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Riley: The Cusp Of Magic / Wu Man, Kronos Quartet

Release Date: 02/05/2008 
Label:  Nonesuch   Catalog #: 360508   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Terry Riley
Performer:  Wu Man
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kronos Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

RILEY The Cusp of Magic Wu Man (pipa, voc); Kronos Str Qrt NONESUCH 360508 (42:51)

I continue to marvel at the creative arc of Terry Riley. I know a fair amount about it now, because—full disclosure—I’m currently writing a book about his landmark piece In C , the Sacre of American minimalism. Riley (b. 1935) is one of the founding fathers of minimalism, but rather than thinking about less, as that word Read more implies, let’s talk about more. Riley had an unusually broad exposure in his early life to a wide range of stylistic sources—jazz, ragtime, world music, postwar modernism, electronic music, free improvisation, Fluxus experimentalism, and performance art. In addition, he is graced with a natural musicianship, great ear, and open temperament. These allowed him to absorb multifarious elements without feeling threatened. In C (1964) was the first great fruit of this synthesis; but since then he has (1) taken the incredibly brave course of eschewing composition for almost a decade in the 1970s to study North Indian raga singing; and (2) at the urging of David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet, resumed composing only after an extended period of doing mostly live performance—usually in some sort of structured improvisation at the keyboard with technological extensions. His work of the last couple of decades has been far more “classical” than before, in that it’s largely notated, but at the same time it’s unlike almost any classical music we might reference.

What makes it so indefinable is that it’s unclassifiable (that’s not as much of a tautology as it sounds—think about it). Riley has an instinct for the essences of different musical traditions, a sort of “global perfect pitch” that allows him to extract elements from them, and then recombine them in a manner that’s not cheap, but rather sweet and surprising. So, in the second movement of this piece (“Buddha’s Bedroom”)—scored for the Chinese lute (pipa) and string quartet (the latter also playing a range of percussion instruments and children’s toys, backed by yet another sonic backdrop designed via the computer)—a quirky Asian music segues into a jazzy break with a walking bass, which then melts into a poignant folk song that sounds authentically Chinese (alas, I am working from promotional materials provided by Nonesuch that give little detail about the music, so I’m winging some of this by ear as I write). The pipa-writing is always natural, imaginative, and never trying too hard to be authentic.

The Cusp of Magic was written for Wu Man and the Kronos. David Harrington writes that when he mentioned that the most “magical” experiences he’d had were at play with his granddaughter Emily, the composer came over to his house and recorded the sounds of many of her toys (nowadays with digital chips to make their sounds) into his computer, and took them away as source material for the upcoming piece. Not only do those concrete sounds shape specific musical ideas, but also the work’s overall tone mirrors them as well. Think a pan-global L’enfant et les sortilèges . It’s playful in its simple joy and gentle tone. Even when things get fast, there’s no angst here, just delight in the moment. This is music written with the fresh ear of a child and the wisdom of an elder. There are moments, such as the end of the third movement, “The Nursery,” with its wisps of harmonica, sliding natural string harmonics, and squeaks and chirps of the toys that suggest George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children , though without the melancholy. And the fifth, “Emily and Alice,” with its ghostly recorded Slavic song (my guess again) in the background, features this sonic dreamscape aspect most prominently.

The piece is in six movements, and perhaps my only complaint is that the last, “Prayer Circle,” is not quite as cathartic as I’d expected or hoped. But repeated listenings also suggest that may be my problem, not the music’s. Its gentle growth and restrained joy now seem to me a natural capstone to a work whose whole point is its modesty. An essential aspect of Riley’s music is that it doesn’t try too hard. That quality of acceptance is something that’s missing in an awful lot of art today, and oh, so welcome here.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

The Cusp of Magic by Terry Riley
Performer:  Wu Man (Pipa)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kronos Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: by 2005; USA 
Length: 10 Minutes 4 Secs. 
Notes: This work utilizes a pre-recorded tape. 

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