About this Recording
8.559713 - CHIAYU: Journey to the West / Urban Sketches / 12 Signs (Members of the Curtis Institute of Music and Philadelphia Orchestra, The Ciompi Quartet)

Chiayu (b. 1975)


This collection of compositions, written over an eight-year period, reflects both a diversity of compositional approaches, as well as important commonalities, that are characteristic of Chiayu’s writing. Common to this collection is music that is evocative of an image, both specific and abstract. In most of the compositions, the importance of her Taiwanese background is evident, ranging from rhythmic patterns in Zhi to the sound of the Chinese flute in Urban Sketches, to programmatic material in Journey to the West. In addition, counterpoint is an essential element throughout most of this collection, as is the creation of musical gestures that blend innovative timbral effects with traditional sounds. Regardless of the approach in this diverse, and often complex, collection, Chiayu creates a clarity of affect and intention.

Urban Sketches (2013)

Dedicated to Claudette Sorel of the Sorel Organization, Urban Sketches, written for piano trio and electronic sounds, takes the listener on an evocative walk through the energy and diversity of New York City. The composition creates an appealing and intriguing excursion with its combination of diverse styles, which, while essential to many of Chiayu’s works, is more immediately identifiable in Urban Sketches. The listener encounters dance rhythms of Latin salsa music, Chinese bamboo flute music on the clarinet, and jazz. Much of the energy of the composition is generated through the inclusion of “street sounds” into the texture, including whistles, sirens, brakes, drills, and “vinyl sounds” of a DJ, produced both electronically and by the trio. Reflecting Chiayu’s intricate approach to counterpoint, the electronic motives, gestures, and timbral effects are interwoven seamlessly with those of the trio and contribute significantly to an animated and interactive texture which evokes the numerous and diverse interchanges in an urban setting. After an animated opening, a quieter side of New York City reveals itself through a counterpoint of calming sounds, with rain drops, wind, harmonics, and trills. “Recycled” material from the opening returns for a conclusion that embodies “a brighter and more sustainable New York City.” The piece was begun at the Dora Maar House in Ménerbes, France in 2011 and completed when Chiayu was in residence at the Copland House in Cortlandt Manor, New York, 2013.

Huan (2006)

Huan was the winner of a composition competition attached to the Seventh International Harp Competition held in Indiana in 2007. The composers were to write a composition inspired by the writing of Gene Stratton-Porter (1863–1924), a naturalist, who wrote extensively about the Limberlost swamplands in northern Indiana which teemed with wildlife. Huan, which is the Chinese character for images or illusions, offers Impressionistic images of Limberlost that Chiayu associates with “remote swampy landscapes” in her native Taiwan. Drawing from Stratton-Porter’s book, The Song of the Cardinal, Chiayu creates static, non-developmental, illusions or episodes pertaining to the ecosystem upon which the listener can reflect. Traditional techniques are used to create these impressions, while some non-traditional timbral effects are also elicited from the harp, including clusters, shimmery glissandos played with the tip of the fingers, scraping effects on the strings, harmonics, and “half pedals” to create a vibration against the tuning pins. In the second movement, the humming of the swamp is created through a light and continuous figuration in the left hand, over which light repeated bird calls are heard, and knocking on the sounding board to conjure up a woodpecker in search of bugs ends the movement. Based upon a gesture described in Stratton-Porter’s book, “climbed to the edge and fell,” the third movement consists of fast figural material in which clarity is maintained by threading a cloth between strings and concludes with a quick ascent and a fall to a low final chord played by a wooden stick.

Journey to the West (2010)

Journey to the West is based on a Classic Chinese novel from the Ming Dynasty of the same name (Xiyouji), which depicts an allegorical trip to India by the monk, Xuan Zang, and his disciple, the monkey king, to seek sacred texts. Appropriate to the subject, this string quartet reflects influence of Chinese musical techniques, such as the sound of the Chinese fiddle in the opening created through continuous glissandos of the second violin and, in the second movement, the use of horizontal pitch collections based on pentatonic scales. The composition begins with the birth of the monkey king, whose trickster character, with his combination of childlike playfulness and cunning intelligence, is embodied through the layers of activities, shifting moods, tempos, timbres, and textures. The second movement is related to a chapter describing a cold winter effectively captured through timbral effects, including the icy sound of sul ponticello tremolo and tranquil, but stark chords entirely of harmonics, and a beautiful cello line against a backdrop of fast repeated notes which conjures up the isolation of winter. The third movement begins with perpetual motion of a battle scene between the monkey king and the various monsters, but in the end the mission is accomplished with the monk learning the essence of Buddhism and returning to China.

Twelve Signs (2008)

Twelve Signs is based on the Chinese Zodiac which is an astrological system that relates each year to an animal following a twelve-year cycle. These animals have been traditionally categorized into four trines based upon shared character traits, and this division is used by Chiayu to create a broad architectural plan with contrast in tempo, tonality, and melodic material. The first trine of the Rat, Dragon and Monkey, which is described as extroverted, dynamic, and passionate, are captured through fast tempos, energy and power. The second trine of the Ox, Snake and Rooster is characterized as philosophical, patient and meditative, resulting in freer tempos and more abstract tonality. The rash and impulsive qualities of the Tiger, Horse and Dog are represented by mixed tempos and more fragmented materials, while the intuitive, calm and sensible qualities of the Rabbit, Sheep and Pig result in slow tempos and lyrical elements. In addition, individual qualities are captured for each animal, such as the scampering, furtive rat with fast and unpredictable rhythms with a light sul tasto tone with a periodic squeak from playing behind the bridge, the flying dragon with sweeping ascending and descending gestures, and the clopping horse with knocking on the viola and related musical gestures. Each sign is introduced with a representation of the gong, pizzicato followed by fifths in harmonics descending through a sul ponticello glissando, which initially diminishes in length and then expands to its original form. The musical gestures consist of a seamless integration of traditional and non-traditional sounds that create new levels of technical demand for the performer. The result is a virtuosic composition with a series of contrasting movements, each with a particular character, but with a carefully planned broad architecture, not unlike a Bach solo violin partita.

Sparkle (2011)

Sparkle was written to celebrate the establishment of Lenfest Hall at the Curtis Institute of Music which marked a milestone in the history of Curtis, one of Chiayu’s alma maters. The composition, which was inspired by the imagery of fireworks, appropriate for this occasion, is a fanciful and brilliant work for brass quintet. Tightly animated and choreographed textures are created with various and dynamic motives which collide and “sparkle”. The composition begins with an imitative fanfare in which independent lines periodically combine to create a dramatic gesture. Towards the end of the first section, special timbral effects of clicking, popping and smacking suggest the sounds of fireworks. In comparison the interior slow section of this three-part structure is quieter and more lyrical but still highly animated with an often dense counterpoint. With references back to the opening, a dramatic finale is created through all of the voices building in energy to a final synchronized gesture.

Zhi (2005)

Zhi, written as part of a counterpoint course at Duke University, consists of four contrasting movements that are unified by the exploration of contrapuntal techniques, economical treatment of material, and a methodical use of the twelve tones. The term zhi means “to weave or to interlace, especially to form a design,” and as Chiayu notes, “The result is often a united and coherent texture, yet one that varies depending on the viewing angle, as in the view through a kaleidoscope.” The first movement consists of three variations upon a series of twelve chords in which three principal chords, whose pitches form the chromatic scale, recur at different transpositions. While the series of chords remain in its original form, the violin line is transformed and is used to create a progressively complex contrapuntal texture. A colourful and static backdrop for the second movement is created by the fast repetition of a five-note pattern in the piano, a gesture which is also the central melodic material of the movement which is treated in augmentation and diminution to create growing layers of counterpoint. The third movement is economical three-point imitative counterpoint; each entry, and central gestural points, are organized around the circle of fifths with the climax of the piece a tri-tone away. A similar principle of organization is employed in the fourth movement, but in contrast to the previous three movements, the texture is a single line presented in the violin and supported by the piano, and shifting meters and strong rhythmic accents are in the foreground.

Gretchen Peters

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