The Kronos Quartet continues to broaden the repertoire for string quartet beyond the Western European tradition with Floodplain, an album of music all written or arranged for the ensemble. This album moves the ensemble even further afield from the conventional quartet; the players frequently double on folk instruments, and in one of the pieces they don't use their own instruments at all, but newly invented ones, created especially for this album. The selection of music is broadly eclectic and includes arrangements of a popular Arab song from 1940 and an ancient Christian hymn from Lebanon, a collaboration with a Palestinian electronic ensemble, and an original piece by a Serbian-American composer. The album has a number of guest artists, including the Azerbaijani Alim Qasimov Ensemble, Terry Riley playing tambura and Wu Man playing electric sitar.
The title, Floodplain, refers to the cultures situated around the kinds of river environments where civilization began, but which in recent history have become either marginalized into poverty or have become the loci of debilitating political turmoil, including the present day Iran, Iraq, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Israel, and North India. Not surprisingly, the pieces are almost universally soulful, and often wrenchingly poignant. The CD's closing and largest piece, the 20-minute ...hold me, neighbor, in this storm..., for quartet, tape, and Serbian folk instruments, commissioned from Aleksandra Vrebalov, has an astonishingly gripping evocative power. This is not a disc for casual listening because its intensity and focus on personal and cultural suffering demand full attention. The Kronos members, as is typical, play with focused integrity, throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the music so there is never (thanks also to the skill of the arrangers) a sense of Western musicians gratuitously appropriating cultures not their own. The result is instead a sense that the group has exposed the aural emotional lives of peoples known to most Westerners only abstractly in the news and has made their suffering starkly palpable. That, and the fact that the quality of the music and of the performances is beyond reproach, make this an album that should be of interest to anyone affected by the geo-political circumstances of the early twenty first century; in other words, anyone. Nonesuch's sound is immediate, clean, and atmospheric.