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Asian Music for String Quartet
Zhou LONG (b.1953) Song of the Ch’in [8.57]
Chinary UNG (b.1942) Spiral III [10.01]
Gao PING (b.1970) Bright Light and Cloud Shadows (2007) [11.33]
Toru TAKEMITSU (1930-1996) A Way a Lone (1981) [11.50]
Tan DUN (b.1957) Eight Colors [1986) [15.47]
New Zealand String Quartet
rec. St. Anne’s Church, Toronto, Ontario. Canada, 21-24 July 2010.
NAXOS 8.572488 [58.09]

A friend said, on picking up this CD from the pile on my stereo, “What will they think of next”. I commented “Good old Naxos for going where no one has ever trod before”. At least I think I said that or something like it and it’s true. This is a fascinating and rare collection performed by a group from New Zealand, a country that has its fair share of Asian musicians and mixed culture.
The first piece is by Zhou Long, a Chinese-born composer whose work has been recorded in America where he now resides. His Song of the Ch’in is all about the traditional instrument ch’in or qin, a seven stringed-plucked zither. The improvisatory first five minutes play with the sound-world of Chinese music in differing ways. The strings are plucked with a wide range, timbre and the use of ornaments. The faster section is slightly more indebted to Western music. This intercultural liaison is typical of his music and of much that is recorded on this disc.
Many of these ‘effects’ together with the extensive use of glissandi can be heard in Gao Ping’s magical Bright Light and Cloud Shadows. Unfortunately the booklet notes tell us next to nothing about this piece but spend their time extolling the virtues of a clearly versatile composer and professional concert pianist. We are simply offered an aphoristic poem beginning ‘Spring Mountains have no near or far’ by Dan Shan Ren, a Ming dynasty poet (c.15th century) that inspired the quartet. The piece is in extended arch-shape with its brief climax at about 7:30. It uses only one or two ideas with great economy and imagination.
Chinary Ung comes from Cambodia. He went to study in America in 1964 and has never really returned home as his teaching has kept him at various academic institutes. He lost family and friends in the terrible Khmer Rouge genocide of the late 1970s. Ung then stopped composing and when he recommenced he decided to study and to ”integrate into his own personal style” a synthesis of the music of his homeland with the western art music in which he had been trained. The result is a fascinating sound-world which is difficult pin down. Tonality mixes with wide uses of pentatonic and modal shapes “ deriving from the village music (and religion) of his native Cambodia”. Spiral III is one of a series with this title. Indeed the sounds do spiral around and about, moving the listener into a sort of Asian modern romanticism. It’s quite captivating.
Now, here’s a thing, I find Takemitsu’s A way a Lone - the title comes from James Joyce - the least successful piece on the disc. I normally love his music - it often reminds me Szymanowski - and have learned to listen patiently from moment to moment. The composer said that it could be akin to walking through a Japanese Water Garden and observing each individual section. However, you never return along the same path as such as it is does not really exist. From one idea blossoms another yet all are linked. Without the orchestral colours of for instance A Flock descends into a Pentagonal Garden there is a sense of aimlessness. Even so, beautiful aimlessness.
The longest piece is the last one Tan Dun’s Eight Colors. The CD booklet sums it up well “it combines the exotic timbres of the Peking opera with the Second Viennese School”. The result is a fascinating intermix in eight brief movements in which the quartet, in wonderful form by the way, are asked to imitate vocal effects heard in Chinese opera. These may be glissandi, tonal clusters, quarter-tones and all types of pizzicato and bowing techniques. Zen is the longest, full of atmosphere and a subdued spirituality. Drum and Gong does what it says on the tin being just one percussively articulated chord. The last section, Red Sona is the fastest and most exhilarating. Incidentally, my above sceptical friend found this work utterly fascinating.
The CD comes with the essay by Joy Aberdein from whom I have quoted. We also get portraits of the composers and performers except for Takemitsu. The recording is immediate but has a wonderful feel, space and spread. The performances are nothing less than idiomatic and superb. Worth investigating.
Gary Higginson