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Wednesday, March 10, 2004


Got a killer CD by Kronos Quartet from the library yesterday.  It's their recent collection of Mexican music, "Nuevo."  The producer is an Argentinian pop guy who produces the Mexican mod rock group Cafe Tacuba, who appear on one tune. 

I’ve never been a huge fan of Kronos.  Some really cool things, some challenging-but-mostly-leaving-me-shrugging things.  Cool for their ambitious eclecticism and challenging the boundaries of “classical”ism.  Really cool for that.  Commissions from current composers, including African and Asian composers (many of whom play on their own pieces with Kronos, echoing the older European tradition of Vivaldi and Paganini and Beethoven and Bach).

“Nuevo” rocks. Doesn’t poke gingerly at the “classical” boundaries with straight-up string quartet arrangements of rock and blues and jazz tunes; or even get nice & respectful as Kronos plays backing band to some hot African musicians as on “Pieces of Africa.” “Nuevo” blows right through the boundaries, like the heroic truckers of the ‘70s hit song “Convoy” who just “ain’t a-gonna pay no toll” and “crash the gate doin' 98.”

A collection of compositions from Mexico released in 2002, an eclectic mix of traditional, folk, pop, and in-the-consciously-European-institutional-influenced a/k/a classical tradition.  With lots of Mexican musicians accompanying them on different tunes, including singers, percussionists, modern rock electric players, trad violinists, players of unexplained local instruments I’ve never heard of such as "musical leaf," and avant-garde electronics players.

From the first piece, which sounds like the quartet has been filtered through a distortion box, the album sends me.  Kronos’ first violinist David Harrington said that he got the idea of distorting the quartet by walking around Mexico City and digging the sound of cheap-ass speakers blaring and distorting recorded music from every storefront.  (Not his exact words.)  It sounds brilliant – so lively, so alive, so . . . new! 

Recordings of street sounds, samples from recordings, a cover of a space-age-bachelor-pad tune by the lounge cult fave Esquivel, an arrangement of an intense piece by the great 20th century institutional-Euro-derived composer Revueltas, a dance remix of one of the tunes by a Mexican hip hop DJ, a trad folk song sung by two passionate singers with the quartet sawing away to recreate a traditional rhythm guitar part; and great arrangements throughout, mostly by the Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov. Surrealistic quasi-ethnography, a brilliant exoticism made with the (hopefully un-regretted) participation of some of the exoticized subjects; whatever it is, it's terrific music. 

I haven’t even made it through the whole album yet. Stop typing now, go listen for a while before going to bed.

But first, a word about the album’s sponsors: 3 government agencies including the National Endowment for the Arts; 5 charitable foundations; 4 public universities; and 2 private donors not counting the 2 patrons who commissioned an arrangement each. Institutional music gettin’ lively and insouciant. My only querulous cavil is, with all that government sponsorship, how come the CDs still cost $16?

But who am I to complain, I got it from the public library.

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