New again

Being on the cutting edge is Kronos Quartet’s bread and butter, but after 30 years, even the most pioneering of spirits can seem quaint.

When Kronos released Caravan two years ago, the quartet was essentially upstaged by its Eastern European guest musicians, revealing more obviously than before the Kronos don’t always have the flexibility to perform outside the Western art music spectrum.

For Nuevo, a collection of music by Mexican composers and performers from divergent disciplines, Kronos enlisted noted rock en Español musician Gustavo Santalaolla to co-produce with long-time collaborator Judith Sherman.

No slag on Sherman, but Santalaolla was just what Kronos needed to rejuvenate its sound. Santalaolla has a reputation for coaxing emotionally-charged performances out of such artists as Juanes, Café Tacuba and Molotov. And on Nuevo, the quartet reknowned for its “serious” work sound like they’re actually having fun.

Right from the start of Severiano Briseno’s “El Sinaloense”, the Kronos delivers a frantically joyous performance filtered through distortion. David Harrington and company transform themselves from a string quartet to a four-person street accordion.

The sonic explorations don’t just end at effects processors. On Alberto Dominguez’s “Perfidy”, the quartet overdubbed itself multiple times to recreate the lushness of the 101 Strings. Don’t think the Kronos is getting soft — they’re backing Carlos Garcia playing on a musical leaf.

Yes — a one-armed guy who uses a leaf from an ivy tree to create music.

Kronos definitely keeps up with singers Alejandro Flores and Efren Vargas on the traditional and rhythmically complex huapango song “El Lloar”.

Even a cover of ¡Esquivel!’s “Mini Skirt” feels fun. The quartet hasn’t been so on track with its humourous side since including Raymond Scott’s “Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals” in its repertoire.

Kronos does remind listeners it is indeed a classical ensembles, as evidenced by its remarkable reading of Silvestre Revueltas’ dramatic “Sensemaya” and Osvaldo Golijov’s introspective “K’in Sventa Ch’ul Me’tik Kwadulupe”.

Toward the end of the album, Kronos takes makes its most daring creative leaps.

With “Chavosuite”, an arrangment of a television comedy score, Kronos sound sufficiently at ease with itself to deliver some really silly music. They put their instruments through loads of effects on their interpretation of Chalino Sanchez’s narco-corridos “Nacho Verduzco”.

Dig it — Kronos covers a song about drug smugglers.

The album’s apex is the epic “12/12”, composed by and performed with Café Tacuba. A sprawling, sonically-challenging work, “12/12” is the most experimental track on Nuevo, the kind of piece that would have been comfortable on previous Kronos albums as Howl U.S.A. or Short Stories.

It’s also pretty neat to know the most dissonant and jarring work on Nuevo was written by a rock band.

Nuevo is Kronos’ most extreme album to date. Santalaolla really uses the studio to stretch Kronos’ sound, and as a result, the quartet offers up some of its punchiest string playing ever. They really do sound new again.