Kronos Quartet: A Thousand Thoughts

[15 July 2014]

By Alex Franquelli

This is the way it is.

This is an album about distances, a record about the space inhabiting the “between” category. It is a geographical territory in the middle—that speck of earth perpetually missing from everyone’s map, which proudly dangles in a specific space-time dimension. This is an album about diversity without intellectual compromises. It is how it is because this is the way it is. There is no re-elaboration or, worse, reinterpretation of the existing aesthetic principles.

A Thousand Thoughts is a compilation of old Kronos Quartet material dating back to 1989, although most of the tracks were recorded after 2000. It draws from all latitudes to portray a comprehensive chromatic spectrum of world music, in an effort to offer an accurate depiction not only of the ludicrous variety of existing genres and traditions, but also of the incredible versatility that is proper of the quartet. The album features all four cellists who have been part of Kronos Quartet throughout the past 40 years: Joan Jeanrenaud (1978–1999), Jennifer Culp (1999–2005), Jeffrey Zeigler (2005–2013), and Sunny Yang (2013–present). The San Francisco-based ensemble salutes the fourth decade of activity with a superb array of collaborators: from Astor Piazzolla—playing the bandoneón on a tune (“Asleep”) he expressly composed for the quartet—to a composition (“Cry of a Lady”) written by none other than Terry Riley for the Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir. The list goes on with the late Dan Welser (“Danny Boy”) and Asha Bhosle (“Mera Kuchh Saamaan”). But what seems to strike the listener is indeed the geographical magnitude of the inspiration, ranging from more than a dozen countries and a few centuries.

A Thousand Thoughts is part of a celebratory package that includes the release of another retrospective box—The Kronos Quartet Explorer Series—consisting of five fundamental records, like Pieces of Africa (1992), Night Prayers (1994), Caravan (2000), Nuevo (2002), and Floodplain (2009). Each and every one of these albums is dedicated to as much world regions, thus putting an emphasis on the global, large-scale ambition that is typical of this legendary string quartet. A Thousand Thoughts is a compilation, and it has to be approached without expecting consistency or some sort of discipline.

For this reason, and for this reason alone, this album can make a challenging listen for those less prone to partake in a virtual music tour of the planet. On the other hand, the almost verbatim repetition of traditional sounds may appear as a delightful reproduction of the existing aesthetic tenets of traditional music. Both objections retain a certain degree of legitimacy, but if you manage to deviate from logical thinking and immerse oneself in the artistic facet of the project, the final result is outstanding.

With this in mind, you can’t help but wonder how many ensembles have been able, throughout their career, to touch on so many rhythms and chromaticisms, feeling equally at ease with musicians like Homayoun Sakhi’s rubâb, Salar Nader, and Abbos Kosimov in their search for the purest Afghan tradition. Or Võ Vân Ánh (Vanessa Vo, for her Western audience), whose Vietnamese Zither fits perfectly well in “Lưu Thủy Trường”, with the delicate texture suggested by the string quartet.

There are no clashes on A Thousand Thoughts (or on “Tusen Tankar”, the beautiful Swedish folk song that opens the album). Everything is how it should be, with no artifacts or translations into more accessible, plangent or elated tones. Four years, 57 albums, a virtually infinite inspiration requires no explanation. It is how it is because this is the way it is.

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