Michael Gordon and the members of Kronos Quartet are kindred spirits. While Gordon, a co-founder of the composers’ collective Bang on a Can, is known for his groundbreaking works that defy categorization, the similarly revolutionary Kronos Quartet have been essentially upending the role and identity of the classical string quartet for decades. While it’s no secret that Gordon and Kronos have collaborated on and off for the past 17 years (beginning with the quartet performing one of Gordon’s pieces in their hometown of San Francisco in 2001), an assembly of their collaboration has never been available until now.
Clouded Yellow is a collection of Kronos Quartet recordings of Michael Gordon compositions – including “Potassium”, the aforementioned piece that premiered in 2001 – released through Bang on a Can’s label, Cantaloupe. As one might expect, the music is visceral, abrasive, and oddly moving. The hour-long album contains only a handful of pieces, but they’re all powerful in their own way. It opens with the title track, whose title refers to a specific species of butterfly known for its fluttering migrations in England, and is held together by the low-register droning of Jeffrey Zeigler’s cello while Hank Dutt (viola), David Harrington and John Sherba (violin) engage in dissonant flights of fancy. The relentless energy of the piece is palpable; the fact that Gordon spent an entire summer working on the piece before throwing the whole thing out and starting from scratch may be evident in the somewhat anxious, unflinching nature of the music.
“Potassium” is no less powerful and seems almost initially devoid of melody, relying instead on mind-bending string runs that seem to ape the sounds of fast cars passing on a highway. The second half of the piece speeds up with a slightly more traditional – yet still dissonant – melody, resembling hyper-caffeinated Bartok. Gordon suggests in the liner notes that the abrasive sounds in “Potassium” represent a scrubbing away of the Kronos history, signaling a new beginning.
The centerpiece of Clouded Yellow – not to mention its emotional center – is undoubtedly “The Sad Park”, a four-part piece prompted by the events of September 11, 2001. Gordon recalls in the liner notes how family played a role in his reaction to 9/11, as he and his wife have children who were attending school nearby when the World Trade Center towers fell. “We were down at P.S. 234, two blocks north of the World Trade towers,” he says, “and the plane literally flew over our heads. It was our daughter’s fourth day of Kindergarten.”
Using the voices of pre-school children impacted by the day’s events – specifically University Plaza Nursery School in Lower Manhattan, where his son was enrolled at the time – Gordon and the Kronos Quartet manipulated the voice recordings as used them as instruments and pulses to accompany the strings on “The Sad Park”. In a way, the multi-part composition is reminiscent of minimalist composer (and occasional Kronos collaborator) Steve Reich’s 1966 piece “Come Out”, which incorporates interview segments related to the Harlem Six to create a dizzying exercise in phase-shifting. “The Sad Park” is more freewheeling in its execution, as the sonic manipulations speed up, slow down, and stretch the samples like taffy, creating something both disturbing and breathtaking. Tributes to 9/11 have appeared in virtually all art forms, and everyone from Don DeLillo to Bruce Springsteen has translated the events into their own vernacular. The key is to move the listener (or reader, or viewer, as the case may be) without coming off as exploitative. Gordon and Kronos – not to mention the children who participated – succeed mightily in this endeavor.
Children are also a key focal point in the Clouded Yellow‘s final piece, “Exalted”, which pairs Kronos with the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. Like the title track, “Exalted” was conceived in 2010 and is inspired not only by the events of 9/11 but also Gordon’s Jewish faith, as it takes as its text the first line of the Mourner’s Kaddish, one of the central prayers in the Jewish liturgy: “Yisgadal v’yiskadash sh’may rabah” (“May His great name be exalted and sanctified”). More parallels to Reich come into play here, as “Exalted” tends to mirror the dark beauty of “Tehillim”, Reich’s 1981 composition that reflects his own Jewish heritage. On “Exalted”, the chorus weaves in and out of the string arrangement, and the result is an arresting, sometimes intimidating nine minutes of reflection and tribute.
Clouded Yellow is not an easy listening experience – it can be emotionally and aurally exhausting. The heaviness of some of the subject matter, in addition to the atonal nature of the music, creates something of a challenging atmosphere. But it’s also some of the most fascinating, urgent, brilliant, and important music you’re likely to hear so far this year.