Notes and Editorial Reviews
A Journey into Desire.
Meridian Arts Ens;
Takae Ohnishi (hpd);
Pablo Gómez (gtr);
John Fonville (fl);
Jane Rigler (fl);
June Han (hp);
Lei Liang, cond; New England Conservatory players
NEW WORLD 80715-2 (69:14)
Contemporary Asian composers are frequently conflicted by their own histories and culture. Lei Liang was born in 1972 in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, during which Western culture and even traditional Chinese arts were vilified. He came to America when he was high-school age and found himself at what he calls a “cultural and spiritual ground zero.” And yet as a young adult and music student (he is a New England Conservatory and Harvard graduate) he embarked on a vigorous search for his past. This work represents a kind of musical-theatrical vision of that journey.
Although every piece on this album is filled with historical allusions, the music is rarely Asian-sounding in any traditional sense. Liang has excluded any Asian instrumentation, and there is minimal use of Asian technique or folk material. Liang’s voice has many components: atonality, jazz, vocalism, microtonality, chance, and even romanticism. This is the kind of music that has a physical, even visceral quality, such that it can take on concrete shapes that beg to be held, and even tasted. It is not surprising that, in the manner of Morton Feldman, he is highly influenced by painters. The fascinating and beautiful Harp Concerto from 2008, for example, is inspired by the work of Huang Binhong (the inclusion of an example of his art in the program would have been nice). Liang instructs the harpist to use all sorts of techniques to expand the sound, including scraping the strings with a protractor, hitting them with a mallet, and preparing the instrument in Cage-like ways. Yet ultimately he respects the basic nature of the harp, and the work concludes with a rhapsodic coda. The brave soloist, June Han, also gave the world premiere.
The music for solo or duo musicians similarly mixes innovation and idiomatic writing, including
Journey into Desire
for solo guitar,
for flute duo, and the harpsichord cadenza
, which also includes assistance from two violins and cello. They are also based on nonmusical sources, respectively a Buddhist story, beavers swimming on a moonlit lake, and Chinese calligraphy. Liang’s masterly sense for texture and shape, as well as a quirky rhythmic pattern, give these pieces substance and quiet sinew.
The three other large works,
all have their roots in Chinese history, which can be as dark as it was glorious. Liang himself participated in a recent slice of that history, as a protester at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The shocking violence of that time haunts his music, especially the operatically conceived
, a recollection of the labyrinth palace and garden of the Emperor Yang of Sui. Although the music is resolutely modern and original, it is also the most historically evocative on the album, with the ancient clap of wood blocks, resounding gongs and wind instruments imitating the distinctive sound of Chinese opera singers.
There is little that is routine or meek about the music of Lei Liang. It is a strong cup of coffee, indeed. But for those inclined to excitement and stimulation in their music-making, his is an important young voice. All of the performances are vital and polished, and the recorded sound is superbly realistic.
FANFARE: Peter Burwasser