For Terry Riley's 70th birthday, the Kronos Quartet commissioned him to write a piece for them, and he decided to include pipa player Wu Man (who also sings), as well as drum, rattle, various toys, and synthesizer. It's the most eclectic piece Riley has written for Kronos; he outdoes himself in the number of world music traditions, Western styles, and eccentric instruments he incorporates into The Cusp of Magic, whose title refers to the summer solstice. Each of its six movements has a program associated with it, and the outer movements are evocations of sacred Native American peyote rituals. The hallucinogenic, kaleidoscopically overlapping, and evolving soundscapes spill out into all the movements, which are musically differentiated, but which are all full of startling, serendipitous juxtapositions and sonic confrontations. In spite of its extreme eclecticism, each movement, as well as the piece as a whole, has an integrality and purposefulness that never seem random; the listener is clearly in the hands of a composer who's fully in control of the situation. Riley's harmonic language is largely tonal, and for the listener attuned to his aesthetic, the music is by turns powerful, evocative, spooky, and just plain lovely. It goes without saying that the Kronos Quartet and Wu Man throw themselves wholeheartedly into Riley's music, playing (and singing) with real authority and passion. Nonesuch's sound is clean and lively, with a great sense of presence.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Eddins
|The Cusp of Magic, for string quartet & pipa|