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Kronos Quartet – Night Prayers

On Spec 10: Kronos Quartet – Night Prayers

To put it simply, from Wiki: Night Prayers is a studio album by the Kronos Quartet. It contains commissioned pieces with music from former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and includes performances by Throat Singers of Tuva, Dawn Upshaw (soprano), Djivan Gasparian (duduk), and Mikhail Alexandrovich (cantor).

So, let’s talk a bit about what happened when this stuff got into my ears.

First off, I am always freaked out slightly by throat singers. It’s awesome, but man, some of that stuff is wild, and Kongrei shows it all off as the Throat Singers Of Tuva display all their skills… it does become melodic too, and beautifully so. For it being from Eastern Europe and Central Asia, parts of this one also has an African feel to it. The universality of music! Lacrymosa builds in with beautiful operatic singing, building as the strings join in with frantic energy and then, as quick as it grew, it diminishes again. Wow. Mugam Sayagi has a slow string build, somber and heavy, then the instrumnts playfully stab here and there until bang, around the ten minute mark, it takes off at a run… then slows again. Such control. It’s back and forth like this a couple more times over the 21:32 of this song’s duration, with the instruments really taking on the roles of voices, and for me the biggest win on this track is the superb use of dynamics.

String Quartet #4’s staccato notes are relentless, and when the almost atonal bits kick in, it’s so disorienting and strong that at first you’re unsure how to feel as it ends at just under 12 minutes, but overwhelmingly the answer is that it’s awesome… as soon as your brain has time to catch up with everything that has just happened! A Cool Wind Is Blowing is goreous soundtrack music for a recent Jet Li movie, for those opening scenes where you see landscapes and perfectly designed and situated buildings and slowly wind your way to being introduced to the main character… gorgeous. K’Vakarat features Mikhail Alexandrovich on gorgeous operatic vocals, powerful and warm at the same time. The music builds force after the five minute mark, with the violins darting in and out like fighter jets. Then it all calms, the vocals come back just before a big crescendo and… wow. That’s some great stuff! And finally, Night Prayers is a 23:16 expedition into beautiful string quartet music, with occasional bursts of rapid-fire bursts of volume and speed, like around 4:15. There’s also a great booming section after 16:30 that just filled everything in my head through the good headphones. Gentle vocals bring the track, and the album, perfectly and gently to shore.

Overall, I’d say this is a fantastic collection of songs, and again, I was particularly thrilled and impressed by their use of dynamics in all of these tracks. I would say it probably doesn’t flow real well as an album, but each individual song has so much power and beauty that it hardly matters. This is absolutely unlike anything else you’re likely to hear this week, and it’s well worth your time investment.

Track List:

1. Kongerei – Trad., arr. Steven Mackey
2. Lacrymosa – Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky
3. Mugam Sayagi – Franghiz Ali-Zadeh
4. Quartet No. 4 – Sofia Gubaidulina
5. A Cool Wind is Blowing – Tigran Tahmizyan
6. K’Vakarat – Osvaldo Golijov
7. Night Prayers – Giya Kancheli

Kronos Quartet – Pieces Of Africa

On Spec 9: Kronos Quartet – Pieces Of Africa

I say I bought this one on spec because, let’s be honest, sometimes these things can be awesome, while at other times they can be disappointing because you know the band, and the idea of African music is always appealing, but if they don’t nail it it’s just a let-down.

Well, I needn’t have worried. This is a beautiful melding of string quartet classical music sounds and that vibrant, invigorating energy of African music. The drums pound as the violins soar over the top, and while the melodies seem simple, they’re truly not. It’s deceptive, and very powerful. And the vocals on Saade (I’m Happy) and Kutambarara (Spreading) only add to the mix in the best ways.

I discovered that this is album is made up of commissioned pieces from notable African composers, which I think is a fantastic idea! I truly enjoyed the soundtrack quality of Escalay (Waterwheel), the playfulness of Mai Nozipo (Mother Nozipo), and the skittering strings on Ekitundu Ekisooka (First Movement). The real meat on the bones in this project, though, is the five part White Man Sleeps. It’s equally gentle and forceful, all at the right moments. The music evokes imagery in your mind and you easily find yourself adrift and going where the tune takes you.

Should you happen across a copy of this album in your travels, buy with confidence. This hybrid sound is a pure winner.

Here are the tracks and composers (with country of origin):

1. Mai Nozipo (Mother Nozipo) – Dumisani Maraire (Shona, Zimbabwe)
2. Saade (I’m Happy) – Hassan Hakmoun (Moroccan)
3. Tilliboyo (Sunset) – Foday Musa Suso (Mandika, Gambia)
4. Ekitundu Ekisooka (First Movement) – Justinian Tamusuza (Uganda)
5. Escalay (Waterwheel) – Hamza El Din (Nubia, Egypt)
6. Wawshishijay (Our Beginning) – Obo Addy (Ghana)
7. White Man Sleeps, Mvt. I (original, unrevised) – Kevin Volans (South Africa)
8. White Man Sleeps, Mvt. II
9. White Man Sleeps, Mvt. III
10. White Man Sleeps, Mvt. IV
11. White Man Sleeps, Mvt. V
12. Kutambarara (Spreading) – Dumisani Maraire (Shona, Zimbabwe)

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