ALBUM REVIEW: Kronos Quartet and Aleksandra Vrebalov: The Sea Ranch Songs

by Geoffrey Larson

ca21122_kronos_quartet_sea_ranch_songs_frontIn Aleksandra Vrebalov’s The Sea Ranch Songs, the Kronos Quartet takes us on a tour of a special natural landscape that is breathtakingly beautiful and profoundly personal. The Sea Ranch, stretching for ten miles along the northern California coast, is an area defined both by stunning natural beauty and the carefully-planned developments that house its stewards, the Sea Ranch Association. Founded in 1965, the area recently celebrated its 50th anniversary as a community “dedicated to living, building, and interacting with its surroundings in harmonious and responsible ways.”

What an amazing subject for a piece of music! This album makes the fullest use of its subject matter, giving us both a sound recording and a DVD of an artistic film created by Andrew Lyndon set to the music. Vrebalov composed thirteen songs for Kronos Quartet, using audio of personal testimonials from permanent residents of Sea Ranch and those who have made the curation and development of this unique place their work. For my journey through this music, I chose the film, which uses scenes shot on location at the Sea Ranch and a small amount of stylized animation.


All photos credit No Ordinary Resort.

The opening shot of a patch of grass with faraway sea sounds actually seems somewhat plain at the outset, but the frank depiction of this unremarkable part of the landscape scene soon makes sense. A heavily processed recording of the singing of First Nations people is the first form of music we hear, an homage to the Kashia-Pomo Indians that were Sea Ranch’s first residents. The entrance of the quartet is stark and imposing, and the video here is heavily edited, re-colored, and distorted, creating mystic images. As the video returns to its opening shot of grass, each blade seems to have taken on spiritual significance.

The second track, “Fort Ross Chorale,” provides immediate contrast and introduces us to the frontier-like architecture of the settlements. The chorale-like music seems honest and practical. In the third song, “Gratitude,” we hear the voices of Sea Ranch residents, speaking of the natural beauty and inspirational qualities of the landscape, with music from the quartet growing more romantic and swelling with pride and nostalgia. The fourth song’s pizzicato throughout is the perfect accompaniment to recordings of navigational coordinates being read, a sort of laundry list of figures describing the area’s features with scientific precision. Footage of a pristine white barn is the centerpiece for the video of “Numbers,” a musical quantification of the Sea Ranch settlement. Blueprints are the visual focus of the fifth song, “Ideas: Condominium One,” where an architect talks of unique designs for long-roofed, lean-to-like structures. Long notes and electrified sounds from the quartet reflect the designs and huge expanse of the Sea Ranch environment.


The sixth through thirteenth songs reflect on the beauty and motion of the natural landscape, and the spiritual connection Sea Ranchers have with it. Swooping melodic slides in the Kronos violins in “Creatures” are accompanied by video of diving seabirds, and shots of wildlife interlocking with video of underwater fauna. Music with beautiful, open chordal textures plays against spiritual, stained-glass-like imagery in “Chapel, Rainbows,” where we see the sea and its wildlife through the lens of human religious constructs. The eighth song is perhaps the most pure fun to listen to: fast, minor music in the form of an aria and accompaniment set to video of crashing waves and flocks of birds constantly changing direction. The relentlessness of the melody and arpeggiated cello figures in this song, “Elements I,” seem to portray the motion of nature, both free and monotonous. In “Starry Night,” we hear the pitter-patter of ponticello ricochet with twinkling imagery of the night sky. The contemporary-sounding techniques are fascinating here, and mix with electronics to portray the vast expanse of a cosmic light show.


Lyrical music full of counterpoint tells the story of hard work and tired hands in “Ideas: Barn Fugue,” with accompanying testimonials of Sea Ranch barn-builders. An actual recording of coyotes is the arresting sound of “Spirit II,” with a lonely, reverberant piano sound portraying the emptiness of the night. The violin solo that opens the twelfth song, “Elements II,” is expressive and virtuosic, adorned with double stops and sweeping melody. It precedes a chaotic duet, trio, then quartet, with imagery of frothing water and crashing waves. Vrebalov saves the most heartfelt music for the final song, which begins on a pastoral drone against a static shot of the sunset over crashing waves. The music of “Gratitude, Coda” embodies the calmness and fullness of the feelings related in testimonials by Sea Ranch residents, detailing joyous childhood memories and descriptions of their harmonious relationship with nature. There is so much contained in that static shot, and so much about this final music that is profoundly comforting. The virtuosic frenzy of rising figuration that ends the songs in a flourish of leaping water is a complete surprise. That final flourish might be a shock, but it seems to sum up the great musical depth and ability of the vessel for our journey, the fantastic Kronos Quartet, who have created yet another special musical offering of tremendous scope and ambition in collaboration with Aleksandra Verbalov and Andrew Lyndon.


by Joshua Roman


I write this as I sit in a very comfortable business/first seat on a flight from Asia back home to New York City, reflecting on my visit to Seoul. One of my close friends had his wedding there, and I was fortunate enough to be free and able to be with him and his new wife for this important occasion. We spent some amazing time together in the city, and I got to play at his wedding, on a cello made by his father. The flight upgrade is happily a result of my frequent flier status, which makes a big difference on such trips.

Music has a powerful effect in the world. It’s all around us every day, whether we choose it or not. We use music during gatherings of all kinds to create a unified spirit or deepen bonds, music pervades the other forms of entertainment to enhance desired emotional effects, and we have special occasions (concerts) where music is the centerpiece. Music is not only about community, these days most people have their own  collection of music that they can tap into depending on their mood or activity. You can take this even further through music therapy, and other forms of healing both mental and emotional. It’s also used to influence us to purchase certain products, to attract us to a location or entice us to stay longer – even sometimes to drive us away.

I listen to a lot of music. Often, I listen in a kind of work capacity – finding new artists and composers, researching styles and genres, programming concerts, checking out recommendations, etc. Of course, it doesn’t usually feel like work, I love listening to music. I also use music as a way to relax, focus, become energized, and have a kind of spiritual experience. There have been occasions when the power of music has transcended anything I could have said or done, often when I’m listening, and sometimes as a performer as well. I get to work through thoughts and feelings in a way that feels even more direct than words. Most recently I was able to do this on a large scale through the writing of my cello concerto. In the past there have been instances where I’ve turned to music when alone to help me face dark thoughts, and find a safe release valve.

How does this relate to gratitude? The role of music in our lives is undeniably present, and can manifest in any number of ways. I’m so incredibly grateful that my life is very connected to music every day. There are so many wonderful people in my life who I know through music making. Obviously this includes my musician friends, but it goes far beyond that – people who support what we do, audience members who have become close friends, and connections through communities like TED that have come about because of the cello. The breadth of connections in my life that stem from music is overwhelming, and in some instances I believe the depth goes beyond what is possible without this abstract yet binding force. Because I make my living through music, I’m also grateful for being able to eat (that’s a big one), to live in New York, and to travel throughout the world (I’ve played on six continents so far).

The list of reasons to be grateful for music in my life could go on and on, and very quickly I begin to feel responsibility to give back. Strictly artistically speaking, I take this very seriously. It’s one of the reasons I’ve become so passionate about new music, and dedicated to encouraging unique musical voices. Music can be so powerful, so relevant, so meaningful, but I don’t think it is ever more so than when a musician is able to reach deep within and bring something personal to the table. Hopefully I can share this passion through the quality of my performances, the content of my programming, the musicians and other artists with whom I share the stage, the music that I write, and other platforms including this blog. I can also strive to give back on a personal level to those around me, and use the resources that have come my way through music to do things like fly to Korea to be there for my friend on his wedding day.

It’s been a big few years, I’ve added a lot of artistic endeavors to my plate. At times it’s been confusing, but I’m beginning to gain clarity and focus. Now is the time for me to show my gratitude by honing in on the path in front of me and committing to developing a kind of rhythm and consistency with the projects I take on.

How are you grateful for music in your life? How are you inspired to give back? Please share your stories in the comment section below, whether they’re specific moments or general practices.

Currently listening to…
Seattle Symphony: Become Ocean
Ayub Ogada: En Mana Kuoyo
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez: Rite of Spring