KRONOS QUARTET WITH ASHA BHOSLE You've Stolen My Heart: Songs From R.D. Burman's Bollywood (Nonesuch/Warner) Rating: NNNNN Rating: NNNNN
It's not the least bit unusual for San Francisco's Kronos Quartet to collaborate with great but little-known artists and perform undiscovered works by obscure composers. However, their exciting exploration of the wild and wonderful Bollywood film music of R. D. Burman on the fabulous You've Stolen My Heart is unlike anything else the adventurous string ensemble has ever attempted. That they're collaborating with a singer as a lead vocalist is a surprise in itself. While revered Bollywood playback singer Asha Bhosle may not be a household name in North America, she's actually the most recorded vocalist in history. The late, great Burman's long-time partner, Bhosle originally sang most of the film songs Kronos have chosen to reinterpret for the album, and she's perfectly suited for the project.
"It's amazing that someone as well known in South Asia as, say, Elvis Presley is here," says Kronos artistic director and violinist David Harrington, "could remain almost completely unknown in North America. So here we have the opportunity to introduce our culture to Elvis.
"But even though she's this amazing figure, the most recorded person ever, you wouldn't know it from working with her. Asha is a total delight. Not only is she very humble and giving with her knowledge of Burman as a man and his music, but she was absolutely meticulous in the studio. It wasn't like she blew in, did one take of each song and split. She kept working until she was happy with her performance and everyone else involved was pleased with the results."
The fabulous You've Stolen My Heart album they created - complete with whirring synthesizers and wheezing Farfisa, jarring rhythmic shifts, driven by pounding percussion and accented by various cymbals and gongs - doesn't sound anything like any chamber quartet album you've ever heard.
Even for Kronos, who've developed a reputation for going where string quartets have never dared venture before, You've Stolen My Heart is a dramatic departure. Evidently, that was just part of the plan.
"Before we started, I had certain goals in mind. One was that I definitely wanted Kronos to sound different than we ever had before and somehow expand the nature of the group and the roles of each member within the group.
"The other main goal was to introduce our audience to the music of R. D. Burman, whom I consider one of the great composers of the 20th century. His sense of melody is so refreshing, I'd rank him up there with Schubert and Gershwin for his ability to consistently come up with beautiful and memorable melodies. And Burman's orchestrations put him in a class with Stravinsky and Debussy. The way he combines instruments to create colourful sounds is endlessly fascinating and was a key inspiration for our approach to the album."
One of the most intriguing aspects of Burman's work is his resourceful way of recontextualizing elements from other musical genres, employing a fuzzed-out surf guitar riff, a sudden blast of mariachi horns or an Afro-Cuban drum break in a way that somehow makes perfect sense within his piece.
Similarly, Burman's also very good at making use of the instruments at hand. Another composer might look at a cup and spoon and think of taking a coffee break, whereas Burman sees only a novel new rhythmic device.
"I had a lot of conversations with Asha about just that sort of thing," chuckles Harrington. "She said anything he found around the house that would make an interesting noise would eventually end up in one of his recordings.
"Before we started working with Asha, there was a weird-sounding part in the intro to Mehbooba Mehbooba I was trying to figure out how to play. I experimented with different ways of bowing my violin and fooled around with the microphone placement until I got something that sounded good.
"Later, I asked Asha what kind of instrument Burman used on the original recording. She laughed and said, 'Oh, that was a Listerine bottle. '"