After throwing out a piece he’d been working on seriously for months, Michael Gordon sat down for just nine days to create something new, something uninhibited where “all the colors are flying.” That piece became “Clouded Yellow,” titled after the smudged, colorful wing patterns of the clouded yellow butterfly. It also became the title track for his new album, a collection of string quartets where blurred, distorted, and layered sounds coalesce into a vibrant, fluttering haze.
Gordon, one of the three co-founders of Bang on a Can, has a passion for exploring ways in which classical chamber works can be warped with electronic effects and guitar pedals. His latest album is the product of a decades-long collaboration with the Kronos Quartet, an ensemble comprised of violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Sunny Yang that is committed to stretching the limits of string quartet music. Clouded Yellow features four works that revel in blurred harmonies and melodies, shedding light on the beauty of opaqueness.
The title piece, “Clouded Yellow” creates this blurred effect with driving melodic lines and overlapping rhythms that obscure the beat. Chromatic movement with slides and trills encompasses much of the violin lines, developing dark, intricate harmonies that flutter restlessly around the listener.
Similarly, “Potassium” layers different sliding lines of sustained notes and uses a fuzz box to distort the strings, creating a mysterious cloud of sound. The piece alternates between slower, melancholic sliding sections, dramatic periods where the violins slide rapidly above driving viola and cello accompaniment, and conventionally beautiful sections with tender, lyrical melodies. As these contradictory elements are woven together, “Potassium” becomes an ornate musical web that is impossible to untangle.
The album’s blurred aesthetic brilliantly suits the thematic content in “Sad Park,” a four-part piece that layers the quartet’s music under sentences from toddlers who were asked to explain the events of 9/11. Following the pattern laid out by the previous tracks, the piece features electronic sounds, slides, and complex, interlocking patterns that intentionally disorient the listener. As the young children’s words are replayed over and over, they are electronically warped, becoming eerie non-verbal sounds—almost like wails of pain at some moments. The children’s confused words and the distortion of both their voices and the instruments reflects the confusion, pain, and helplessness felt in the wake of 9/11.
“Exalted,” the final track, serves as a response to the mourning of “Sad Park.” Featuring the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, the piece sets the opening of the Kaddish, a prayer sequence recited for the dead in the Jewish faith. The voices layer chromatic, descending lines over a rhythmic violin pattern and the slides of the cello and viola. While the dark intensity of the piece never diminishes, it begins to move over time toward a quiet finality that offers a sense of peace. “Exalted” both captures the complexity of mourning and artfully juxtaposes something ancient and religious with the immediacy of modern sounds.
Clouded Yellow documents Gordon and the Kronos Quartet’s innovative experimentation with electronics, clashing layers, and disorienting rhythmic patterns. The resulting music is intricate, dramatic, and thought-provoking: it speaks powerfully to the confusion we all experience when so much of the world around us is blurred.