Morrow vs. Hajduch: Kronos Quartet, Kimmo Pohjonen & Samuli Kosminen’s Uniko

Scott Morrow is ALARM’s music editor. Patrick Hajduch is a very important lawyer. Each week they debate the merits of a different album.

Kronos Quartet, Kimmo Pohjonen & Samuli Kosminen: UnikoKronos Quartet, Kimmo Pohjonen & Samuli Kosminen: Uniko (Ondine, 2/1/11)

Morrow: In 2004, the unparalleled Kronos Quartet premiered a new commission of material written by Finnish accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen and sampler / electronic percussionist Samuli Kosminen.  Though it only was performed on a handful of occasions, it proved so resonant that the six performers finally recorded the seven-movement suite, which was released last month by independent classical label Ondine.

Kronos has always attained high marks for its diversity of projects.  Uniko, first and foremost, remains a contemporary chamber piece, but it’s most set apart by the electrified and effected sounds of Pohjonen’s accordion and the soft laptop beats of Kosminen.

Pohjonen also adds wordless vocals that at times resemble throat singing.  It’s another interesting element, but the movements’ structures are the real key to Uniko‘s success — whether building into a stirring Balkan folk melody in “I. Utu” or stacking pizzicato and staccato passages over buzzing percussive samples in “III. Sarma.”

Hajduch: The addition of the electronics, and the ebb and flow of timbres that Kosminen brings to this suite, really enliven the otherwise staid palette of Kronos Quartet.  The music still tacks mostly to 20th Century minimalism, but the abrupt shifts and percussive texture add a lot of personality.

“III. Sarma” opens with a noisy lurch akin to a Mouse on Mars song, emerges from that swamp into a steadily building swirl of strings, and succumbs again to static.  It’s dramatic and dynamic but not gimmicky; it’s a testament to the sympathy of the players that they balance all of their input without it seeming unnatural or forced.

Morrow: Agreed.  And really, if you’re not paying attention, it might not be until the middle of the fourth movement that the material feels overtly electronic.  It’s still understated and complementary — there’s no raging dance beat or glitchy manipulation — but it’s a nice texture underneath the strings that again build to a dramatic crescendo.  There’s also a swell of metallic sounds and overdubbed gibberish in “V. Kamala,” helping to maintain that individual feel from track to track.

Overall, Uniko still isn’t Kronos most-adventurous release, but it’s great that the group finally put it to tape.  Hopefully, those JG Thirlwell commissions won’t be far behind…

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