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LIANE HANSEN, host:

For more than three decades, the adventurous Kronos Quartet has pushed the envelope. With more than 40 recordings in their discography, the group has covered everything from Bartok and Shostakovich to rock and jazz renditions of Jimi Hendrix and Thelonious Monk pieces. They've commissioned hundreds of works from modern composers, and they run a non-profit organization committed to expanding the string quartet repertoire.

Lately Kronos has been pushing cultural boundaries as well. Their last CD featured the singing of Bollywood legend Asha Bosley. And on their newest they're joined by Wu Man, who plays the Chinese lute called the pipa.

(Soundbite of music)

The CD on Nonesuch Records is a six-part work by composer Terry Riley called "The Cusp of Magic."

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Kronos violinist David Harrington and pipa player Wu Man join us from the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. First, welcome to the program, David.

Mr. DAVID HARRINGTON (Kronos Violinist): Thank you. It's great to be here.

HANSEN: And, Wu Man, hello to you.

Ms. WU MAN (Kronos Pipa Player): Hello. Thank you.

HANSEN: With us also is composer Terry Riley. He's in the studios of Carnegie Hall in New York. And hello to you.

Mr. TERRY RILEY (Composer, Kronos Quartet): Hi.

HANSEN: It's nice to have all of you here. David, I want to start with you because you and Terry Riley go way back. You've known each other since the late '70s and Terry Riley has written some, what, 23 pieces for Kronos. David, why do you think this relationship has lasted so long?

Mr. HARRINGTON: You know, I enjoy playing Terry's music, number one. I enjoy being with Terry and rehearsing with him, and his ideas about life and music and people are always stimulating and thoughtful. As a composer I just think he's stretching in places that people haven't stretched before.

HANSEN: Terry, why don't I ask you the same question? Why has your relationship with David and Kronos lasted so long?

Mr. RILEY: Well, I think right from the beginning I felt a certain magic in David's work and in the work with the Kronos. And, you know, he brought me out of a long period where I wasn't notating music and convinced me that I should start writing music, especially for string quartet. And I guess I just thought I was going to just be an improvising musician. And that very act greatly enriched my life.

HANSEN: This piece was commissioned by Kronos to celebrate your 70th birthday, which was in 2005. So how did you go about writing your own birthday composition?

Mr. RILEY: You know, that wasn't - the 70th birthday part wasn't too much on my mind. But I guess what was mainly on my mind was I knew that Wu Man was going to be a part of it. It was not only going to be a string quartet, but it would include her pipa and her artistry. And she's someone who I've admired for a long time. And so that was kind of the biggest inspiration for getting started on "The Cusp of Magic."

(Soundbite of music, "The Cusp of Magic")

HANSEN: Wu Man, you have actually brought the pipa into the studio. Describe it for us and then give us a little demonstration of what it actually sounds like.

Ms. MAN: Okay. Well, we always, David actually always joke about it. It's a pear-shaped lute-like instrument. And play very much like play guitar or other plucking instrument, use a hand or the fingers.

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Ms. MAN: That's the tuning in open strings. And I actually, if you see it, my right hand has all five kind of plastic fingernails on my hand. And, of course, the left hand a lot of bendy notes.

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Ms. MAN: So that's very Chinese.

HANSEN: Yeah.

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HANSEN: It's beautiful sounding and it works...

Ms. MAN: Thank you.

HANSEN: ...so well in this piece. Do you get a reaction from Chinese listeners when they hear you playing this traditional instrument in this particular setting?

Ms. MAN: Of course, yes. Actually we played in China last summer and was amazing audience, the experience we had. And people really enjoyed it and they thought that was amazing that pipa with the Western string, and that kind of a combination never happened before in China.

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HANSEN: There's also a very Native American feel to this piece, and the piece has been described as "rite of midsummer." Terry Riley, tell us about that.

Mr. RILEY: Well, the Native American connection would be the first movement where David - I gave David this peyote rattle that was given to me by this wonderful West Coast artist Bruce Connor. He's a wonderful filmmaker and assemblage artist. Bruce had given me this peyote rattle that was made by a medicine man in Kansas.

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Mr. RILEY: I thought, you know, this really would be the way to start it out. If it's going to be a ceremony, like a shamanistic ceremony, the peyote rattle definitely rivets you with that feeling. And that deep drum and the peyote rattle sound definitely created the mood.

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Mr. RILEY: I've actually, I've been in sweat lodge ceremonies but I've never been, myself, in a peyote ceremony. But I think what happens, the main thing that happens, is there's a lot of praying going on, and there's a lot of compassion that goes on between the members of the peyote circle and prayers for their well being and for the world in general. It's kind of like a little hub that is sending out vibrations to the rest of the world to, healing vibrations to the rest of the world.

So for this piece that was a way to begin. That you begin with a prayer, you begin with an invocation.

HANSEN: There's a very joyous and a melodic section called "Royal Wedding."

(Soundbite of music, "Royal Wedding")

HANSEN: And I swear at the beginning of it I could hear echoes of "The Wedding March." That may just be my imagination but where did that tune come from?

Mr. RILEY: Very good ear. Well, it is. It's kind of a little play on "The Wedding March," the theme. It isn't "The Wedding March" exactly but it will definitely remind you of it.

(Soundbite of music, "Royal Wedding")

Mr. RILEY: This particular movement, a couple of my good friends, Michael Harrison and Rena(ph), were married during this period and they asked me to come and play at their wedding. And they wanted me to play pipe organ at their wedding at a Greek church here in New York. And so I was preparing this thing and at the same time I was writing "The Cusp of Magic" and I just thought wait a minute, this is going to go into the quartet. It's definitely part of the feeling of, you know, even though I hadn't been planning to have this movement as part of the quartet.

Mr. HARRINGTON: It's great to play the bells too. You always feel better after you play bells.

HANSEN: Why is that?

Mr. RILEY: Santa Claus is coming to town.

Mr. HARRINGTON: Yeah, maybe that's it. And something good is going to happen if you play bells.

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HANSEN: Terry, you've been composing for a long time. You've influenced a lot of musicians. Some people call you the father of minimalism, mainly because of your piece "In C" from 1964. And there was a critic suggested the the whole point of your music is, and I'm quoting here, "transformation and transport." Would you agree with that?

Mr. RILEY: Well, that would be a goal, definitely one of my goals would be that music should somehow change our lives if we practice it enough. It'll make us better people. And by that token, if we give our music to the world, it should help other people in changing their lives.

HANSEN: Composer Terry Riley joined us from the Carnegie Hall Studios in New York. Thank you very much.

Mr. RILEY: Thanks.

HANSEN: Kronos violinist David Harrington and pipa player Wu Man joined us from the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Thank you both for taking the time.

Mr. HARRINGTON: Thank you.

Ms. MAN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Kronos Quartet and Wu Man's CD of Terry Riley's "The Cusp of Magic" is on Nonesuch Records. To hear excerpts and discover a lot more classical music, check out our music Web site at NPR.org/music.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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