Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Having devoted years to contemporary classical and avant-garde music, the Kronos Quartet takes a step back in time and re-evaluates the works of several medieval composers—albeit in light of their influence on modern musical forms. The title of the group’s newest album, Early Music, reflects not only its historical perspective but the simplicity of the selected pieces. The vast chronological distance between modernists John Cage and Harry Partch and medieval composers Guillaume de Machaut and Perotin has collapsed to a small musical separation, as 20th-century composers have turned to the past to invigorate new works. Kronos’ adeptness at incorporating this revival into its repertoire is apparent in its arrangements. The three “Kyrie”s by Machaut are originally from masses. Stripped of their lyrics and performed by a string quartet, the pieces become secular and more modern. Hildegard von Bingen’s “O Virtus Sapientie” is similarly updated. The interspersion of contemporary works among ancient ones permits revealing comparisons. Partch’s “Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales” uses antiquated tonalities in short songlike structures that give the impression of being much older than they really are. The spectrum of Kronos’ selections also includes some folk-based examples, such as Jack Body’s “Long-Ge,” a new piece of traditional Chinese derivation, and adaptations of Swedish and Tuvan tunes. Purists may bridle at the project’s historical mixing, but this disc’s diverse sounds provide an educational illustration of the timelessness often attributed to “early” musics both new and old.—Amy Domingues