I recently got me a new hard drive and went on a downloading rampage; mostly modern classical, but other stuff, as well. I'll try to go through some of it and perhaps will be posting my listening notes as I go along; possibly with the links stolen from where I got the music.
This one was an easy choice for a start - I could have written a review without even listening. What Kronos are trying to do here is to give a panorama view of the modern string quartet repertoire, and doing so admirably. They pick out samples from all the extremes of the modern string quartet tradition: the last of the American Classicists (Barber's 'Adagio') is balanced by the 'pop' people dabbling in strings (John Lurie's 'Bella by Barlight,' Piazolla); dodecaphonic Webern sits opposite melodic Salinen; Zorn's cold and clinical genre manipulation is counteracted by the earnest and direct 'Fratres' by Arvo Pärt. This album might be a good starter for a hipster trying to cover all his classical bases in one strike.
As an interesting aside, Kronos spent the rest of their career breaking out of this modern string quartet canon by collaborating with anybody and everybody, from the Tiger Lillies to Asha Bhosle.
Now, as far as specific comments after actually listening to this, I got the following:
I don't like Zorn, never have, and probably never will - despite the fact that most of the modern musicians I love, respect, and admire collaborated with him at some point. His track here is yet another reminder why. He does not play music, he plays with music. His usual genre juggling is here on full display, and, as before, it does nothing for me. There is so much attention to the form that content gets completely lost (if there ever was any content behind the form).
Arvo Pärt, on the other hand, I really dig (I only wish he was a little louder and a little faster). Interestingly, composer's faith seems to have a positive correlation with the quality of music: e.g. Bach and Pärt. I guess the difference is that they are not writing for a specific audience and not trying to impress anyone - they are writing from their very core and are only accountable to their God (or to themselves).
Lurie's track is a bit predictable; it sounds like something he could have written for the Lounge Lizards and just happens to be performed by KQ, rather than an authentic string quartet piece. The title is a play on 'Stella by Starlight,' but I don't remember it well enough to tell if there are musical references to it in the piece.
Another interesting thing is how surprisingly similar are the Riley and Piazolla pieces. I had the album on shuffle; one followed the other and the transition was completely natural. From tango one would expect the energetics that comes from it being, ultimately, dance music; Riley's piece should serve the abrasive edge of the modern experimental music; yet, both reach outside their genre confines and meet in the middle - 'Four, for Tango' with transitional dissonance, scratching and sawing; 'Half-Wolf' with truly rock'n'roll energy, a pulse that goes through the piece.
Webern stuff I did not get, period. Schnittke I think I need a few more listens to say anything meaningful about.
Kronos Quartet - Winter Was Hard (1988)
The source, depositfiles
1. Winter was Hard, for chorus & orchestra, Op 20 (Sallinen) 1:40
2. Half-Wolf Dances Mad In Moonlight(Riley) 8:21
3. Fratres, for string quartet (Part) 9:23
4. Six Bagatelles for string quartet, Op. 9 (Webern) 3:57
5. Forbidden Fruit for voice, string quartet & turntables (Zorn) 10:20
6. Bella by Barlight, for string quartet (Lurie) 2:47
7. Four, for Tango, for string quartet (Piazzolla) 4:41
8. String Quartet No.3 (Schnittke) 19:06
9. Adagio for strings (Barber) 7:09
10. A Door Is Ajar (Traditional) 0:03