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Elements: New Music for Pipa by American Composers

Womack / Jing,Yang
Release Date: 12/10/2013 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1455   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Donald Reid WomackJeff MyersThomas OsborneE. Takeo Kudo
Performer:  Yang Jing
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

WOMACK Elements. An Enveloping Rain 2,3. MYERS Turtle and Rat. OSBORNE Rumi Songs 1. KUDO White Crane Yang Jing (pipa); 1 Rachel Schutz (sop); 2 Lai Yi-Chieh (guzheng); 3 Anna Womack Read more (va) ALBANY 1455 (52:40)

This CD’s title, Elements: New Music for Pipa by American Composers, may whet the appetite of an adventurous listener. The Chinese pipa is a pear-shaped instrument that looks something like a lute, and is played in a similar manner. There are four strings, and the musician’s left hand controls the pitch by pressing the strings along the frets. The right hand plucks, strikes, or strums the strings. The sounds thereby produced can be melodic or percussive, and the textures monophonic or rich.

The composers represented on this CD have not attempted to compose faux Chinese music. They have, however, respected the instrument and its traditional repertoire, both classical and folk, to create interesting hybrid works. Donald Reid Womack’s Elements are “character pieces” representing, in turn, Fire, Water, Wood, Earth, and Metal. In a sense, these are five etudes that demonstrate the wide range of timbres produced by the pipa. In An Enveloping Rain , the pipa is joined by the Chinese guzheng, a type of zither, and by a viola, which sometimes is played, in this work, in a manner that creates sounds more typical of Asian music than of Western music. This work “reflects upon the dual nature of rain as both nurturing and destructive, comforting and menacing.” The interplay among the three instruments is dynamic, suggesting spontaneity, but there’s no mistaking the care that Womack has taken in shaping the work’s timbres and colors, as well as its overall structure.

Jeff Myers’s Turtle and Rat is based on a Micronesian folk tale: after the kind but naïve turtle saves the rat’s life, the rat kills and eats him, and the turtle’s carcass is said to persist eternally in the nearby stream. Myers structures “Turtle” like a French rondeau, and “Rat” is a musical palindrome. None of this is obvious, even after repeated auditions, but there’s no missing the music’s cleverness and appeal.

Thomas Osborne’s settings of five verses by poet Rumi in no way reflect upon the poet’s Persian background, but present him as he is today—that is to say, a poet who has something to say to all places and all times. The pipa doesn’t make Osborne’s settings sound any more Asian than his vocal writing makes them sound Western. In fact, the timelessness and placelessness of Osborne’s Rumi Songs is what makes them particularly interesting. Bright-voiced soprano Rachel Schulz negotiates Osborne’s often angular writing with precision.

Dualism also plays a role in White Crane . In tai chi, the move by that name represents “softness and grace paired with an alert readiness for aggression.” Takeo Kudo’s six-minute work reflects that duality through dynamic contrasts, and through two strata of tempo, one superimposed on the other.

Despite the relative shortness of this CD, these works are best appreciated one at a time. In that way, the listener can get the most out of each one of them. I am no expert on pipa playing and am in no position to judge Yang Jing’s musicianship, but nothing here sounds tentative or inexact, and I am guessing that all of these works were composed with her in mind. Recommended, then, to the curious, and to those who are not content with stereotypes and clichés.

FANFARE: Raymond Tuttle
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Works on This Recording

Elements by Donald Reid Womack
Performer:  Yang Jing (Pipa)
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
Turtle and Rat by Jeff Myers
Performer:  Yang Jing (Pipa)
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
Rumi Songs by Thomas Osborne
Performer:  Yang Jing (Pipa)
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
White Crane by E. Takeo Kudo
Performer:  Yang Jing (Pipa)
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
An Enveloping Rain by Donald Reid Womack
Performer:  Yang Jing (Pipa)
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 

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