Before the Brooklyn Rider gave chamber music a globalized hipster cool and before the Australian Chamber Orchestra dabbled with the Egyptian lute, the Kronos Quartet had already set out on a quest. Their mission: to play the most avant-grade chamber music by incorporating influences from all over the world. Mexican folk, Inuit throat singing, Thomas Tallis: You name it, they’ve done it. Whatever they play, it makes you want to explode with passion, joy or an indescribable primal yell.
While I never saw the Kronos Quartet live, I had a second-hand experience. Three years ago in Washington, I heard the National Chamber Players perform Osvaldo Golijov’s “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind,” debuted by the Kronos Quartet in 1997. The wild howls and moans of the clarinet combined with the frantic bursts of the violins made me feel like I was tripping on a kabbalistic vision. Near the end of the second movement, I left the concert hall feeling overwhelmed.
The Quartet’s new album, “Rainbow: Music of Central Asia Vol. 8,” shares a similar intensity. NPR Music advises “against operating any type of heavy machinery” while listening to it.
Forget the daintiness of Schubert and Mendelssohn! Released on Smithsonian Folkways, it sounds more like world music. The Kronos Quartet gives their collaborators the Homayun Sakhi Trio (from Afghanistan) and the Alim Qasimov Ensemble (from Azerbaijan) plenty of room to improvise.
The opening track, a 26-minute Afghan lute “concerto” with its composer Homayun Sakhl at the helm, is a balanced East-meets-West composition. (In case you are wondering, the Afghan lute, or rubab, has a pear-shaped body and an elaborate, tapering fingerboard.) The Kronos Quartet performs a sensitive accompaniment rooted within the classical tradition while allowing Sakhl to shine with his complex melodies, though the arrangement itself feels lengthy and lackluster.
“Rainbow” gets more exciting starting on “Mehriban Olaq.” The intro really throws you a curveball: Is that Boccherini that I hear? Or Stravinsky? Or some 1970’s horror movie soundtrack? The confusion increases as Rafael Asgarov enters with his balaban oboe and Alim and Fragana Qasimov let loose their vocals in Azerbaijani. Finally a vision emerges: The Qasimovs’ joyous melody leads the frenzy of strings, woodwind and drums. Their improvised harmony floods your headphones with the colors of a mountain steppe in spring.
The Kronos Quartet’s string accompaniment sounds its fullest on the last track, “Qashlarin Kamandir.” The tense interaction between David Harrington’s violin and Jeffrey Zeigler’s cello showcases the group’s innovative spirit. Abandoning the classical approach of “Rangin Kaman,” the musicians move freely between Eastern melodies and Western themes. Just as Azerbaijan sits at the crossroads between Eastern Europe and Western Asia, the Kronos Quartet straddles both the spirit of chamber music and the rhythm of their collaborators.
Nevertheless, the purist in me asks, is “Rainbow” really chamber music — or classical music at all? Rubab and tabla are not your standard fare. But I am constantly reminded how even great composers in the past incorporated humble everyday music into their compositions. Without noticing the blind beggars strumming their guitars, Bocchnerini would never have written that wonderful cello pizzicato in “Musica notturna della strade di Madrid.” Without his knowledge of Russian folk music, Stravinsky would have never included a bassoon solo in “Le sacre du printemps,” let alone begun his amazing piece so rooted in traditional folk culture.