[6 August 2009]
In the last 20 years, we’ve watched our world grow smaller at an almost alarming rate. Information across the state, across the country, on the other side of the world is available as current events happen, and in order for us to read about them, all we need to do is tap a few buttons in the comfort of our own homes. Now, we get real-time updates as celebrities are spotted around the world, we look to Twitter for breaking news on major current events like the plane crash on the Hudson or the Mumbai hotel bombing, and the number of online contacts that we create for ourselves number in the double digits in most cases, allowing anyone anywhere to get in touch at any time, if they so choose.
Even as we are ever more tightly intertwined via technology, the music we listen to stays oddly regionalized. Here in the United States, 40-odd years after the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, it’s somehow still a big deal when an artist crosses over from Great Britain, or Ireland, or even Canada with a successful piece of music. Nevermind ever hearing music from Iran, or Poland, or Somalia on American top-40 radio; despite America’s growing familiarity with such places, our musical tastes remain highly linked to the geography of where we happen to live.
Perhaps this is what makes Kronos Quartet’s Floodplain such a wondrous listen. It is a worldly album in every sense of the word, appropriating styles, melodies, and even musicians from spots around the globe. The players of Kronos Quartet, it seems, are less interested in playing to their own musical tastes than they are in expanding their musical palette, leaving no city, state, or country unturned in their search for unique and wonderful forms of musical beauty. Truly, it is a privilege to hear the results.
The entry point here, for those expecting the typical stylings of a string quartet, is “Wa Habibi”, a beautiful Lebanese hymn for Good Friday (originally popularized by Lebanese singer Fairuz) that perfectly meshes what we tend to think of as a European hymn structure with a leading melody, here done on a violin that is distinctly Middle Eastern. It’s three minutes of serenity and sorrow that removes nationality from the equation, allowing for those emotions to be ascribed to humanity in general than to any specific group of people, be they Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Shinto or otherwise. It is from this viewpoint that Floodplain can best be appreciated.
With this backdrop, however, it should also be noted that Floodplain is largely a collection of songs rather than an album in the true sense of the word; while many of these pieces do work together thematically, much of their inspiration seems to be derived simply from the supporting players that the Quartet could find at any given time.
Given this caveat, however, it’s impossible not to be impressed by something like Tashweesh, a collaboration between Kronos Quartet and a Palestinian electronic collective called Ramallah Underground. As the fuzzy beats and staticky notes of Ramallah Underground’s half of the composition form the backdrop, the strings pick and pluck their way through an intro that threatens to turn into hip-hop but never actually does. Eventually the violin and viola appear to offer a bit of legato counterpoint and then the piece quickly ends, sounding as though it could easily have surpassed its three-minute runtime by a cool ten more. Just as impressive are the moments where the Quartet does away with instrumental gimmickry and produces something as riveting as the Turkish “Nihavent Sirto”, itself a painful tragedy wrapped up in a jovial dance, a combination that’s at least as disconcerting as it sounds.
As the Quartet searches for beauty, it also finds time for the ugly, particularly as it makes less savory observations on our world; on this side of the coin is “Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me”, a frenetic piece played with screeching fervor with a last minute in which the percussion sounds as though it is augmented by machine gun fire. It should surprise no one that this song originates in Iraq.
Easy as it is to point out the shorter pieces for their impact, however, it is the longest works that truly define Floodplain in a lasting sense. “Getme, Getme” is a powerful Azerbaijani piece with dueling strained, mourning vocal lines that become even more powerful as you realize that a father and daughter are singing them. “Mugam Beyati Shiraz” also originates in Azerbaijan, and the juxtaposition of a fluttering solo violin over a droning cello seems perfectly suited for Kronos. Most powerful, however, is the 20-minute-plus closer “Hold Me Neighbor in this Storm”, a Serbian work that wastes no time in presenting its titular storm with its discordant violin duets, rumbling percussion, and gutteral grunts, but then offers a series of tangents that would sound peaceful, beautiful, or even jovial out of context. Here, however, they portray suspense, dread, and violence. At high volumes it can be truly frightening, closing Floodplain with the bang it surely deserves.
Floodplain‘s name comes from the idea that soil is at its most fertile in the time immediately following a flood, an image from which one could draw any number of metaphors. In a perfect world, it might mean that once we get past the hatred and fear that exposure to foreign lands unlike our own can inspire, we’ll realize that we are all human, and our world will ultimately be a better place when the conflict finally subsides. Or, perhaps it’s simply an homage to the idea that the shrinking world is grounds for an expansion of artistic styles. Whatever their intent, Kronos Quartet has composed a masterwork of genre-bending, nationality-bending musicianship. This is music for all people, and all people should be so lucky as to hear it.