I've followed Kronos Quartet for ages now, delighting in some of their work and recoiling at other pieces. Technically, they're always brilliant, and they've certainly never shied away from adventurous and/or challenging pieces. In terms of sheer quantity, their work hovers close to the top in my somewhat overflowing music collection.
Like a lot of artists that I have a lot of work by, I always wonder whether I actually even need to hear another of their releases when they put something else out. I wonder whether I'll actually hear anything new or not and whether it will actually be a valued part of my collection, but that's definitely the case with Terry Riley: The Cusp Of Magic. Following up on the somewhat lackluster (at least, in my opinion) recent collaboration with Henryk Gorecki in last years String Quartet #3: Songs Are Sung is this spirited collaboration with Wu Man on this new composition by Terry Riley.
Honestly, this may very well be some of the more playful and flat-out charming music that the quartet has ever done. As mentioned above, they're joined by Wu Man (who plays the pipa, an instrument that's sort of like a large lute) and stretch far outside their normal sounds, with the inclusion of percussion, childrens toys, synths, and even vocals. That's not to say that they haven't done those sorts of things in the past, but in combination those elements all come together on this release for something that's also fairly straightforward in a lot of places.
Split into six sections, The Cusp Of Magicopens with two long pieces that introduce the mystical themes of the composition. On the opening album-titled section, the quartet move from quiet dissonance blended with synths and kick drum into a more lyrical mid-section and finally almost explosive ending that takes one from tranquil to tense in just over ten minutes. After the more straightforward "Buddha's Bedroom," it gets even better, as "The Nursery" introduces some odd noises from toys (including something that sounds like a barnyard effects and other circuit-bent oddities) as the quartet circles in quiet refrains.
The latter portion of the piece largely continues with these more playful, strange combinations, and its both hypnotic and even spooky in places. "Emily And Alice" takes some childlike vocals and bends them around subdued but firm chords as more random toys blurt out their noises, while the closer of "Prayer Circle" finds more urgent playing from the quartet mixing with rapid, almost stuttering phrases from Wu Man. If you haven't followed the Kronos Quartet for awhile, or have yet to hear their work, The Cusp Of Magic is definitely worth seeking out. It also proves that at just over 70 years of age, Terry Riley still has a mind for great compositions.