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Raymond Tuttle:
Kronos Quartet: Early Music (Nonesuch)


For the convenience of music retailers, early music is often classified as that which preceded Bach - roughly the 1600s and before. True to its title, more than half the music on this CD fits that definition. John Dowland and Hildegard von Bingen, however, would probably be confused to hear their vocal music arranged for string quartet, which is a modern innovation in classical music, relatively speaking.
The Kronos Quartet has made a career of defying the formal and stuffy stereotypes associated with classical string quartets. They dress informally, groom themselves haphazardly, and play contemporary music that runs from the kitschy to ear-scouring. Such chaste and levelheaded Early Music, then, is a strange move for them.
Even stranger, though, is the assortment of music that fills the rest of the CD, everything from a dryly traditional Swedish bridal march to an arrangement of John Cage's Totem Ancestor, whose ticklish monotony resolves into a sort of African opera without words. Moondog's Synchrony no. 2 sounds like a congregation of Baptists singing as they sink into the ground.
The point seems to be that some ancient music sounds strikingly contemporary and some contemporary music sounds strikingly ancient, and that the concepts of time and history can completely erode, depending on where one is on this Earth. This is no revelation, but few ensembles have been as earnest (some might say humorless) about it as the Kronos Quartet is on this new CD.
The packaging, for what it's worth, is beautiful. Tattered images of celestial bodies share space with the black doorway to a Jordanian tomb and Turkish domes, either cut open to the bright sunlight, or closed and ornately painted. Unlike Turkish domes, this CD is not particularly centered, but it is plenty provocative.