About this Recording
8.570604 - ZHOU, Long: Su / Pianogongs / Taiping Drum / Wild Grass / Taigu Rhyme / CHEN, Yi: Monologue / Chinese Ancient Dances (Beijing New Music Ensemble)
English  Chinese 

Zhou Long (b.1953)
Su (Tracing Back) • Pianogongs • Taiping Drum
Wild Grass • Taigu Rhyme


A landmark study in “translating” traditional instrument technique into a contemporary language, Su (Tracing Back) has usually been performed in the west in a version for harp and fl ute, but the original piece was composed in 1984 for fl ute and guqin “at the request of the contemporary qin scholar Wu Wenguang”, writes Zhou. Since then, Su (Tracing Back) has enjoyed an underground reputation among guqin players of mainland China, with generations of photocopies of the score and bootleg cassettes from a sole master copy of a studio recording at China Record Company passed along over the last 24 years. This is the first worldwide recording of the original version.


Intended as a solo (the keyboard and two gong parts together), Zhou Long changed his mind after hearing violinist Gao Can improvise on percussion instruments between takes, and invited him to record together with Michelle Yip. Of the piece, Zhou writes: “I have used piano as a percussion instrument along with two Chinese opera gongs (laid on a soft mat and placed on top of the piano lip). The combination…forms a kind of performing force of the Beijing Opera percussion ensemble…” The three main elements in the piece are “[a] fast repetitive rhythm, which represents drum rolls on dagu (large drum) and bangu (piccolo drum)…[a] series of chords…based on the combination of a major triad and perfect fourth, creating the tinkling sound of the chime stones…[and a]n active staccato motive, which is used as a transition…”

Taiping Drum

Written only a year earlier than Su (Tracing Back), while Zhou was still a student, Taiping Drum employs a different musical language. One can imagine a nationwide audience enjoying a broadcast of the work during Zhou’s years as composer-in-residence at Radio Beijing. In a traditional rondo form employing an introduction and two episodes, both instruments frequently imitate the dan gu drum in free-tempo passages. As Zhou states, the piece uses “pentatonic folk-tune material found in er ren tai, a form of duo singing and dancing popular in northeast China…“The Taiping drum (also called dan gu) is a percussion instrument that originated in north-east China in the Tang dynasty. Made from a single membrane (16” x 20”) in a round fan shape, the drum is held in the left hand with iron rings linked under the handle, while the right hand beats it with a piece of rattan. Originally used by shamans…Taiping Drum became the name of a popular form of song and dance among the Han people, as well as the Mongolian and Manchurian ethnic groups today. While playing the drum, the performer dances in rhythmic patterns.”

Wild Grass

The evocative Wild Grass may be performed by solo cello, or viola, with or without vocal recitation from the foreword to Lu Xun’s Wild Grass. Until recently that text was always performed in English translation, but in the 2006 Chinese première Zhou Long himself recited in the original Chinese, with the Beijing New Music Ensemble’s original cellist Zhao Xuyang. Zhou describes the character of the piece as, “[m]oving freely between eerie harmonics, lyrical melodic sections, and fierce rhythmic passages”, seeking to capture the “exultant quality of the poem, with its refrain…”


When silent, I feel content; when moved to speak, I feel empty inside.

The past life has perished. Its death inspires joy in me, because it means it once survived. A dead life has decayed. This decay inspires joy in me, because it means it has not yet vanished.

Life’s waste, cast on earth, does not give rise to tall trees, but does bring forth wild grass, my indulgence.

Wild grass has no deep roots, no pretty flowers; but it absorbs dew, and water. It consumes the flesh and blood of the laid-out dead, while all try to rob it of its own existence. Throughout its life, it is trampled, or cut away, until it dies and decays.

But I am unmoved. I am joyful. I will laugh aloud, and sing.

I revere my wild grass, yet the ground I loathe, which merely decorates itself.

Wildfires spread underground, and surge; once molten lava gushes forth, it will consume all wild grasses, and even combust the trees, and nothing will be left to decay. But I am unmoved. I am joyful. I will laugh aloud, and sing.

With heaven and earth so staid, I cannot laugh out loud, nor sing praise. Even were they less bleak, I still might not laugh or sing. In light and dark, through life and death, past and future, to friend and enemy, to man and beast, to the loved and unloved, to all I offer this bit of wild grass as witness.

For myself, friend and foe, man and beast, for the loved and unloved, I look to the impending decay of these wild grasses. If it does not come, it is as if I never existed—and that is a fortune far worse than death and decay. Go on, wild grass, follow my foreword!

26 April, 1927
Lu Xun, Baiyun Estate, Guangzhou
(translated by Eli Marshall, 2009)

Taigu Rhyme

Lu Xun, like many of his generation, enjoyed many years in Japan, but when he died in 1936, it was on the cusp of a new era—Japan’s invasion and occupation of China. To this day relations between the two cultures are strained.

Taigu Rhyme, for clarinet, violin, cello, and three traditional drummers, was written for a Concert of Remembrance and Reconciliation initiated by the Bridge of Souls organization in 2001 and performed in 2003 by the Chamber Music Society of Minnesota and Theater Mu, a Japanese Taiko ensemble.

Zhou’s artistic basis of the piece is an imagined re-creation of the original styles, all but forgotten, of Chinese dagu drumming of the Tang Dynasty, which grew out of both court and Buddhist drumming styles. It was adapted over the centuries by Japan into its own intricate taiko tradition.

Zhou Long writes, “Taigu Rhyme begins with three drummers on the chu (medium drum) and odaiko (large drum) beating a slow rhythmic pattern…The middle section is inspired by ancient Zhihua temple music from Beijing. The clarinet evokes the sound of the guanzi, a double reed instrument used in the temple ensemble, with a singing melody accompanied by a haunting free-tempo ritual atmosphere in the ensemble. The last section breaks in with a return to the opening motifs and a vivid tempo drives the work to the end.”

Chen Yi (b.1953)
Monologue • Romance of Hsiao and Ch’ in Chinese Ancient Dances

Monologue (Impressions on “The True Story of Ah Q”)

“And this was all an introduction”, is how the narrator of Lu Xun’s True Story of Ah Q ends the lengthy gallows-farce. From there Chen Yi picks up with what she calls a “meditation of introspection” on what might have happened to Lu’s most famous antihero, a two-bit, semi-anonymous loser known only as “Q”. Keith Lipson, who plays here, gave the Chinese première of the piece. This, and Zhou’s composition Wild Grass, were given their première together at a concert The World of Lu Xun in 1993 in Birmingham.

Romance of Hsiao and Ch’ in

The traditional duo inspiring Romance is the same as Zhou Long’s Su (Tracing Back): guqin and xiao (vertical fl ute). According to Chen, the violin embodies the xiao, which itself resembles the human voice, while the piano, as guqin, evokes sounds of nature. The piece became the first movement of the duet Romance and Dance, but was first conceived as a violin duo with string orchestra, given its first performance by Shlomo Mintz and Elmar Oliveira and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, conducted by Yehudi Menuhin in New York. The violin-piano duet was given its China première by Gao Can and Michelle Yip, who perform here.

Chinese Ancient Dances

Each of the two movements in Chen Yi’s Chinese Ancient Dances evokes a different historical time period. The maowu (Ox Tail dance) was a preparatory ritual of the Zhou Dynasty, employing props of feathers and ox-tails. The huxuan dance was one of the most popular dances depicted on art of the late sixth to the late eighth century, during the Tang Dynasty. This “foreign whirling” dance performed on a mat was probably introduced into China from Sogdia, but the earliest origins of both the maowu and huxuan are unknown. Keith Lipson and Michelle Yip gave the Chinese première of the piece.

Chen Yi and Zhou Long

Chen Yi and Zhou Long were trained side-by-side in Beijing at the Central Conservatory, and in New York at Columbia University and are now partners on the faculty at the Conservatory of the University of Missouri—Kansas City. They are also married to each other. Despite the close ties, their compositions enjoy distinct identities, a testament to their early histories, and the strength of their individual personalities. Chen Yi, born in Guangzhou in 1953, is a Distinguished Professor at the Conservatory of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and the recipient of the prestigious Charles Ives Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her music is published by Theodore Presser Company, commissioned and performed world-wide by such ensembles as the Cleveland Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, recorded on BIS, New Albion, CRI, Teldec, Angle, Nimbus, Albany, New World, Quartz, Koch & China Record Co., among others. She has been elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2005, and appointed the Changjiang Scholar Professor at the CCOM by the China Ministry of Education in 2006, which has brought her to Beijing for intensive residencies with young composers the last three years.

Zhou Long was born in Beijing in 1953. Following graduation from the Central Conservatory in 1983, was appointed composer-in-residence with the China National Broadcasting Symphony. Zhou has received fellowships from the NEA, and the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, the Mary Cary Trust and the Aaron Copland Fund for Music. He has been the recipient of commissions from the Koussevitzky and the Fromm Music Foundations, Meet the Composer, Chamber Music America, and ensembles around the world. He is the recipient of the 2003 Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. During the 2008–09 season, Zhou has been working on a fl ute concerto for the California Pacific and Singapore Symphonies, a new chamber work for PRISM Saxophone Quartet with Chinese instruments, and will start his first opera co-commissioned by the Opera Boston and Beijing Music Festival, to be given its première in 2010. He is a professor at the Conservatory of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His works have been recorded on many major labels; this is his first Naxos release. His music is published exclusively by Oxford University Press.

Beijing New Music Ensemble

The Beijing New Music Ensemble is the only independent musical ensemble dedicated to new music in China. Since 2005 the ensemble has been “presenting chamber music in a revolutionary way” (Macao Daily). A young, vibrant group of diverse backgrounds, the ensemble has performed across greater China and in South Korea, in concert halls, bars, universities, and art spaces, and was featured on BBC Radio Three in the summer of 2008. Often collaborating with musicians of traditional Chinese backgrounds, BNME has created a grassroots forum for contemporary music in Beijing and, in three years, has presented over three dozen China premières to growing audiences. This is the début CD of the ensemble.

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