Even after three decades of continuous activity, the Kronos Quartet continues to come up with fresh ideas from out of the blue. The foursome’s latest album, “The Cusp Of Magic” (Nonesuch), renews their collaboration with Terry Riley, but this time with the exotic inclusion of Chinese pipa player Wu Man and a gaggle of toy instruments. For their current “Nunavut” tour, they have joined forces with the electrifying Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq to push the boundaries of the string quartet almost into the danger zone. Where Kronos will venture next, perhaps they don’t even know yet.
Nunavut is the vast, icy Canadian territory of land mass, islands and inlets that extends nearly all the way to the North Pole — and such isolation no doubt contributed to the uniqueness of the guttural, wordless, improvisatory Inuit vocal style. Tagaq seems to have taken this even further; as Kronos first violinist David Harrington suggests, she does sound like Jimi Hendrix’s guitar at times with her divebombing effects, high-pitched bird noises, electronic-like buzzings and such.
There is another ingredient that both Taraq and Hendrix use — sex. Granted, her collaborative piece with Kronos, “Nunavut,” is strictly grounded in the Inuit game of competitive singing, where two vocalists get in each other’s faces and rev up the pace until one or the other drops out. But to this suggestible listener (and surely many others) in Walt Disney Concert Hall Saturday night, when Tagaq strolled from one Kronos member to the next, her breathing getting heavier as each player produced louder and more violent sounds, it was — to put it bluntly — like a musical gangbang.
Derek Charke’s 30-minute “Tundra Songs,” commissioned for Kronos and Tagaq by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn., was considerably less erotic, with tapes of man-made and natural Arctic sounds circulating now and then through minimalist, folk-like, soaring, occasionally melodramatic patterns by the quartet.
The idea of North (in Glenn Gould’s phrase) extended through the rest of the program via the funky scrapings, bongings and bingings of “Work” by Norway’s Xploding Plastix, the droning minimalism and classical pastiche of “The Fly Freer” by Icelandic band Sigur Ros, dignified Swedish folk song “Tusen Tankar,” and a pair of Finnish works, Kimmo Pohjonen and Samuli Kosminen’s “Avara” and Kaija Saariaho’s “Nymphea.” The latter, with its dissonant rustlings and virulent fizzings encased in a computer-generated halo, was the only piece that was familiar to Kronos watchers — another sign that the group remains obsessed with change.