Did you know that if you threw an accordion, percussion, electronics, and an accordion into a blender that you might end up with one of the best albums of the year?
Here is a fine result of cross purposes, only slightly odd but far more than satisfying. Finnish accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen has music to write, motifs to explore, and an instrument to sell. In his hands, the squeeze box -- once stylistically confined to polkas and/or comedy -- gets a rock star makeover and a bid for becoming a vehicle of more "serious" music. Samuli Kosminen, a talented percussionist and manipulator of electronic sounds, needs to color the gaps and fill the shades of contemporary music with his expertise. As for the Kronos Quartet... well, a lot of modern classical music wouldn't exist if it weren't for the various commissions from David Harrington, et al., over the years. Uniko is a seven movement work composed by Pohjonen and Kosminen and performed by the authors along with Kronos. Looking at their names on the front cover of the album, it looks like this album doesn't belong to any one musician more than the other. True collaboration, a sharing of the sound guaranteeing everyone gets praise or blame. Don't worry; it’s the former that I'm really going to talk about.
Uniko unfolds and flows without any commercial pretext, even by accordion/electronics/string quartet standards (whatever those might be). The opening piece, "Utu", doesn't even really "get going" until it almost reaches the three minute mark. Most of that time is spent waking up, stretching, and yawning like a sleepy giant that lacks mobility due to its size. But that analogy doesn't hold for very long. The complimentary heaving sighs of the string quartet gradually guide Pohjonen's accordion to a moment of realization, starring a Middle Eastern melody propelled by Kosminen's light yet buoyant percussion. From there, things become only more cinematic with each rolling wave.
Uniko is equally unique in sound as it is in shape. There are climaxes that correspond to shifts in style, but they are by no means measured out evenly. "Särmä" gets rolling by having Kronos pop out a peppery figure as Kimmo Pohjonen slowly brings in his chant-like wordless singing. Things come to a sudden halt a little over halfway through as the string quartet's pizzicatos cut the volume in half, likely more. Another sudden stop is given when Samuli Kosminen's soft electronic buzzes segue into "Kalma". And for short time, that's all you hear. The transition remains startling even after multiple spins.
No, Uniko is not all unpredictable tricks. When it decides to hang-glide, it does so with true class and profundity. Witness this in "Emo", one of the album's longer movements. Pohjonen gets the ball going, but his path diverges just slightly from the Quartet's. There is simple polyphony at work here, yes, but it is easily hidden by the creepy way in which the accordion meshes with the quartet. After the bottom drops out yet again, the ensemble picks up where they left off with a motif so moving that words like "plaintive" and "thoughtful" are just no good at conveying what's going on here.
Uniko is many things. It is sprawling, cerebral, touching, unpredictable, and even intense at times. This is music that somehow corrals all the right adjectives yet conveniently avoids a genre label. Call it classical, call it World, call it crossover or whatever -- it's just plain great.