Few things in life are certain, but it’s safe to say that the Kronos Quartet will never put out a bad album. It’s equally likely that you’d never hear about it one way or the other, though, because you, poor, patronized reader/consumer, aren’t supposed to care about contemporary string quartets. Never mind that Kronos has released more than 30 full-lengths since violinist and artistic director David Harrington formed the ensemble in 1974, that it’s commissioned more than 450 new pieces, that its massive repertoire includes works by Ornette Coleman, John Zorn, Thelonious Monk, Jimi Hendrix, and scores of other geniuses well outside the purview of contemporary classical music. Whether they’re interpreting Béla Bartók or Cafe Tacuba, Harrington and his colleagues — violinist John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Jennifer Culp — make extraordinary music that’s unfairly tagged as “difficult.” Call it “challenging” or “inaccessible” or “highbrow” or whatever bogus euphemism you use for music that can’t be hummed in the shower, but the fact remains: It does not have a good beat, and, unless you’re some kind of superfancy Martha Graham type, you can’t dance to it. The members of Kronos might be the world’s most famous disciples of the difficult — they’ve won Grammy awards, for crying out loud! — but they’ll never make the cover of Spin.
Mugam Sayagi, Kronos’s first album since 2002’s Nuevo, consists of four pieces by the Azerbaijani pianist/composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, three of which were commissioned by the quartet. Ali-Zadeh, who was born in Baku in 1947, synthesizes myriad, often disparate influences in her work, an approach that’s perfectly compatible with Kronos’s genre-blurring sensibilities. Her music combines the traditional folk melodies of her native country with the 12-tone technique of Arnold Schoenberg and the cerebral lyricism of Alban Berg and Gustav Mahler. At once Western and Eastern, modern and ancient, ethnic and universal, Ali-Zadeh’s compositions defy the conventional wisdom that experimental music is for theory freaks and eggheads.
A musical form native to Azerbaijan, mugam consists of various scales meant to convey specific emotions; the album’s title means “in the style of mugam.” Rather like an Indian raga, the mugam is monophonic, a hypnotic drone that gradually ascends to a euphoric climax. Adapted for strings and, on two pieces, piano, these mugams are more harmonically complex than their traditional counterparts, layering polyphonic overtones and melodies that veer from harmonious to dissonant. The title track, for example, deconstructs a melancholy folk song, enlisting a synthesizer and a tambura to provide the requisite drone. A clanging gong and sawing strings create an ominously martial mood, which comes as no surprise: Ali-Zadeh wrote the quartet in 1993, when Azerbaijan was at war with Armenia.
“Oasis,” the CD’s opening cut, begins almost inaudibly, with the sound of dripping water and the faintest pizzicati. An astringent violin pierces the miragelike shimmer, bobbing and weaving as whispering male voices give way to slashing chords and deep, foreboding cello. “Apsheron Quintet” interpolates long, shuddering waves of dissonance with lush, almost Romantic-sounding piano and violin figures. In its dreamlike second movement, the musicians conjure a nocturnal landscape in which the violins whine like monstrous mosquitoes and the piano flutters like a trapped moth. Kronos lets Ali-Zadeh handle “Music for Piano” all by her lonesome, but you might not realize at first that it’s a solo effort. By draping a necklace over the strings of the middle register, she jerry-rigs the instrument into a surprisingly effective approximation of the traditional tar; the lyrical passages twitter delicately above the roiling lower keys and the buzzy, clattery center, creating a triolike effect that’s both mysterious and familiar, like hearing Debussy in the desert.