Del Sol String Quartet: Dark Queen Mantra
Sono Luminus

One can't help but admire Terry Riley. Recognized as one of minimalism's founding figures, the composer could have spent his career recycling riffs on 1964's groundbreaking In C, still his best-known work even if others such as A Rainbow in Curved Air and The Harp of New Albion are familiar too. But to his credit, Riley has never stopped developing his art and growing as a composer. To cite but two examples, Kronos Quartet's 1989 Salome Dances For Peace release and the 2015 ZOFO Plays Terry Riley set by pianists Eva-Maria Zimmermann and Keisuke Nakagoshi reveal how dramatically his style has evolved since In C. Pulsation and rhythm remain key components, but over time interlocking repetitive patterns have become less a primary focal point and in its place a more melodic and organic style has emerged that's no less hypnotic.

This wonderful new release by the Grammy-nominated Del Sol String Quartet (violinists Benjamin Kreith and Rick Shinozaki, violist Charlton Lee, and cellist Kathryn Bates) features two Riley works, The Wheel & Mythic Birds Waltz from 1983 and Dark Queen Mantra, written for the quartet and Riley's son, guitarist Gyan Riley, when the composer was eighty. Rounding out the release is Mas Lugares (su Madrigali di Monteverdi), a 2003 piece by double bassist Stefano Scodanibbio (1956-2012), who collaborated with the elder Riley on the 2005 Wergo album Diamond Fiddle Language.

Bringing Gyan aboard for the title work was a masterstroke, as the twenty-six-minute Dark Queen Mantra benefits magnificently from the addition of electric guitar. While the opening “Vizcaino” exudes high energy, the other two movements are often gentler and manifest the serene disposition of a late work by a composer. Named after a hotel in Algeciras where Riley first stayed on arrival in Spain, “Vizcaino” bolts from the gate with intricate guitar-and-strings interplay whose thrust immediately marks the material as Riley's handiwork. As engaging as that opener is, it's the central part, “Goya with Wings,” that is the loveliest. Inspired by Goya's paintings, the movement presents Riley at his most tender, and with his son voicing its melodies so gracefully, the material proves powerfully affecting. That tenderness carries over into “Dark Queen Mantra,” with this time the quartet members giving voice to Riley's wistful material and the guitar initially contributing textural accompaniment. Soon enough, however, the mood shifts from reflective to assertive when the piece grows agitated (Gyan even amping up the distortion) before ending on a delicate note. During the album-closing The Wheel & Mythic Birds Waltz, Riley's devilish side comes to the fore in passages one might deem playful and even impish. At sixteen minutes, the single-movement piece casts a wide net, with some episodes soothingly meditative and lyrical and others grinding and propulsive in the extreme.

Dedicated to Luciano Berio and characterized as a refraction of Monteverdi through the bassist/composer's lens, Scodanibbio's central five-part setting is perfectly serviceable but less memorable than Riley's pair. That said, there's no modicum of interest generated by Mas Lugares (su Madrigali di Monteverdi), from the spirited allegro of its opening movement to the regal stateliness of the second and fourth, and the beauty of the madrigal form also proves hard to resist. At the very least, the juxtaposition of Riley and Scodanibbio makes for a compelling study in comparison and contrast. How very pleasing it is, however, to report that of the three works presented it's Riley's 2015 creation that recommends the release most.

September 2017