As the black-box density and sheer quality of their 1998 25 Years (Nonesuch) retrospective makes clear (10 CDs, no filler, no fat), the Kronos Quartet have built their very own musical world. The achievement has emboldened them to take an almost recklessly ambitious sweep through the old, pre-existing one. On their latest, Caravan (Nonesuch), this quartet of fairly buttoned-down, cerebral types has refashioned itself as a band of gypsies rolling through Portuguese fado, Hindi film music, Mexican art-rock, Romanian Rom music, Argentine tango, Turko-Iranian folk, Sufi ecstasy, and Armenian-influenced American surf guitar.
If Caravan were a Paul Simon album, it would be a tacky exercise in musical and commercial colonialism. But Caravan is, thank God, Kronos, which means it’s not just pastiche. The far-flung source materials are transmuted into Kronos’ rigorous and coherent language.
That is partly because all but four of the 12 tunes were arranged by Osvaldo Golijov, whose composition “The Dreams and Prayer of Isaac the Blind” was recorded by Kronos in 1995. Partly it’s the nature of Kronos itself. Blissfully unencumbered by conventional Western notions of musical structure or tension and release, the group has fashioned the string quartet, that invention of the 18th-century Austrian drawing room, into a kind of universal music-making machine.
So what exactly is on the menu here? The most delirious track on the album is “Turceasca,” in which violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Jennifer Culp (replacing long-timer Joan Jeanrenaud with no audible loss of Kronositude) enter the ring with a stomping crew of real-life Romanian gypsy fiddlers, Taraf de Haidouks, and live to tell. But Caravan ‘s first track is more typical of the album. On “Pannonia Boundless,” the young Yugoslav composer Aleksandra Vrebalov makes use of Balkan gypsy melodic motifs in a dark, twisty piece that leaves simple song structures far behind. Kronos completes this process of abstraction from folk roots, exquisitely balancing the rough textures and string-scrapings of country fiddling with classical-sounding ostinati.
By the middle of the album, Kronos seems to have entered its own private Romania, defined not by geography but by the pull of sex and death. “La Muerte Chiquita” (“The Little Death”), written by Enrique Rangel, the bassist of the Mexican rock group Café Tacuba, here comes across as a masterful piece of program music, a shuddering and ultimately mournful paean to the orgasmic void. Closer to home is a shattering piece by Terry Riley, “Cortejo Funebre en el Monte Diablo,” a sort of funeral march for Mr. Harrington’s teenage son.
After this, anything might come up short, but Kronos compounds the problem by pushing the idea of Pannonia too far east. On “Gallop of a Thousand Horses,” influenced by Turkoman folk melodies, the Quartet hits a jarring note of exoticism that would do a lesser band proud.