Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The tickle is in me, not the feather

Trade Winds From China concert review

I just can't miss an NNM concert. This week it was like having to see the Phillies play (I think, I don't actually follow sports) in the sense of Pierre Boulez's aleatoric concert as a game without rules -- everyone vaguely familiar with the contemporary music scene has heard of Bright Sheng, but I couldn't even remember my opinion of his work when I walked into the pre-concert lecture. I knew I was taking a gamble, but a combination of intense personal events left me with those metaphorical cotton-stuffed ears I've resented in audiences prior. Worrisome at first, it has led me to contemplate Galileo's metaphysical observation that the tickle is in us and not in the feather that draws it out of us. I didn't have my usual tickle for new music worship Sunday night, and that anomaly is as much a blessing as a curse.

My feeling of denial solidified in the very first piece, Sheng's Three Fantasies for Violin and Piano; it just wasn't in me to suspend disbelief. That said, I was able to enjoy the trees: astonishingly clean, sharp pizzicato (I thought at first violinist Hirono Oka was using the mute for a plectrum), ornaments and sudden flashes of melody shaken from long sustains, a palette of harsh, stompy clusters in the piano, a fun vocabulary of double stops. I could hear Chinese and Western European tradition pitch and maybe ornamentation throughout the three movements, but what grabbed me were Oka's body language and facial expressions: forward, stony, even stiff, but arresting in the way she shifted weight bringing feet together and apart. Pianist Susan Nowicki was in tears at the bow and neither performer returned for second bows though the audience applauded heartily for the better part of a minute.

Shih-Hui Chen spoke with appreciable energy in a muted voice at the pre-concert lecture. She shared a movement from Mei-Hua for string quartet with high school players from the Philadelphia Sinfonia under Gary White's direction, a sensitive piece marked with broken narrative. Already before the concert I was hearing as through sweet mud or underwater. This sample was easier to listen to that her featured work, Our Names for narrator, percussion, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. Context: I am attuned to words as a bird is to light. Our Names was a notated melodram, the players and narrator speaking lines from a poem lamenting the appropriation of Taiwanese names in precisely predetermined rhythm. In this hierarchy of sound interpretation it was difficult for me to hear the music, which I yearned to hear without the words. Moments that made an impression were "A flood of power" accompanied fittingly by too much energy in a flute entry and "The shadow of inferiority at the edge of society/ Has overflowed in our hearts" with layer on layer simultaneous, independent voices from all instruments.

While I complain regularly about the heartache of reviewing concerts involving performers I know personally, I had the perk of being introduced to composer Chou Wen-chung with whom I exchanged a few simple but satisfying remarks in Mandarin. Attentive and discerning at 88, Professor Chou had the air of a venerable elder when giving anecdotes in response to questions during the lecture. After the concert, he serenely challenged me to describe my response to his Ode to Eternal Pine. Context again: though he's been in America since before my parents were born, I recognized an Asian elder by softening my posture to make myself lower than he, a practice that feels even more awkward at a concert reception. It was a chamber piece interpreted from his 2008 work for traditional instruments. From spacious instrumental whispers, inexplicable explosions, a remorseful tone in a cello melody, cascading textures with sudden onset like laughter, a sinuous violin line, atonal abbreviated straying, ear-splitting piccolo and Eb clarinet screeches, and mallet/string stroke piano passages that kept Nowicki in constant, high-tension motion, all in a short, continuous five movements, I blurted some prattle about expansive openness and sounds of nature. He smiled and replied in Mandarin, "I think your hearing is accurate." I allowed myself some relief, but don't know how much he's letting on.

He went on to characterize that openness as a feature of Eastern writing and narrow focus as a Western norm. Never having studied any Eastern music theory in depth, I can approximate this projection on my Western training to develop ever elemental material. The programming, indeed of the Trade Winds series, obsesses over ways composers incorporate the two practices with some semblance of balance. I heard Ode to Pines as entirely original Western contemporary music. I think it was Crumb who, when questioned about whether his work was gamelan-influenced, claimed it's all in the Western ear now.

Since Feb. 11th I've been drawn for moments into preoccupation with the possibility of a new movement for democracy in China fueled by the rapid, apparent success of demonstrators in Tunisia and Egypt, bolstered by an overcautious but supportive international show of sentiment. Throughout the lecture by composers Chen and Chou, I itched to ask them to frame their work in a political context. "Will Taiwan unite with the mainland before China transitions to democracy? What role do leading emigrants have in reforming Asian nations' images in the West? Do non-Mandarin native speakers hear your music differently? Which of your pieces would you have performed in the Koreas' DMZ? in Tiananmen Square?" I was in too much an introverted mood to pose these questions that night, but they are as much on my mind today.

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