New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: Van-Anh Vanessa Vo

An Astonishingly Eclectic, Global Album and an Auspicious Laurie Anderson Collaboration at BAM from the Kronos Quartet

The original indie classical ensemble, the Kronos Quartet – violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Sunny Yang – are teaming up with Laurie Anderson for what promises to be one of the year’s best, and potentially one of the decade’s most auspicious runs at BAM next week. They’lll be performing their collaboration, Landfall, which explores Anderson’s experiences during Hurricane Sandy here in New York a couple of years ago. The concerts run from Sept 23 to Sept 27 at 7:30 PM. $20 balcony seats are still available as of today. You’ve been given the heads-up – this could be major.

The Kronos Quartet’s latest album, A Thousand Thoughts – streaming at Spotify – is also pretty major. It’s basically a survey of string music from around the globe, accent on intense and substantial. It’s also an unusually successful take on a format that’s often overrated and underwhelming: pairing a famous group with a bunch of equally famous special guests. But the Quartet has always been a mutable unit, as these fifteen tracks – recorded across the years, with every Kronos Quartet lineup – prove over and over again. They literally can play anything, yet always manage to put their own individualistic, out-of-the-box stamp on it. Celtic traditional music reinvented as ambient soundscape? Check. The Blind Willie Johnson delta blues tune Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground remade as Vietnamese art-song, with eerily quavering dan bao from Van-Anh Vanessa Vo? Doublecheck.

Maybe what’s most enjoyable here is that virtually all of these performance are acoustic. To be completely fair, when the Kronos Quartet have employed electronics, those effects aren’t usually gratuitous: the group tends to use them for extra atmospheric bulk and heft when a piece calls for it. But these performances are intimate, with an immediacy and vivid chemistry among the ensemble and with the guests. The Quartet teams up with Syrian star Omar Souleyman for a Bollywood-ish jam with biting accents and swirling microtones over a steady, hypnotic beat. Vo returns to join her countryman Kim Sinh for another alternately spiky and swooping Vietnamese number. A suspensefully crescendoing, rather epic Ethiopian theme by Ethiopiques sax legend Gétatchèw Mèkurya is one of the album’s highlights.

A far more stark, haunting highlight is Sim Sholom, by klezmer legend Alter Yechiel Karniol. A long, dynamically rich, slowly unwinding take of a Turkish classical theme by early 20th century composer Tanburi Cemil Bey might be the best track of them all. Or it could be the spare, haunting Greek gangster blues tune Smyrneiko Minore. Or for that matter, a rare. achingly beautiful excerpt from Astor Piazzolla’s Five Tango Sensations featuring the great bandoneonist/composer himself.

There’s also a shapeshiftingly lush Terry Riley piece featuring the vocals of Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares; a Homayun Sakhi Afghani rubab tune that straddles the line between Middle Eastern and Indian music; a scampering collaboration with Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man on a rousing traditional song; and a little gentle Bollywood and Irish folk at the end. It’s an apt summation of this group’s hall of fame career, one that simply refuses to stop.

Delicate, Otherworldly Exotica from Vietnamese Folk Innovator Van-Anh Vanessa Vo

It took two and a half years, but an album finally came over the transom here that’s so strange and otherworldly and surrealistically captivating that it qualifies as exotic. Van-Anh Vanessa Vo‘s new release Three Mountain Pass mixes and sometimes mashes up traditional Vietnamese sounds along with an opera piece featuring the Kronos Quartet, plus a reinvention of an iconic, macabre classic. Her main instruments are the dan tranh – which has the ringing, sitar-like, bent-note resonance of the Indian sarangi, but with fewer overtones – and the dan bau, which can swoop and dive like an acoustic version of a theremin, or carry long resonant lines like a violin.

She opens the album with a solo dan tranh diptych, slowly unfolding in the Asian pentatonic scale and then working its way into an insistent raga-like interlude. Erik Satie’s creepily immortal Gnossienne No. 3 gets an expansive interpretation, the lingeringly eerie melody grounded by ghostly chords played on a bass dan tranh. On the minimalistic title track, Vo sings her own arrangement of  an 18th century Vietnamese poem with a brittle, impassioned expressiveness over hypnotic hang (the Swiss steel drum) and percussion. Vo joins with the Kronos Quartet on Green River Delta, a folk-inspired opera piece written by Luu Thuy Truong, rising to a dancing pastoral sway that blends hypnotically with the spiky dan tranh melody underneath.

She concludes the album with a trio of originals. Mourning, an elegy for those maimed and killed during the Vietnam War, mixes dizzyingly sepulchral layers of echoing, sirening, multitracked dan bau. The Legend illustrates a Vietnamese creation myth, its spacious atmospherics interchanging with an intricate web of dan tranh, percussion and keyboards. Vo plays t’rung, the South Vietnamese bamboo xylophone, accompanied by boomy Japanese taiko drums on the final cut, Go Hunting, a mysterious but lively jungle theme. All of this has a strangely soothing effect: it isn’t likely that there’s been another album that remotely resembles this one released (in this case, by Innova) in the US this year.