Kronos Quartet and Wu Man - "The Nursery" (Terry Riley: The Cusp Of Magic)
The Cusp of Magic was commissioned from Terry Riley by Kronos Quartet to celebrate the composer’s 70th birthday in 2004. Riley rose to the occasion with an ambitious, multi-faceted work that celebrates the dreamlike yet vivid power and ritual – the magic, you might say – of a midsummer’s night. Drawing from Native American peyote ritual, Chinese traditional music, Russian folk balladry, and much, much more, Riley (with creative input and collaboration from Kronos and pipa virtuoso/ vocalist Wu Man) has made a coherent and enthralling work from a wide palette of diverse ideas and influences that might well have defeated a lesser composer.
It’s a work that succeeds best as a whole, and any description of its unfolding might best follow that unfolding in an orderly way. The first section, “The Cusp of Magic,” is built upon a trance-inducing, rhythmically shifting pulse of drum and rattle. Inspired by peyote ritual, it’s an organic, breath-like mensuration that immediately pulls the listener into its vortex. Engaged with this pulse are Riley’s familiar synthesizer arpeggios and some luminous chordal clouds from the string quartet. Before long, though, those strings ultimately engage with the quicksilver melodies of Wu Man’s plucked lute. Intensity builds, then finds an ecstatic release in a distorted solo flight from John Sherba’s violin. And this is only the first movement.
The inner movements that follow explore, in some surprising ways, possible relationships between human voice and plucked or bowed strings. “Buddha’s Bedroom” and “The Nursery” present heart-rending lullabies, first sung intimately by Wu Man, and then by Riley, with low, elegiac strings shadowing his distant, eerily-processed voice. “The Nursery” perhaps surprises most of all, unfolding within a dreamlike space suffused with the strange and chaotic sounds of children’s toys: frog croaks, music boxes, electronic bleeps and beats, a laugh box. All this creates a fantasy-rich ghost world of night visions that rivals those of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire or Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. Then comes a movement – ”The Royal Wedding” – that, while its structure is derived from North Indian music, also balances European classical poise and romantic-era melodic expression to explore a sense of fantasy in a way strangely reminiscent of some Schumann chamber works. More night music follows – this time even darker and creepier despite an underlying lyricism via Russian folksong – in the penultimate movement. The final section, entitled “Prayer Circle,” returns to the trancelike Peyote ritual pulse, now without drum and rattle, as the quartet and Wu Man’s ever-inventive pipa engage and interact in ways that combine earthy energy and celestial delight with an underlying sense of gravity and dignity.
What holds all this together, of course, is Terry Riley’s vision and integrity, his willingness and commitment to allow all these ideas and voices their full expression. And one should not underestimate the way Kronos plays to Riley’s strengths – the vigorous colloquy of bold imagination, musical line and voice, the solid and purely present physicality that this music, although often metaphysical in mood and theme, ultimately asks for.