The story of American music has largely been that of vernacular traditions – their unlikely origins, evolution, and (ultimate) transcendence. When minimalist composers like Terry Riley started synthesizing Eastern idioms into classical arrangements, art music joined the conversation. Fellow minimalists Phillip Glass and John Adams have made the natural transition to scoring films, but Riley (as well as Steve Reich) has continued to toil in the avant-garde. The Cusp of Magic (Nonesuch) is only the latest of Riley’s collaborations with renegade string quartet Kronos Quartet, known as well for their artful interpretations of vernacular music and ambitious conceptual arrangements. Together with Chinese pipa player Wu-Man and a suitcase full of kitschy toys, Cusp emerges from a wholly contemporary realm somewhere between the classical, Chinese, Appalachian and DIY genres.
A far cry from the multi-track organ ragas for which Riley established himself in the ’60s (oftentimes performing all-night psychedelic “be-ins”), Cusp finds the septuagenarian absent from the album’s performance but as patient, delicate and abstract as ever in its composition. Utilizing Kronos’ instrumentation more for its atmospheric and textural capacity, simple percussion and noise elements deriving from a slew of circuit-bent toys become just as important as the string players’ virtuosity. The album’s strongest tracks (“Buddha’s Bedroom,” for example) feature Wu-Man’s voice and outstanding work on the pipa, an instrument similar to a lute that can sounds at turns like a pizzicato violin or banjo. Indeed, there is an almost Appalachian element that arises at times from the album’s airy, simple melodies.
Engrossing in a manner that requires the listener’s active engagement, The Cusp of Magic delivers subtlety and tenderness in exchange for open ears and hearts. Far from the gravity and self-importance of classical/art-music, the album (as exemplified by “The Nursery”) deals in a light playfulness that won’t fail to rub off.
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