This album documents a special collaboration between two of today’s most innovative ensembles. United by their passion for fresh soundscapes, the PRISM Quartet and Music From China joined forces to commission and perform new works by Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Wang Guowei, Lei Liang, and Ming-Hsiu Yen, and to offer a rare presentation of Academy Award-winner Tan Dun’s Shuang Que for Erhu and Yangqin.
Representing profound contrasts of timbre and culture, this “odd couple” of traditional Chinese instruments and saxophones bridges remarkable distances of space and time. The instruments of Music From China—including erhu (bowed fiddle), pipa (lute), zheng (zither), yangqin (hammered dulcimer), zhongruan (tenor “moon guitar”), daruan (bass “moon guitar”), and percussion—have been played for a millennium or more. The saxophone, in contrast, bears a French patent dating from the Industrial Revolution.
Wang Guowei’s Songs for Huqin and Saxophone Quartet (2009) seek “to capture the spirit of the human voice.” The composer connects these diverse instruments through their mutual ability to “embody vocal timbral qualities.” Wang Guowei describes the structure of the Songs: “The first movement is a pastorale of Inner Mongolia using zhonghu with the saxophone quartet. The medium-sized fiddle’s deep, rich sound engages the saxophones in linear melodic progression with interchanging keys and modes. The second movement is derived from ‘Crescent Moon at Dawn’, a folk song of northeastern China…. In the ensuing fast section, the strident sound of the banhu, a fiddle with a wooden soundboard, together with the suggestion of suona (oboe-like) folk performance by the saxophones, evokes the music of northern China.”
Zhou Long describes his musical language as “multifaceted and layered…forged from western and eastern traditions.” His single-movement Antiphony for Erhu, Daruan, Percussion and Saxophone Quartet (2008) consists of three sections that take the form of dialogues between individual and groups of instruments. In the first section, single-note patterns repeat on percussion and the two Chinese instruments, which also use glissandi and quarter-tones. The saxophone quartet soon enters, doubling the erhu and daruan. Dense rhythm and tempo mark the first climax and transition to the second section, which develops three variations on the ancient tune “Yanguan.” What follows, explains Dr. Zhou, is “a cadenza-like section, with the erhu taking on a mountain-song quality, with a mystical aura, and improvisation of birds, horses, and nature sounds in the background.” The third section returns to dense rhythms; tension builds toward the finale.
PRISM performs Lei Liang’s Yuan (2008) alone. The title refers to a Chinese syllable whose many meanings guide the composition in different ways. The composer began Yuan while contemplating a story that emerged from the Hunan province during the Cultural Revolution. Lacking the means to seek justice, a woman revenged the wrongful death of her husband by wailing like a ghost every night in the woods behind the home of the guilty village official. After some months, both of them went insane. The story mirrors the plot of a fourteenth century play called Injustice to Dou-E. The composer sees the play as unfolding “in three stages: injustice, lamentation, and prayer,” each of which are meanings of ‘yuan’. “The principal materials of the opening and closing sections of Yuan,” Lei Liang adds, “are based on an excerpt from Injustice to Dou-E—more specifically, the intonations and melodic contours of the sound of the Chinese text.”
The inspiration for Chen Yi’s Septet for Erhu, Pipa, Percussion and Saxophone Quartet (2008) came from the famous murals of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, an ancient city that once served as the western entrance to the Silk Road. The construction of these magnificent grottoes spanned 11 dynasties— more than 1,000 years—between the fourth and fourteenth centuries. To Dr. Chen, their images are profoundly musical, depicting, “rolling dance gestures, flapping streamers, flying melodies around the clouds, and fiery rhythms in the sky!” They convey “the high spirit and strong power” of the era’s society. Her Septet, therefore, “is mysterious, vivid, colorful, and energetic;” it simultaneously evokes “dreams of ancient glory and yearning for the future.”
Tan Dun’s Shuang Que (1984), performed on erhu and yangqin, is an early exploration of contemporary-style composition for traditional Chinese instruments. The two-section work represents the composer’s mental image of ancient Chinese civilization. An aura of mystery characterizes the first section. Shuang Que then leads into a vivid depiction of human activity highlighted by the furious energy of hunting and dancing.
Ming-Hsiu Yen remarks of her work Chinatown (2008), “The inspiration comes from my many visits to Chinatowns in the United States. The first movement, ‘Strangers’, describes a westerner walking into a Chinatown and finding himself lost, surrounded by all kinds of signs and sounds in foreign languages. ‘Footprints’, a nostalgic movement, is a portrait of an old Chinese woman, who has been living within these blocks for a half-century. Sitting at sunset, she remembers how she has survived these years in the States. ‘Festival’ is a celebration of the encounter of different cultures, where the motifs in the previous movements combine.”—Alyssa Timin
Wang Guowei both composes original music and performs professionally on the two-string Chinese fiddle (erhu). He studied at the Shanghai Conservatory and was concertmaster and soloist with the Shanghai Traditional Orchestra. As an active soloist and Artistic Director of Music From China, since 1996, he has appeared with the Shanghai Quartet, Amelia Piano Trio, Four Nations Ensemble, Virginia Symphony, Post Classical Symphony, Ornette Coleman, Butch Morris, Yo-Yo Ma, as well as many other artists and institutions in the United States and abroad. Wang Guowei’s compositions include Sheng (solo erhu); Tea House (Chinese ensemble and tape); Two Pieces for Percussion Quartet: Kong’Wu; Three Poems for Erhu (erhu/zhonghu, pipa, xiao, percussion); Tang Wind (pipa, zheng, ruan, and Western orchestra); Two Plus Two (erhu, yangqin, sanxian, and tape); Lullaby (erhu, clarinet, and piano), and Where the River Flows (huqin and saxophone quartet).
Zhou Long graduated from China’s Central Conservatory in 1983 and was directly appointed composer-in-residence with the National Broadcasting Symphony. He came to the United States in 1985 under a fellowship to attend Columbia University and received a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in 1993. Currently, he serves on the faculty of Composition at the UMKC Conservatory. Zhou Long has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, the Mary Cary Trust, and the Aaron Copland Fund for Music. Commissions have come from the Koussevitzky and Fromm Music Foundations, Meet the Composer, and Chamber Music America, as well as ensembles around the world. In 2003, he received an Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. During the 2008–2009 season, Zhou Long composed a flute concerto for the California Pacific and Singapore Symphonies, and his first opera, co-commissioned by the Opera Boston and Beijing Music Festival, to be premiered in 2010. His music has been recorded on many major labels and is published exclusively by Oxford University Press.
Lei Liang is a Chinese-born American composer primarily of stage and chamber works which have been performed throughout the world. He received degrees from the New England Conservatory of Music (BM and MM) and Harvard University (PhD). His commissions and performances have come from the New York Philharmonic, the Heidelberger Philharmonisches Orchester, the Fromm Music Foundation, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, the Manhattan Sinfonietta, the Arditti String Quartet, the Ying Quartet, the Meridian Arts Ensemble, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, and Argento Chamber Ensemble, among others. He was named Junior Fellow at the Society of Fellows of Harvard University; taught in China as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Shaanxi Normal University College of Arts in Xi’an; served as Honorary Professor of Composition and Sound Design at Wuhan Conservatory of Music and as Visiting Assistant Professor of Music at Middlebury College. Since 2007, he has held the title of Assistant Professor of Music at the University of California, San Diego.
A prolific composer who blends Chinese and Western traditions, Chen Yi received the prestigious Charles Ives Living Composer Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001. She holds the Cravens/Millsap/Missouri Distinguished Professorship at the Conservatory of the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2005. Chen Yi received her Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Columbia University. She has served as Composer-in-Residence for the Women’s Philharmonic, the vocal ensemble Chanticleer, and the Aptos Creative Arts Center, as well as on the composition faculty at the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University. Additional fellowships and awards have come from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Fromm Foundation at Harvard University, the Koussevitzky Music Foundation at the Library of Congress, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Dr. Chen holds Honorary Doctorates from Lawrence University, Baldwin-Wallace College and University of Portland. In 2006, the China Ministry of Education appointed her to the prestigious Changjiang Scholar Visiting Professor at the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music. Her works are published by Theodore Presser Company.
Tan Dun has made an indelible mark on the world’s music scene with a creative repertoire that spans the boundaries of classical music, multimedia performance, and Eastern and Western traditions. He has won many of today’s most prestigious honors, including the Grawemeyer Award for classical composition, Grammy Award, Academy Award, and Musical America’s Composer of The Year. His music has been played throughout the world by the leading orchestras, opera houses, international festivals, and on radio and television. In December 2006, the Metropolitan Opera premiered Tan’s The First Emperor, which created a title role for Placido Domingo. In 2008, Google and You Tube commissioned Tan’s Internet Symphony No. 1: “Eroica” as the focal point for the world’s first collaborative online orchestra. His score for Ang Lee’s film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon received the 2001 Oscar Award for best original score.
Ming-Hsiu Yen, a DMA candidate in composition at the University of Michigan (UM), holds dual degrees in both composition and piano performance from UM (MM) and the Eastman School of Music (BM). She has received prizes from the governmental Literary and Artistic Creation Competition (Taiwan), the Second Sun River Composition Competition (China), League Of Composers/ISCM-USA Competition, and others. Her compositions have been performed by the Minnesota Orchestra, YINQI Symphony Orchestra, and OSSIA New Music in venues including Carnegie’s Weill Hall, UM’s Hill Auditorium, Kitara Hall (Japan), and National Recital Hall (Taiwan), and in festivals such as Pacific Music Festival, Aspen Music Festival, and the Brevard Music Festival. An active performer, she is a two-time winner of the UM concerto competition and has premiered over twenty compositions written by other emerging composers.
Intriguing programs of great beauty and breadth have distinguished the PRISM Quartet as one of America's foremost chamber ensembles. Two-time winners of the Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, PRISM has performed in Carnegie Hall on the Making Music Series, in Alice Tully Hall with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and throughout Latin America under the auspices of the United States Information Agency. PRISM has also been presented to critical acclaim as soloists with orchestras nationwide, including the Detroit Symphony and Cleveland Orchestras, performing William Bolcom's Concerto Grosso, written especially for the Quartet. Champions of new music, PRISM has premiered over 100 works, many by internationally celebrated composers, including Steven Mackey, William Albright, Lee Hyla, Greg Osby, Martin Bresnick and Bernard Rands. The Quartet also maintains three annual Young Composer Commissioning Awards in Philadelphia, New York, and at the Walden School in New Hampshire, where PRISM conducts regular residencies.
In 1997, PRISM initiated its own concert series in Philadelphia and New York City, presenting the newest compositions created for their ensemble by both classical and jazz composers from around the world. The series has featured an eclectic range of guest artists, including Ethel, the Talujon Percussion Quartet, Music From China, Miro Dance Theatre, Cantori New York, pianist Marilyn Nonken, saxophonist Donald Sinta, and many of New York’s most progressive jazz artists, including guitarist Ben Monder, saxophonists Tim Ries and Rick Margitza, and drummers Gerald Cleaver, John Riley, and Mark Ferber. PRISM has also joined forces with the New York Consort of Viols, the Chester String Quartet, Opera Colorado, and the Chilean rock band Inti-Illimani in touring engagements.
PRISM has recorded for Koch, Naxos, New Dynamic, Albany, and innova. PRISM may also be heard on the soundtrack of the film "Two Plus One," by Emmy nominee Eugene Martin, scored by Quartet member Matthew Levy, and is featured in the theme music to the weekly PBS news magazine "NOW."
Music From China is a chamber ensemble that performs a dual repertoire of traditional and contemporary Chinese music. The group was founded in 1984 by Executive Director Susan Cheng and is under the artistic direction of erhu virtuoso Wang Guowei. What began as a mission to introduce audiences to the best of Chinese musical culture evolved into an affinity for the eclectic that embraces both traditional and new music. Music From China commissions and performs works that extend Chinese music and instruments beyond traditional boundaries. The annual Premiere Works concert series has presented commissioned and existing works by such notable composers as Chen Yi, Zhou Long (Music Director of Music From China since 1989), Bun-Ching Lam, Dorothy Chang, James Mobberly, Qu Xiaosong, and Tan Dun. The Music From China International Composition Competition, established in 1992, has encouraged many emerging composers to write for Chinese instruments. Since 1986, Music From China has performed over 111 new works by 67 composers, of which 36 are commissioned and 31 are competition prizewinners. Music From China is the first Chinese ensemble to receive an Adventurous Programming Award from Chamber Music America and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) for creative programs that combine the music of East and West.
Antiphony by Zhou Long was commissioned with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and as part of the national series of works from Meet The Composer’s Commissioning Music/USA program, which is made possible by generous support from The Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Francis Goelet Trust, the Helen F. Whitaker Fund, Target, The William and Flora Hewett Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts, and Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.
Yuan by Lei Liang was commissioned by World-Wide Concurrent Premieres and Commissioning Fund, Inc., and made possible with a grant from the Fromm Music Foundation. It was completed during a composer residency at La Mortella in Ischia, Italy, courtesy of Fondazione William Walton.
Septet by Chen Yi was commissioned with support from the New York State Council on the Arts.
This recording was made possible with generous support from:
The Presser Foundation
The Aaron Copland Fund for Music
The Philadelphia Musical Fund Society
Executive Producer PRISM Quartet
Producer Zhou Long
Editing, Mixing, Mastering Matthew Levy