About this Recording
8.572839 - LIANG, Lei: Verge / Tremors of a Memory Chord / Aural Hypothesis / Five Seasons (Palimpsest Ensemble, Callithumpian Consort, Wu Man, Pi-hsien Chen)

Lei Liang (b. 1972)
Verge • Aural Hypothesis • Five Seasons • Tremors of a Memory Chord


I was born in China during the last years of the Cultural Revolution. Growing up in a family of musicologists—my father specializes in Chinese music, and my mother in Western music—I started learning the piano when I was four, and began composing at the age of six.

The tumultuous events of 1989 were a turning point. I left Beijing and moved to America in 1990 at the age of seventeen. It was here that I came to the realization that I was “homeless” spiritually and culturally. I developed a strong urge to question everything I had been taught earlier in China, and to discover or create my own spiritual and cultural homeland.

While many of my prominent predecessors straddle different musical languages, drawing resources from different worlds, I try to develop a personal approach to cultivating a meaningful relationship with my own heritage. It is not a cultural entity with a convenient border marked “China”, nor a sense of nostalgia that I am seeking. That would be too easy. While cultural and historical borders are often sharply delineated, simplified and celebrated, they tend to be, more often than not, characterized by fluidity, uncertainty and subjects of deep ambivalence. I consider cultural labels, clichéd quotations or exotic instrumental treatments as badges of intellectual laziness and lack of originality.

For me, composing is a way to free oneself from the artificial confines of cultural identities, a means to challenge the perceived boundaries and convenient labels. To this end, I have developed a few concepts and techniques, each building on the richness of resources that crosses historical, cultural, technological and disciplinary boundaries. The works contained on this disc exemplify some of my latest efforts on this path.

Verge, for 18 solo strings (2009)

Scored for string orchestra, Verge was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and its Music Director, Alan Gilbert. This piece was composed on the verge of an exciting moment in my life: the birth of our son Albert Shin Liang. I started composing the work a month before his birth, and completed it the month after.

Albert’s musical name, here rendered as A - B (B flat) - E - D (with the D equivalent to the “re” in solfège), asserts itself in different configurations and disguises as the basic harmonic and melodic material. His heartbeat (up to 168 beats per minute) also makes an appearance in the form of changing tempi and pulsations. In a sense, I composed the piece in order to make a musical amulet for Albert.

On a technical level, I was fascinated by the dialectical relationship between the convergence and divergence of musical voices found in the traditional heterophonic music of Mongolia. There, the functionality of a principal line and its accompaniment can interchange, and their unfolding is often unsynchronized.

The eighteen strings are divided into antiphonal groups: left versus right, front versus rear. They diverge into various sub-ensembles and quartets, and they also appear as eighteen virtuosic soloists. Near the end, they converge into a singular voice.

Verge had its première on 17 December 2009, in Symphony Space in New York City at the inaugural concert of the Philharmonic’s CONTACT! new music series, conducted by Magnus Lindberg.

Aural Hypothesis, for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and vibraphone (2010)

Chou Wen-chung, the composer to whom this piece is dedicated, once remarked, “Calligraphy is music in ink, and music is calligraphy in sound”. Aural Hypothesis is a fantastical study on how lines may find expression in sound. The lines in this piece, however, are not modeled after traditional Chinese calligraphy; they are something more basic or primal: a simple curve or a straight line, drawn with intense attentiveness or explosive speed.

The composition opens an intimate and quiet space, until an unexpected piano cadenza bursts into a sonic storm. Its coarseness and irregular punctuations counterbalance the otherwise meticulously deliberate and peaceful mood of the rest of the work, as if unpredictable forces of nature are incorporated into a contemplative space.

With a grant generously provided by the Jebediah Foundation, Aural Hypothesis was commissioned by Boston Musica Viva who gave its first performance on 1 October 2010, at the Tsai Performance Center in Boston, MA.

Five Seasons, for pipa and string quartet (2010)

The ancient Chinese devised a system of five phases (wuxing, also known as five elements) to describe generative and destructive interactions in nature. Each element is correlated to a season: the element wood is correlated to spring, fire to summer, metal to autumn, water to winter. In addition, the fifth element, earth, is correlated to changxia, or long summer, which is the transitional phase between summer and autumn.

In this composition, I extracted five chords from the ancient shō (mouth-organ) repertoire preserved in the gagaku music of Japan. These harmonies are foreshadowed in the second section, then appear in continuous succession—from extremely slow to extremely fast—serving as the harmonic basis of the last three sections.

The piece starts with “dew-drop”, the image of ice melting in early spring, evoked by pizzicatos. The water drops converge into streams and rivers, symbolized by rapid pulsations in the “water-play” section [3:55]. The middle section of the piece [6:51] recalls the “cicada chorus” that I heard in the long and hot summer days in Beijing where I grew up. This section is followed by the fall season where downward bending notes of the strings capture the image of “leaves falling” in slow motion [9:59]. The Chinese pronunciation of winter, dong, is homonymous to drumming sound, therefore the piece concludes with the quintet imitating percussions [13:17]. The end of the piece may link back to the beginning of the piece, reflecting the cyclical nature of seasons.

I completed Five Seasons during the rainy season in Osaka, Japan. With grants provided by Meet the Composer and Chamber Music America, it was written for and dedicated to Wu Man and the Shanghai Quartet who gave its world première at Peak Performances at Montclair State University on 12 September 2010.

Tremors of a Memory Chord, for piano and grand Chinese orchestra (2011)

This is my first major Asian commission since I left China more than twenty years ago. Personally, it became an emotional occasion that conjures up many memories.

Growing up in Beijing in the late 1970s and 80s, I heard a lot of music that reflected the sentiments and propaganda of the time. These were sounds of revolutionary passion, iron will, and boiling blood.

Living in the United States, I started searching for the sound of my soul’s distant homeland. These sounds gradually became fantasies. Some are metallic, while others are tender, as if made of silk and bamboo. These sounds contain the memory of my childhood and my fantasy.

Historically, instruments appear in countless combinations in traditional China. There were the elegant Yayue ensembles, the standing and sitting orchestras of the Tang court, the string ensembles of the Qing dynasty, and many silk and bamboo ensembles as well as wind and percussion varieties. In the twentieth century, modeled after the Western orchestra, an orchestra of Chinese instruments was created.

Technically, it is challenging to blend the piano with Chinese instruments. To the discerning ears, different tuning systems clash; their timbres do not blend; various performance practice and styles are often in conflict. Moreover, the genre of the concerto is also a Western import.

Aesthetically, the multi-dimensionality of traditional East Asian music is often exemplified by timbral richness of single notes and expressivity of single melodic lines. Rarely does it resort to countrapuntal or harmonic devices. For example, in the music of guqin (an ancient seven-string zither) and pipa (a type of lute), the combination of right-hand plucking techniques and left-hand pitch modifications enables a solo instrument to project the coloristic richness of an entire ensemble.

In this composition, the piano morphs into various instruments by changing its color. For example, the bending tones and squeaky sounds made by drawing a bar of plexiglass across the piano strings give the illusion of an electronic instrument [1:26]. When played with a slidebar rubbing against the string, the piano becomes a string instrument with strong vibrato [1:46]. The piano can become a guqin by articulating the subtle colors of the harmonics [11:24]. It can also become a gong [11:52] or a drum [12:08].

In the slow middle section [7:46], the pitches in the brilliant middle register of the piano are muted, resulting in darker sonorities, which approximate to the complexity of Chinese instruments. This middle section is framed by the fast sections [3:00; 13:01] featuring rapid tremolos between the two hands of the pianist, which were evolved from the lun and yao fingerings used on pipa and guzheng (zither).

Another feature of the piano writing that attests to the influence of traditional Asian musical practice is the fact that, throughout the eighteen-minute composition, simultaneous attack on the keyboard is avoided. The pianist delivers a gigantic “melodic line” that instead focuses on the succession and coloration of single tones.

Tremors of a Memory Chord was commissioned by the Taipei Chinese Orchestra, and written for pianist Pi-hsien Chen who gave its world première with En Shao (conductor) on 14 April 2011, in the National Concert Hall in Taipei, Taiwan.

Lei Liang

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