Kronos Quartet and Wu Man

Terry Riley: The Cusp of Magic (Nonesuch)

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 '60s he was a member of La Monte Young's Theater of Eternal Music, which also included Tony Conrad and future Velvet Underground-er John Cale.) While the members of Kronos don't "specialize" in minimalism, they've enjoyed a close relationship with Riley.

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, the European classical tradition, minimalism, and the sounds of nature, Cusp is a wide-ranging work, alternately contemplative and celebratory, 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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