About this Recording
GP835 - GE, Gan-Ru: Piano Music - 12 Preludes / Ancient Music / Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! / Hard, Hard, Hard! (Yiming Zhang)
English  Chinese 



Towards the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1974, the Shanghai Conservatory of Music (SCOM) undertook the auditioning of potential students. Ge Gan-ru, who had been sent to receive ‘re-education’ on a labour camp on Chongming Island near Shanghai, was accepted as a violin student, returning to the city of his birth, Shanghai. While studying the violin at the Conservatory, Ge developed a keen interest in composition, eventually becoming a student at the Department of Composition in 1977, under the tutelage of Chen Gang, a joint composer of the famous violin concerto The Butterfly Lovers. Since the early stage of his career, Ge has challenged himself to develop a distinctive personal style, which he deems a fundamental criterion for any composer. However, it has proven a daunting task when put into practice. Ge has always set high standards for his works, hence the reason why many of his compositions have been put aside, destroyed or are under continuous revision. Of the seventeen of his works which have so far been recorded commercially, four are written for piano solo – the works included in this recording – and they represent his ever-evolving creative mind at different stages.

Amongst these four piano works, Twelve Preludes and Hard, Hard, Hard! are premiere recordings. In a recent interview with Professor Edward Green writing for the Russian magazine Iconi, Ge was asked which of his compositions truly reflect his own identity, and what these works convey. Ge named five compositions: Lost Style, Ancient Music, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!, The Fall of Bagdad and Shanghai Reminiscences, two of which are presented in this recording.

Composed in 1979, Twelve Preludes was dedicated to Chen Gang with whom Ge was studying at the time. Shadowing similar works by J.S. Bach and Chopin, the pieces are conceived according to the concept of the Circle of Fifths, even though there are more frequent modulations within each piece. Six of these pieces were premiered by the pianist Violette Hu at the Spring of Shanghai Festival in 1980, highlighting the desire of the composer to attempt works on a grand scale, as well as accepting the challenge to tackle complex music forms. The complete work was premiered by Yiming Zhang in Sanya, Hainan Province in 2019.

The Preludes are based on folk songs – a compositional device later almost abandoned by the composer – with original materials appearing in complete guises, or in adopted forms. The Ninth Prelude, for example, transcribes the Yi People’s folk song A Xi Dancing Under the Moon almost in full, even though there are alterations here and there. The original folk song is famous for its quintuple dance rhythm and sonorous major triad, the latter being a characteristic of the folk songs of ethnic minorities in South-west China, such as Yunnan Province. The composer has endeavoured to retain these features even though the melody is treated, including a version in canon with key changes in the style of a toccata in motoperpetuo; the lively rhythms are conducive to the ‘jerky’ style of the folk song, while the canon in different transpositions creates an appropriate atmosphere of the hectic dancing style of mountain songs in the region. Preludes Nos. 8 and 12 only involve small fragments of folk songs – so inconspicuous that the original melodies can hardly be identified – allowing the composer to use folk materials as a means to fulfil his desire to explore artistic expression, exploiting creativity and personal characteristics to the extreme.

In 1979, during the post Cultural Revolution period when the SCOM had the honour of hosting masterclasses and concerts by the famous pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy (the sign of re-admitting Western music to the country), Twelve Preludes was considered avant-garde, even though the composer merely considered the work as a starting point. In the following three years, Ge applied ‘modern’ techniques to supplement the more traditional style acquired during his training, leading to works such as the Violin Concerto, Chamber Symphony, Capriccio (for flute and piano), Moment of Time (solo piano), Force (solo clarinet) and the String Trio. His Moment of Time, for example, is based on Schoenberg’s serial technique, highlighting an atonal and arrhythmic nature, in addition to cyclic clusters, semi-improvisation and dummy keys. One would consider that Ge had mastered complex techniques in these works, yet the composer has never been happy with them, and merely considers them as exercises for composition.

Ge managed to compose a piece to his satisfaction in 1983: Lost Style for solo cello, which stirred up a huge controversy at its premiere in Shanghai. Lost Style has since been considered the first avant-garde work in China. Two years later in New York, the avant-garde pianist Margaret Leng Tan was thrilled by the music, and commissioned Ge to write a piece ‘inspired by the ancient Chinese horizontal lute Guqin, while highlighting features of the piano’. The result was the suite Ancient Music (Gu Yue) in 1985. The work is in four movements, comprising Gong, Qin (a Chinese zither), Pipa (a Chinese lute), and Drum; the performer is directed to apply extensive specified techniques inside the prepared piano.

The prepared piano, or playing from the inside of the instrument, is nothing new in the West, but few composers have attempted to apply these performing techniques to Chinese piano music. Ge managed to select four ancient Chinese instruments to match the natural timbres of parts inside the piano, hence he was fully aware of such applications in a cultural context. Take the first six bars of Qin as an example, the composer directs the pianist to apply glissando, beating, harmonics, plucking, sweeping and muting, as well as hitting two prepared screws and playing altered pitches. This is in order to recapture the ancient timbres of the qin.

The composer has endeavoured to use the piano to re-create the Chinese ancient style of marking time in the tradition of the ‘morning ringing of bells and evening beating of drums’, yet his aspirations are beyond the timbral effects. Ge compares music with painting, in that the essence is not a realistic portrayal, but rather making use of a theme to develop imagination, colour control and sentiments. His ultimate goal is to allow realism to elevate to a unique acoustic effect and style.

In this respect, Ancient Music has many similarities with ancient Chinese visual arts, which emphasises the levels of portraying shape, alluring emotion and becoming abstract, particularly in painting and calligraphy.

As a pianist who is interested in toy pianos, Margaret Leng Tan had always wanted Ge to write a piece for the instrument. Ge did not take this seriously, until one day he came across the poem Phoenix on Hairpin, Rosy Hands by Lu You (1125–1210), a patriotic poet in the Northern Song Dynasty. He then wrote the piece Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! in a short span; the piece appears to be playful, but in reality, it portrays a tragic love story. In 2011, the composer accepted a commission from Yen-lin Goh and Genevieve Lee to write a companion piece Hard, Hard, Hard!, based on the poem Phoenix on Hairpin, Love is Shallow by Tang Wan, the first wife of Lu You. Hence, the aforementioned love story is concerned with these two poets, who were married for only less than two years, but forced to separate owing to parental objections. They both later had second marriages, but met accidentally at Shenyuan in Shaoxing in 1155. As a response to this emotional moment, Lu You wrote his poem Phoenix on Hairpin, Rosy Hands, while his former wife Tang Wan wrote Phoenix on Hairpin, Love is Shallow in response.

It is possible to compare the two poems in order to illustrate the differing modes of expression. Tang Wan chooses a more direct means of portraying her hopelessness for love, and possesses the ability to assess her social position in a succinct manner. First, she understands the different treatments men and women may receive under the feudal system: the more she expects for love, the less choice she has, leading to eventual despair. Second, her former husband is a scholar by training, and therefore tends to be less direct in the portrayal: his poem begins with daily matters surrounding their reunion dinner, referring to the dishes, wine, scenery and season – rosy hands, yellow Teng wine and willows by the walls in spring – before entering into the poem proper. Tang Wan was also an amateur writer, free from the restraints and rules of literary writing under despair, hence her poem enters directly at the core of her emotions, ‘love is shallow, human relation is treacherous’. Third, when the former couple met at Shenyuan, each had remarried, yet Lu You was still blaming the ‘horrendous east wind’ and ‘shallow love’, while Tang Wan thought otherwise, cursing the ‘horrendous human relationship’ and ‘shallow community love’, summarising her desperation and fear. In the event, Tang died soon after she wrote the poem, while ironically her former husband led a long life of 85 years. Even though he remained a regular visitor to their meeting place Shenyuan – writing poems about Tang as memorials – he did not suffer as much, owing to the different treatment of the two sexes.

The toy piano has inspired many contemporary composers in the West, yet according to the pianist Margaret Leng Tan, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! is a unique composition, presumably owing to the ‘multi-tasking’ role of the performer. It is akin to the Chinese tradition of narrative singing, as the performers have to accompany themselves by playing a plucked string instrument, such as the sanxian (three-string lute) or pipa. The text is, of course, the poem Phoenix on Hairpin, Rosy Hands. In addition to the primary task of playing the toy piano, the performer has to sing, narrate, and stamp the feet, at the same time playing, in turns, sixteen instruments from twelve families, including three gongs, toy accordion, plastic hammer, toy bird, toy flute, maracas, three cricket boxes, toy harp, wooden fish block, toy drum and toy glockenspiel.

The audience may be puzzled by the rationale involving these ‘cheap’ and ‘unreliable’ instruments in a formal concert. There is also a question why a concert pianist should be assigned to play them, while at the same time having to cope with singing and narration without training. Also, how the somewhat contradictory choice of instrumentation and mode of performance relate to Lu You’s poem is intriguing. This surely relates to the aesthetics of traditional Chinese art, in essence, the use of the simplest shapes or even abstract outlines to convey an idea. For example, if one were to replace the toy harp with a real qin, the imagination of the audience maybe impaired, hindering their ability to appreciate abstract art. Likewise, if other toy instruments were replaced by real accordion, flute, drum and glockenspiel, and with the vocal part performed by a professional singer – or even deploy twelve musicians to play these instruments – the somewhat Bohemian poetic style of Lu You would not be conveyed. The composer believes that this somewhat explosive poem can only be expressed through a pianist with additional ‘clumsy’ but innovative tone-colours. In short, the composer endeavours to borrow the idea of a primitive petroglyph, through the dramatic performance of the soloist, in order to create an appropriate atmosphere for this archaic love tragedy.

Hard, Hard, Hard! discards the rich timbres heard in Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! and replaces them with the more dramatic small gong, toy wind chimes and toy clappers. Hence from the perspective of instrumentation, Hard, Hard, Hard! is much less extravagant, a deliberate treatment in respect of the sentiments of the text. The composer believes such simplification of instrumentation and compositional devices could result in a more direct portrayal of Tang Wan’s despair towards love. Both works begin with an extended introduction, leading to chanting of the texts: the introduction of Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! is purely instrumental and functional, while Hard, Hard, Hard! demands the pianist to play and burst into a kind of hysterical laughter, at the same time playing a few non-pitched percussion instruments – wind chimes, maracas, plastic hammer and clappers – in order to make the most piercing noises. Then, the performer is required to play the toy flute in fortissimo, and also the small gong. This somewhat controversial depiction of Tang Wan deviates from the traditional image of women in China, yet the composer’s intention is not to re-create the image of an ancient Chinese female; the objective is to highlight her despondency in a direct manner.

Yiming Zhang
English translation by Professor Lam Ching-wah

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