Caravan headed nowhere

If there’s a group whose discography consists entirely of concept albums, it would be the Kronos Quartet.

Ever since the quartet’s debut recording for Nonesuch in 1985, Kronos has released at least one album a year, each with a different theme. Some yield fascinating results (Early Music, Black Angels), others are just plain questionable (Pieces of Africa, Short Stories.)

With Caravan, the Kronos becomes gypsy musicians. The diminished scales and bizarre harmonies of gypsy music are only a few aesthetic steps away from the usual dissonance of Kronos’ repetoire.

But a jack of all trades is a master of none.

When Kronos explored similar harmonies on Night Prayers, the ensemble produced a work of breathtaking emotional breadth. Caravan features some rather spirited performances, but exactly what it’s meant to contribute isn’t altogether clear.

Like Pieces of Africa before it, Caravan is a nice attempt by a classical ensemble to bridge the western art tradition with a global community. But it’s an attempt that finds the group grasping at a tradition it has only a vague comprehension.

Nothing makes such a stretch so evident as the arrangement of “Misirlou Twist,” the Dick Dale surf twang hit that found new life through Quinten Tarrantino’s Pulp Fiction. On this track, the Kronos does something it’s rarely done and perhaps has yet to master — playing with a drummer.

Kronos, however, must be given commendation for continuing its relentless pursuit in creating a kind of global art. By forcing the western art music tradition to explore times and timbres and tradition the establishment refuses to acknowledge, it insures that classical music has a direction — even if it’s a scattered one.