San Francisco's Kronos Quartet is globally renowned for championing the works of contemporary classical composers. Though Terry Riley's profile isn't as high as that of colleagues Philip Glass and Steve Reich, he is one of the key 1960s innovators of minimalism, that classical genre based upon variations on repetition. (In the early Sixties, he was a member of La Monte Young's Theater of Eternal Music, which also included Tony Conrad and future Velvet Undergrounder John Cale.)
To commemorate the composer's 70th birthday, Kronos commissioned Riley to write the six-part suite The Cusp of Magic for themselves and pipa player Wu Man. (The pipa is a Chinese stringed instrument that sounds like a higher-pitched banjo.) Interweaving aspects of Chinese folk music, Native American chants, European classical tradition, minimalism, and sounds of nature, Cusp is a wide-ranging work, alternately contemplative and celebratory, but always rhythmic. "Part IV: Royal Wedding" and "Part VI: Prayer Circle" contrast cyclic, regal baroque motifs with crackling exclamations from the pipa, evoking medieval and Appalachian themes. Without being new-age-drippy, The Cusp of Magic represents a glorious clash of cultures, focusing on commonalities rather than disparities. A true gem.
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