Album of the Week, March 18, 2023
Coming from the austerity of Black Angels, you might be forgiven for thinking of the Kronos Quartet as a Very Serious Ensemble™. So the opening track on Pieces of Africa, the driving “Mai Nozipo,” might come as a shock. There’s not much austerity here. Instead, there are Ngoma drums and shakers (hosho) from Zimbabwe, played by the composer Dumisani Maraire, and a melody, in a major key, that seems as much driven by the rhythm as floating above it. But Pieces of Africa wasn’t a departure for Kronos; it was the logical outcome of their practice of commissioning new works for string quartet—and the growing accessibility of “world music” as a viable market segment.
All of Kronos’s recordings on the Nonesuch label, where they rubbed shoulders with late 20th century giants like Steve Reich, championed new music and new composers. This was partly born from ideological bent and partly from necessity, given a gap in the market between the existing repertoire for string quartet and Kronos’ aspirations. On their second album for Nonesuch, titled White Man Sleeps, the title work was a commission by South African/Swiss composer Kevin Volans, who sought to reconcile the music of Black South Africa with European 20th century compositional forms. Only the first and fifth movements of the quartet appeared on the album, however. But in the year following Black Angels the quartet released a series of “CD singles” of individual compositions, including Volans’ String Quartet No. 2 “Hunting/Gathering.” One supposes the renewed collaboration may have spurred the idea of recording the entirety of “White Man Sleeps,” which found its way onto the album.
Kronos founder David Harrington has also commented that the piece had roots in his tenth grade music class, when he heard recordings of music from Ghana that touched him and inspired the thought that “I really want my violin to have that kind of a sound someday.” He built relationships with other African composers over the years, resulting in the works on the album.
Indeed, the Volans quartet is something of an outlier on the album. Most of the works here are more like “Mai Nozipo”: melodic, joyous, rhythmic, and written for quartet augmented with other sounds including percussion, African string instruments, and voice. The second work is in a minor mode but no less buoyant for that, and features the first vocals, by the Moroccan composer Hassan Hakmoun and his party.
The third, “Tilliboyo,” is a work that I have some personal history with. Written for kora and string quartet by Gambian composer Foday Musa Suso, it’s a meditative but quietly bright work that burbles along on the strength of the interaction between the plucked lower strings and kora and the bowed first violin melody. I have, at various times, put it on mix tapes and used it as radio intro music for a radio commercial on WTJU asking community-area writers to send in their poetry and prose to the literary magazine I was trying to get off the ground, Rag & Bone. The fourth track, Ugandan composer Justinian Tamusuza’s “Ekitundu Ekisooka,” continues in a similar optimistic vein, but with a stronger rhythmic drive.
“Escalay (Waterwheel),” by the late Nubian Egyptian composer Hamza El Din, is a horse of a different color. Beginning with a slow introduction on the lute, first solo then accompanied by pizzicato strings, one hears the water start to drip slowly into the raceway of the mill, before the tempo picks up and a driving theme enters in the cello. The violin plays a meditative exploration of the theme above the other strings as the piece stretches into a long coda (this is the longest single track on the record, at over twelve minutes). The effect is trance-inducing and almost minimalist. It’s another work that found its way onto mix tapes, despite its length, as is the following song, Obo Addy’s “Wawshishijay (Our Beginning)” (which featured on my 1992 mix “Sing into my mouth”). “Wawshishijay” includes polyrhythms on various percussion instruments played by the composer, and a sung chorus in the second “verse.”
“White Man Sleeps” follows (on the CD track list, which I believe to be the original sequence), and what is immediately apparent in the first movement is Volans’ affinity for the minimalist composers. If you’re not prepared for the high repetition of the theme in the violins at the end, it might drive you to distraction. But the second and fourth movements have more traditional melodies and are almost surprisingly sweet after the austerity of the first movement. The third and fifth movements return to the more minimal statements, here played in the lowest strings. At the time, I found it the least compelling music on the album, but now the second movement in particular strikes me as standing alongside some of the strongest melodic statements for string quartet that Kronos ever made.
The final track (in the CD sequence; on the LP it closes out side three) is the hymn-like singalong “Kutambarara (Spreading),” again by Maraire. This one is truly the summation: polyrhythms in the percussion and mbira, lead vocals by the composer, a full on African choir. What it doesn’t have is much of a soloistic presence from the Kronos Quartet, who are here strictly to provide the chords and carry a constant rhythmic pulse. They seem pretty happy to be along for the ride, though, and inevitably this was another track that my 20-year-old self splashed onto mix tapes.
Granted that I was always a little weird about putting whatever genre I wanted onto a mix tape, but that fact that I’ve used that phrase about multiple tracks on a string quartet album suggests there is definitely something unusual about this one. The listening public thought so too: it became the first album to top the Billboard charts for both classical and world music recordings. I haven’t bought much Kronos on vinyl; they were already firmly into the CD age at their beginning. But the fact that this album was reissued a few years ago speaks to its appeal. It’s a jubilant record from start to finish and one well worth spending time with.
You can listen to the album here: