Echoes and Extraordinary Instruments
Music has a way of slipping through the fingers of politicians. In his memoir Along the Roaring River: My Wild Ride from Mao to the Met, the bass Haojiang Tian writes of the way certain songs of the Cultural Revolution, once force-fed to the Chinese population, became sentimental ear-worms, even for the persecuted.
The role of music in contemporary Chinese society reflects the pivot toward capitalism of its government. At the airport in Beijing, a poster advertising a fancy private school exhorts parents to make their children “excel,” above a picture of tiny girls playing cellos. The theater in the National Center for the Performing Arts, the egg-shaped, moat-protected arts space near the Forbidden City, offers a VIP lounge. A luxury hand creme calls itself “La Mer.”
But while “official” art is still being produced in China—a military officer slash composer wrote on an opera called “The Long March” which recently premiered at the NCPA (set models pictured above)—other composers are forging their own independent languages. Some new music in China falls into the superficial “cross-cultural” trap, which often means clunky integration of traditional Chinese instruments into Western-style orchestral textures; many other works are unified in consistent inner logics. Several of these composers have enjoyed premieres through Yu Long’s Compose 20:20 project or at the Beijing Musical Festival, supported by Volkswagen China’s cultural program (which, full disclosure, paid for my flights to go to China in November). Here is an admittedly small, subjective playlist of music by Chinese composers.
Fay Kueen Wang - “Inside Insides” for clarinet and tape; Gleb Kanasevich (Clarinet)
Fay Kueen Wang studied at the Central Conservatory in Beijing and at the Yale School of Music before moving to New York. “Inside Insides” has a clarinet soloist playing atonal figuration, trills, fluttertongue and multiphonics inside a tape texture of noisy, skittering and bell-like sounds. The piece is at its strongest when long clarinet tones mix with electronics, so that it becomes difficult to tell which instrument is producing the harmonies we hear.
Huang Ruo - “Path of Echoes: Chamber Symphony No. 1” - Yoon Jae Lee (Conductor), Ensemble 212
The Chamber Symphony is a tricky genre to get right, but Huang Ruo’s entry, “Path of Echoes,” is an effective work with undeniable momentum. The intertwined percussion and brass writing is particularly strong. The piece is bookended by impressive orchestral colors, one soft, one startlingly loud. “Whenever I am on a mountain, one of my favorite things to do is listen to echoes, those of voices, birds, wind, rain, thunder, falling rocks, and sometimes, the echoes of echoes,” the composer writes. “When sounds bounce among the hills, I always try to visualize how they travel from one point to another and how they change in sonority from the original waveform. A gigantic ‘sound map’ appears to me in which I can see or hear the paths of the various echoes.”
Guo Wenjing - “Drama” for three percussionists; Slagwerk Deen Haag
Perhaps influenced by the humor of George Aperghis’s “Les guetteurs de sons” (1981) for three percussionists, “Drama” makes thorough use of the various timbral possibilities of the cymbal, as well as the gestures and sounds the players make. The musicians dampen the instruments and bend down; they swing them to let them resonate, with their heads to the floor; they slowly rise and let out a breath. In the second movement, one of the larger cymbals gets a line with clearly audible melodic contours, while the other two accompany it with softer, intricate rhythms. It’s a Mendelssohn Piano Trio Scherzo without pitches.
Chen Yi - “Prospect Overture”; Daniel Harding (Conductor), China National Symphony Orchestra
This jagged overture begins with a gesture almost reminiscent of Edgard Varèse. After a minute or so it finds itself in more melodic territory but, unlike many pieces that seek to combine Chinese and European influences, the language of the “Prospect Overture” is consistent and unified. The rhythms in the piece are indebted to Debussy’s “La Mer,” and the orchestral textures are thick, complex and galvanizing.
Zhou Long - “Pianogongs”; Chi-Ling Lok (Piano)
The bends created by the Chinese Opera gongs in this piece provide an ear-opening change of pitch space when they enter after about a minute—they seem to cause the piano to expand. This is particularly obvious in the fifth minute, when the gongs follow a low piano cluster. The main material involves tremolo unisons and octaves, as well as some very beautiful atonal chords. “Pianogongs” is a delicate, virtuosic “super-instrument” piece in which the additional instrument is far more than a gimmick: it makes us both savor the 88-key piano, and be aware of its limitations. ¶