Anderson.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURIE ANDERSON AND KRONOS QUARTET'S "DARKNESS FALLS")

MILO MILES, BYLINE: From the 1960s onward, adding string quartets to popular music was usually bad news, an attempt to make the sounds sweeter and more conventionally classical. The Kronos Quartet, founded in 1973 by violinist David Harrington, were always eager collaborators, but for a long time, often a bit tidy and safe - not anymore. They have now done two collaborations that explode their range. One involves Laurie Anderson and her experiences in New York when Hurricane Sandy hit. The other is an exploration of rhythm, texture and soul with a group from Mali, Trio Da Kali. On Kronos and Anderson's more recent album, "Landfall," the unprecedented mixture of strings and electronics guided by Anderson's unmistakable voice draw you into an anxious memory.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUR STREET IS A BLACK RIVER")

LAURIE ANDERSON: October 2012 - the river had been rising all day, and the hurricane was coming up slowly from the south. We watched as a sparkling black river crossed the park, and then the highway and then came silently up our street. From above, Sandy was a huge swirl that looked like the galaxies whose names I didn't know.

MILES: There are 30 tracks on "Landfall." Most are instrumentals, many less than three minutes long. But because inventive software frequently teases the strings and beats into a suggestion of language and singing, you sense how the narrative never stops moving forward. The overarching theme is loss, whether through natural disaster, technical mistakes or even, in the longest cut, relentless natural extinction. The pervasive loss, first hinted at to the our and we in the titles, is Anderson's husband, Lou Reed, who died almost exactly a year after the hurricane hit. He helped shape the music, and the album is dedicated to him. Anderson's first look at their flooded basement, called "Everything Is Floating," causes a swirl of amazement and anguish.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING IS FLOATING")

ANDERSON: And I looked at them floating there in the shiny, dark water, dissolving - all the things I'd carefully saved all my life becoming nothing but junk, and I thought, how beautiful. How magic. And how catastrophic.

MILES: Kronos Quartet's collaboration with Trio Da Kali, titled "Ladilikan," presents a panorama of gains, not loss. Kronos has been drawn to African music fusion since 1992, but these were meetings with little meshing. Here, Trio Da Kali and Kronos Quartet talked to each other without a hitch, with the dynamic timing always on target and the emotional turns clear and satisfying.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TITA")

HAWA DIABATE: (Singing in foreign language).

MILES: Although the leader of Trio Da Kali actually is master balafon player Lassana Diabate, the key player that made the interaction with Kronos possible is singer Hawa Diabate. When the two groups first met in 2012, David Harrington immediately noted how much Hawa sounded like Mahalia Jackson. But the one track I skip over in the record is the outright cover of a Jackson tune, "God Shall Wipe All Tears Away," which sounds stranded between styles. The other Jackson-related tune is an enchantment - the title track, "Ladilikan," where the groups decided to create a more Malian version of Jackson's "I'm Goin' To Live The Life I Sing About In My Song." The intricate, lively performance shows how the finest fusions can feel at once spontaneous and have all the details worked out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LADILIKAN")

DIABATE: (Singing in foreign language).

MILES: It must be noted that both "Landfall" and "Ladilikan" result from years of practicing, performing, refining and tweaking the collaborations. You can hear how the time and care have paid off. With streaming and ever-lower budgets available, you have to worry that such extended preparation for music releases will become more and more uncommon.

GROSS: Milo Miles reviewed two new albums by the Kronos Quartet.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRIO DA KALI AND KRONOS QUARTET SONG, "LILA BAMBO")

GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with actor Danny Trejo, and with investigative reporters Michael Isikoff and David Corn, authors of "Russian Roulette: The Inside Story Of Putin's War On America And The Election Of Donald Trump," check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LILA BAMBO")

DIABATE: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.