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The Music of Ge Gan-ru

July 17, 2009

SOURCE: The Naxos Blog on Sequenza21

Born in 1954, the young Ge Gan-ru studied the violin until the onset of the Cultural Revolution, during which he was sent to a labor camp to plant rice. When the Shanghai Conservatory reopened at the end of the Revolution in 1974, Ge matriculated as a violin student, but, three years later, he shifted his focus to composition, studying with Chen Gang. During this time, he became familiar with scores by 20th-century Western composers including Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Cage, and Crumb, as well as music by the Japanese composer Takemitsu. In 1980, when British composer Alexander Goehr became the first Western composer to visit China after the Revolution, Ge was among the few students to receive lessons from him. Upon his graduation in 1981, Ge was appointed assistant professor of composition at the Conservatory. At that time, Chinese composers were still basing new works on traditional Western styles. The controversial 1983 Shanghai premiere of Ge’s Yi Feng (Lost Style; 1982)—a work for “radically detuned” solo cello—served as the “opening salvo” in what was to become the Chinese musical avant-garde movement.

GE String Quartets No 1 ‘Fu’, No 4 ‘Angel Suite’ & No 5 Fall of Baghdad

China’s first avant-garde composer and one of the most original composers of his generation, Ge Gan-Ru, studied at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music before obtaining his doctorate from Columbia University in the USA. The composer notes that he ‘often tries to combine contemporary Western compositional techniques with my Chinese experience and Chinese musical characteristics to create a unique and highly individual sound world.’ Modern Works was founded in 1997 in New York by cellist Madeleine Shapiro to focus on recent string repertoire. The ensemble has given premières of works by Berio, Gubaidulina and Xenakis.

In 1983, Ge began work on his String Quartet No. 1 – Fu (Prose-Poem), but before he could complete it, he relocated to New York City, recruited by Chou Wen-chung at Columbia University. While supporting himself as a restaurant deliveryman, Ge managed to complete the piece, and the Kronos Quartet—celebrated for its commitment to new music—soon made it part of their repertoire. Fu and Yi Feng are both milestones in Ge’s canon, as they represent the development of his individual style: “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…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.”

The interval of the minor second figures prominently in Fu and generates much of its musical content. Unorthodox means of tone production dominate this work (though instruments are conventionally tuned), including snap pizzicato, harmonics, glissandi, tremolos, and various combinations of these techniques. Moreover, throughout the work, unmeasured, rhythmic passages alternate with more regularly-patterned music.

Some of the same sounds from Fu are prominent in the introductory measures of Angel Suite – String Quartet No. 4 (1998). And, interestingly, the minor second also figures significantly in its second, third and fourth movements. 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…In this work, I try to express my curiosity in, and observation of, various aspects of Christianity. The titles of the movements (Cherub, Gnomes, Prayer, and Angel’s March) 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…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 as young and vibrant.”

Fall of Baghdad – String Quartet No. 5 is at once a tribute to George Crumb’s Black Angels for electric string quartet (1970) and an expression of the composer’s own feelings about the war in Iraq. Like Crumb’s work before it, the music comprises three long sections divided into thirteen shorter ones. “Hair-raising squeals” produced by “applying pressure to the strings behind the bridge to create a scraping sound of indefinite pitch” open the work. In this quartet, Ge uses extended techniques neither as cultural relics, as in Fu, nor as suggestions of ethereal spirits, as in Angel Suite, Instead, he uses his unique musical language to symbolize the devastation and despair associated with war. (For contrast and relief, the middle section, “Music from Heaven,” incorporates light percussion; the “Heaven” to which this movement refers, incidentally, is a different paradise than the one Ge depicts in Angel Suite.) Ge employs microtonal inflections to suggest Middle Eastern music (which shares some of its idioms with the music of his native country) and also makes use of (as he explains): “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.”

- Paula, Sequenza21, 17 June 2009

See and hear ModernWorks performing an excerpt from Fall of Baghdad on Sequenza21

Ge Gan-Ru Biography & Discography

Naxos Chinese Classics series


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