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Karen Tanaka: Invisible Curve, Etc; Chen Yi / Azure Ensemble

Release Date: 06/17/2008 
Label:  New World Records   Catalog #: 80683   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Chen YiKaren Tanaka
Performer:  Ingrid GordonPavel VinnitskySusan GlaserAiri Yoshioka,   ... 
Conductor:  William PurvisGerald Steichen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Azure Ensemble
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 0 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

CHEN Wu Yu. Night Thoughts. . . . as like a raging fire. . . . TANAKA Frozen Horizon. Water and Stone. Invisible Curve Azure Ens NEW WORLD 80683 (61:20)

Chen Yi was born in 1953 in China, Karen Tanaka in Japan in 1961. Both now live in the U.S., Chen for many years in Kansas City and Tanaka in Santa Barbara. Both are extremely successful in their international careers. Featuring their chamber music for small mixed ensembles, this disc makes Read more for a stimulating pairing, in that on the surface we have what would seem to be similar profiles (i.e., two Asian female composers), but in fact we have two extremely different aesthetic profiles.

Chen is one of several Chinese composers who came to the West to study at Columbia with Chou Wen-Ching (other similarly successful examples are Bright Sheng, Tan Dun, Ge Gan Ru, and her husband Zhou Long). This generation was cursed and blessed to be caught up at an early age in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The downside (chaos and violence) is obvious, but on the positive side, because of the forced relocation to the countryside so many experienced, these composers became deeply aware of their Chinese folk-art roots in a way they might not have otherwise. As a result, probably not since Bartók has there been such a fertile intersection of national “roots music” with classical practice as we are now seeing with the Chinese. This group was also just young enough to come out of the CR not too late in its creative and professional development, so that these artists were not destroyed spiritually or literally, like so many of their elders.

The upshot for Chen is that her music has obvious roots in the Asian practices of modality (basing music on different scales rather than on chordal progressions) and heterophony (playing the same melody in different ways simultaneously). But she also has an instinct to explore and tweak these devices so that they often mutate much faster than they would in traditional Chinese music. The result is even more kaleidoscopic than the source, but always brilliant and colorful. The composer also has a great rhythmic gift and drive. Wu Yu ’s second movement, for example, has a thrilling impersonation of a traditional Chinese percussion ensemble. Even Night Thoughts , which is the most pensive work of the three, is underpinned by nervous energy—it’s a kind of anxious night here. In short, Chen Yi is a firecracker, and her music mirrors her own incredible energy and enthusiasm. (As usual, a personal disclosure: she’s an acquaintance I run into periodically, though not a close friend.)

In her excellent booklet notes, composer Marilyn Bliss points out that Karen Tanaka is the “ice” to Chen Yi’s “fire.” She also observes that their musics are as different from one another as the art of “. . . well, China and Japan.” Well said. Tanaka’s music is spacious, slow, and rooted in sensuous loops of time, timbre, and sonority. It breathes deeply, and contemplates the inherent beauty of every sound it generates. The composer has spent time at Paris’s IRCAM center, and there’s a connection to “spectralist” technique in her approach (the use of overtone relations to structure harmony and form). Invisible Curve is actually a fruit of this research. But her music, even if abstract, tends to be more sensuous than are its French counterparts, and Water and Stone is particularly lovely in a way that I can’t imagine any listener finding issue with.

If there is any criticism I have of both composers’ works, it’s that Chen can at times wear you down a little with the relentlessness of her energy, while Tanaka can veer perilously close to New Age “loveliness.” But ultimately I feel both of them avoid these pitfalls, and all the work has beauty, energy, and imagination.

The performances by the Azure Ensemble are excellent, and I notice many familiar names of the top rank of New York freelancers/new music specialists in its roster. Chen’s works date from 2002–04, while Tanaka’s come from 1996–98. I now am quite eager to hear what the latter has done more recently, especially since she’s moved to the U.S. If I have any reservation in the production, it has to do with Tanaka’s use of sound processing. This is not a criticism of the practice. Tanaka adds a discreet amount of reverberation to all her works, and it opens up their sonorous space in a manner appropriate to her aesthetic. All well and good, and I have the feeling that in concert, it can be quite magical, a little like viewing a flower through a microscope to discover details otherwise missed. But in recorded format, especially when contrasted with the “naturalistic” presentation of Chen’s work, it can seem more pedestrian, as though the engineer just cranked up the reverb. There’s no good answer to this (at least that I can think of). The composer and New World have done what’s right and necessary. But it still raises a question of presentation I think everyone dealing with experiments in the recorded realm needs to consider.

Ultimately the disc presents an imaginative program, beautifully executed, and an excellent introduction to both composers’ work. They play off one another in a way that brings each into higher relief.

FANFARE: Robert Carl

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Works on This Recording

Wu Yu: 1st movement by Chen Yi
Performer:  Ingrid Gordon (Percussion), Pavel Vinnitsky (Clarinet), Susan Glaser (Flute),
Airi Yoshioka (Violin), Pitnarry Shin (Cello), Marc Goldberg (Bassoon)
Conductor:  William Purvis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Azure Ensemble
Written: 2002; USA 
Length: 8 Minutes 38 Secs. 
Wu Yu: 2nd movement by Chen Yi
Performer:  Ingrid Gordon (Percussion), Marc Goldberg (Bassoon), Pavel Vinnitsky (Clarinet),
Susan Glaser (Flute), Pitnarry Shin (Cello), Airi Yoshioka (Violin)
Conductor:  William Purvis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Azure Ensemble
Written: 2002; USA 
Length: 5 Minutes 51 Secs. 
Frozen Horizon by Karen Tanaka
Performer:  Michael Lipsey (Percussion), Pitnarry Shin (Cello), Airi Yoshioka (Violin),
Karen Ritscher (Viola), Conrad Harris (Violin), Susan Glaser (Flute),
Gail Kruvand (Double Bass), Matthew Gold (Percussion)
Conductor:  Gerald Steichen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Azure Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1998 
Length: 8 Minutes 27 Secs. 
Water and Stone by Karen Tanaka
Performer:  Matthew Gold (Percussion), Gail Kruvand (Double Bass), Esther Lamneck (Clarinet),
Michael Lipsey (Percussion), Pitnarry Shin (Cello), Jessica Zhou (Harp),
Airi Yoshioka (Violin), Karen Ritscher (Viola)
Conductor:  Gerald Steichen
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Azure Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1999 
Length: 9 Minutes 33 Secs. 
Night Thoughts by Chen Yi
Performer:  Christopher Oldfather (Piano), Susan Glaser (Flute), Pitnarry Shin (Cello)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Azure Ensemble
Written: 2004; USA 
Length: 9 Minutes 26 Secs. 
Invisible Curve by Karen Tanaka
Performer:  Christopher Oldfather (Piano), Susan Glaser (Flute), Pitnarry Shin (Cello),
Karen Ritscher (Viola), Airi Yoshioka (Violin)
Conductor:  William Purvis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Azure Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1996 
Length: 10 Minutes 53 Secs. 
...as like a raging fire... by Chen Yi
Performer:  Pitnarry Shin (Cello), Susan Glaser (Flute), Christopher Oldfather (Piano),
Pavel Vinnitsky (Clarinet), Airi Yoshioka (Violin)
Conductor:  William Purvis
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Azure Ensemble
Written: 2002; USA 
Length: 8 Minutes 29 Secs. 

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