The cover of The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind, a new CD from the Kronos Quartet, shows a "marriage charm" dating from the 18th century, arranging Hebrew letters from the Song of Songs into a pattern of elegant, almost musical gracefulness.
The cover of Ghost Opera, another new CD from Kronos, shows a cylindrical vessel from the 4th century BC, decorated with rhinoceros figures and offset with a swath of flowing Chinese calligraphy.
Both covers are strikingly beautiful, and so are the discs inside the packages - one decorated with a "wheel of letters" from 16th-century Poland, the other with a densely configured Chinese compass.
What all these artworks illustrate is Kronos's vital commitment to a project nobody else has pursued in quite the same way: making the production and performance of modern music a truly international, historical, multicultural, and interdisciplinary effort.
Energy, enthusiasm, entertainment
Such a project might have acquired pretentious overtones if a less engaging group had undertaken it. But from its beginnings, Kronos has always put energy, enthusiasm, and sheer entertainment value at the head of its agenda. Its new discs, both on Nonesuch, remind listeners again why it stands near the forefront of the contemporary chamber-music scene. As wildly different as they are in origin and tone, both recordings find Kronos at the peak of its power to move an audience with music we might never have appreciated if this adventurous group weren't on the lookout for new material.
Not that Kronos dredged up either piece from some almost-forgotten past. Osvaldo Golijov, who composed "The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind," grew up in Argentina during the '60s and '70s before moving to Jerusalem and then Massachusetts, where he lives now.
The inspiration for this work was a rabbi who declared 800 years ago that everything in the universe stems from the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Taking this notion in imaginative directions, Golijov composed music that reminded him not only of Hebrew but also Aramaic and Yiddish, other languages that have played key roles in Jewish history.
He also aimed at a variety of musical textures - from a "celestial accordion" to a klezmer band and a shepherd's magic flute - that the gifted members of Kronos evoke with skill and feeling, aided by David Krakauer's woodwind playing. The last movement calls up Golijov's childhood memories of his grandfather, always praying and fixing things ("his pockets full of screws") under the conviction that God assigned the Jewish people to be forever repairing a world that's forever breaking down. That combination of energy, hope, and faith gives zesty life to this absorbing piece.
Tan Dun, the composer of "Ghost Opera," grew up in rural China, planted rice during the Cultural Revolution, then played violin for a provincial Peking Opera company before starting musical studies in earnest and migrating to the United States about 10 years ago. Originally written for an art installation with visual and written elements, "Ghost Opera" plugs into a tradition that may be as ancient as the roots of Golijov's piece, conjuring up age-old dialogues between past and future, spirit and nature.
Not just violins, viola, and cello
This is a challenging work even by Kronos's standards, calling on the quartet to play instruments like one-stringed lute, bowed gong, water bowl, and stones along with their usual violins, viola, and cello. They rise to the occasion splendidly, perhaps helped by Western ingredients - bits of Bach and Shakespeare - that serve as lodestones for occidental ears.
Running through the recordings is a sense that Kronos values not only unusual music from far-flung traditions, but also artistic expressions with a spiritual dimension. Golijov's piece is anchored in the concepts of faith and redemption, while Tan's blends sophisticated techniques with folk traditions that recall how in Chinese culture, "celebration of the remote was grounded in everyday life," as he writes in his liner notes.
Kronos deserves high praise for taking our hearts and souls as well as our ears and minds on inspiring journeys in these remarkable new discs.