About this Recording
8.570603 - GE, Gan-Ru: String Quartets No. 1, "Fu", No. 4, "Angel Suite" and No. 5, "Fall of Baghdad" (ModernWorks)
English  Chinese 

Ge Gan-Ru
String Quartets Nos. 1, 4 and 5
Modern Works


Ge Gan-Ru was born in Shanghai in 1954. His childhood violin studies were interrupted by the Cultural Revolution, during which time he was sent to a labor camp to plant rice. At night, however, he would walk in total darkness on a muddy road to a secret location where he could continue to practice western music. After a year of this, he was assigned to an ensemble of violin, saxophone, bamboo and western flutes, pi’pa and accordion to entertain the workers with revolutionary songs and dances. To his good fortune, two wonderful things happened: the accordion player became his wife, and he had many opportunities to do musical arrangements for this unusual group. (Without this experience, Ge later said, he might not be a composer today.) When the Cultural Revolution ended and the Shanghai Conservatory was reopened in 1974, he was admitted as a violin student; but in 1977, inspired by his recent creative experiences, he switched to composition, studying with Chen Gang. Soon he became acquainted with scores by 20th century western composers such as Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Cage, Crumb and the Japanese composer Takemitsu; and in 1980, when (British composer) Alexander Goehr became the first western composer to visit China after the Cultural Revolution, Ge was among the few students to receive lessons. Upon his graduation in 1981 Ge was named assistant professor of composition at the Conservatory.

But new Chinese music was still based on traditional western styles. By all accounts, the opening salvo in the Chinese musical avant-garde was Ge’s 1982 work Yi Feng (Lost Style) for what has been described as a “radically detuned” solo cello. Yi Feng was premiered in Shanghai in 1983 to much controversy and criticism. (A contemporaneous recording has been released on the New Albion label.)

In 1983, Ge started working on his String Quartet No. 1—Fu (Prose-Poem). Before completing it, however, he left China as the first of a generation of Chinese composers brought to New York City by Chou Wen-chung at Columbia University. At first he had to support himself as a restaurant deliveryman, but he managed to complete Fu, which was picked up within a year by the Kronos Quartet. By the time he received his doctorate from Columbia in 1991, he was supporting himself as a composer, and he continues to live in the New York area as of this writing. Ge regards both Fu and Yi Feng as landmarks in the development of his musical language: “They are the first of their kind in China, exploring individualism and the essence of Chinese music characteristics while avoiding sentimental melodies then prevalent in China.” The composer continues: “Fu in Chinese refers to descriptive prose interspersed with verse. In this piece, I tried to express some of the most basic aesthetic feelings typical of Chinese classical poetry and calligraphy, such as subtlety, free form, and masterly strokes.”

Notice how poetry and calligraphy (decorative or highly stylized writing) are combined in Ge’s description of Fu—both the cultural object and the string quartet. This invites the reader/listener to focus on its content and meaning as well as its means of production; or, viewed another way, to focus on western notions of musical content (melody, harmony and rhythm) along with timbre (the nature, quality, even physicality of the musical sounds) and inflections of individual notes, which are more dominant in Chinese music.

Fu’s opening note is bent up and down by a half-step (or minor second), the smallest interval in traditional western music. (It is also the most prominent interval in 20th-century modernist and avant-garde western classical music, a connection that Ge exploits in his own music.) But this small gesture also generates much of the musical content of the quartet, as various episodes (perhaps analogous to verses in poetry) build up and break off, returning to this primal sound. In the opening episode, the half steps open up to other notes until the four voices form western-style harmonies. In another episode later in the work, the half-step motive appears in the highest range of the four instruments, becoming an almost neurotic melody in the violin.

Unorthodox means of tone production dominate Fu, although to a lesser extent than with Yi Feng. (For instance, the instruments are conventionally tuned.) There are snap pizzicati (plucking the string with such force that it rebounds against the fingerboard); harmonics (producing high-pitched “glassy” sounds from the vibrating string); glissandi (sliding up and down along the string); tremolos (both normal and with great pressure on the bow producing a “scrubby” sound); and various combinations of these techniques resulting in some unearthly but always very musical sounds. There is also throughout the work an alternation between unmeasured rhythmless passages and more regular patterned music. The metrical aspects of poetry may be part of the inspiration behind the two march-like episodes that gradually form, accelerate and break off suddenly, near the end of each half of the work. After the second such episode, a subdued coda ends the work with, yet again, the recurring half-step. Some of the same sounds from Fu open Angel Suite—String Quartet No. 4 (1998). However, they go in a very different direction, for this is a very different piece. The composer writes: “of all my works, this piece is the closest to the Western classical music tradition, and it offers a contrast to my other music…The title comes from my interest in Christianity, although I am not a Christian myself. For many years, the religion was forbidden in China…In this work, I try to express my curiosity in, and observation of, various aspects of Christianity. The titles of the movements refer to the subjects that I wanted to represent musically. For instance, in the first movement, the harmonic glissando represents a cherub; the second movement focuses on dance rhythm, which comes from the persistent bass notes on the cello. The beginning motif on violin gradually develops into a full dance. In the prayer movement, I use contrasting consonant and dissonant chords to draw out feelings of purity and sincerity in praying. In the middle section, I also use the beginning few notes from Schubert’s Ave Maria. For the last movement I chose to write a march, as I always imagine an angel is young and vibrant.”

Interestingly, the minor second plays a prominent role in the second, third and fourth movements, but here it grows out of (and into) western chromaticism; Ge’s idea of heaven includes gorgeous late-romantic harmonies. (In a possible subconscious homage, the second half of the first movement and the second movement’s repeated cello notes contain audible reminiscences of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.) The closing march contains echoes of Shostakovich, and the never-resolving augmented triad-based harmonies move upwards as the melodic material moves downwards, presumably because angels can move in all directions at once!

Fall of Baghdad—String Quartet No. 5, from 2007, is an explicit homage to George Crumb’s Vietnam-era (1970) Black Angels for Electric String Quartet. Crumb’s work was not written as an explicit anti-war protest, but has come to be associated with “surrounding things (psychological and emotional)” that were in the air at the time. Ge, on the other hand, decided to “compose a string quartet that could, on the one hand, pay tribute to Crumb and, on the other hand, record my musical thoughts provoked by the [Iraq] war.” Like the Crumb, it is in three large sections divided into thirteen shorter ones; and like the Crumb, it opens with hair-raising squeals which in Ge’s piece are produced by applying pressure on the strings behind the bridge to create a scraping sound of indefinite pitch.

The Crumb work enacts a metaphysical drama of good and evil. Ge’s quartet is much more down-to-earth—as his subtitle puts it, a living hell. Here extended techniques are neither cultural artifacts (as in the first quartet) or evocations of incorporeal beings (as in the fourth quartet) but rather embodied sounds of destruction and misery. (For musical and emotional contrast, light percussive effects are used in the middle section, ‘Music from Heaven,’ which is a different heaven than in Angel Suite.) Microtonal inflections here evoke Arabic music, connected (by the Silk Road) to similar gestures in Chinese music. Other unorthodox techniques used in this work include, in the composer’s description, “using glissandi and distorted sound to create the ‘hellish’ effects; playing col legno (striking the strings with the [wooden part of the] bow) both in front of and behind the bridge for the Caliph’s drum and using extreme high notes on low strings for ‘moaning’ sounds.”

The final movement, ‘Desolation,’ builds to a climax over its first three sections, from traditional western dissonance to sobbing and heaving sighs suggested by the cello’s phrasing and breathy timbre in its low register, to the moaning described above, and finally to “keening” (a lamentation or dirge for the dead uttered in a loud wailing voice) with the most difficult sounds in the entire quartet. It seems to fade out, but instead it returns more and more slowly, finally surrendering to hopeless despair.

Although these three quartets span Ge’s creative career to date, they do not encompass the full range of his musical voice. In addition to Yi Feng, several of his larger-scale works have been recorded: two more conventional orchestral pieces, Chinese Rhapsody (1992) and Six Pentatonic Tunes (2005) and a Piano Concerto, Wu (1986) on BIS SACD-1509; and Four Studies of Peking Opera (2003, rev. 2006) for prepared piano and string quartet and Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, a melodrama for voice self-accompanied by a toy ensemble, on the New Albion label NA-134 along with Yi Feng.

© 2008 Eric J. Bruskint

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