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WANG Lu (b.1982)
Urban Inventory [14:11]
Wailing [9:13]
Backstory [7:27]
Cross-Around [10:14]
Cloud Intimacy [9:47]
Past Beyond [16:16]
The Third Sound Ensemble/Patrick Castillo
Holland Symfonia/Hans Leedners
Alarm Will Sound/Ala Pierson
Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne/Lorraine Vaillancourt
Ensemble Intercontemporain/Susanna Mälkki.
rec. 2010-17, various locations
NEW FOCUS FCR197 [77:41]

Wang Lu is one of the new generation of Chinese composers, born and brought up in China after the Cultural Revolution, who studied and now lives and works in the USA; she is currently on the staff of Brown University, Rhode Island. Unlike the older generation of Chinese composers who have settled in the West and who deliberately set out to fuse (or, in some cases, simply juxtapose) musical and cultural elements from both East and West, these younger composers have no such desire to promote their Chinese-ness and are happy for it to seep out of their music in more subtle ways. Still in her early 30s, Wang Lu is evolving a musical language which is underpinned by her Chinese roots and background, but seems more concerned with taking its cue from what she sees around her. It has been said of her that she sees music as integral to the fabric of life itself, where the past and present coexist, and where cultures, ages, and languages freely intermingle in a kind of cosmopolitan goldfish bowl. Her music is clearly a reflection of a society where ethnic and sociological differences are consciously blurred in an endeavour to create cultural integration. Which is not to say that elements from Chinese traditional music are not to be found in Wang’s music.

The astonishingly riotous tapestry of sounds which constitutes the headline work here, Urban Inventory, includes Chinese ethnic music and instruments, albeit taken from pre-recorded samples. But more especially the most obvious characteristic in her music, as evidenced by this release, is an almost riotous maze of disparate sounds, including imitations of sirens and animal calls (Past Beyond) and actual mobile phones in text mode (Cloud Intimacy). You do not need to spend much time in a Chinese community to recognise this kind of multi-layered noise as a fact of daily life.

As the recording information reveals, this CD is more in the nature of a compendium of performances – most of them live – given over the past decade, of pieces which span Wang’s entire creative career, from the autobiographical orchestral piece Wailing of 2008 through to Backstory and Cloud Intimacy scored for 16 and six musicians respectively and both dating from 2016. As such it charts the evolution and development of a distinct musical voice.

The autobiographical element of Wang’s first work for large orchestra, Wailing, is explained in her own booklet notes. It was, she tells us, inspired by “my experiences in a small remote town in a mountainous area of Northern China when I was five years old”. It is heavily scored, to recreate an occasion when “some young peasants were wailing and crying desperately while others were playing out-of-tune brass and percussion folk instruments in all ranges and with full force”. The music is nothing if not vividly descriptive of this scene, with occasional episodes evoking Chinese folk melodies, and the performance on this disc, given by the Holland Symfonia during the 2010 Gaudeamus Music Week, is powerful and vivid, the contrast between the raucous and reflective vividly conveyed despite a less than sympathetic acoustic setting.

Chronologically, the next work on the disc is Cross-Around commissioned by the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne and first performed in Montreal in November 2010 – this recording is of that premiere performance. As with the earlier work, the music is vividly descriptive of its non-musical inspiration – in this case the continual movement of “stars, people, events, thoughts, sounds … crossing each other [and where] moments of interaction are certain yet unpredictable”. Again there is the vivid contrast between hefty orchestral sonorities (the work calls for a 15-piece ensemble) and distant, almost intimate sounds, and the overall impression given by this performance, is of a work which both glitters and astounds in its scope.
Dating from 2012, Past Beyond was commissioned by Ensemble Intercontemporain who gave the first performance in Paris – which is recorded here. In it we encounter a style of writing which seems to have become Wang’s own hallmark; a juxtaposition, rather than integration, of a huge array of diverse elements to create a tapestry of sound which is both invigorating in its vitality and quite astonishing in its textural richness. Opening with sliding chords form violins above rumbling figures from the basses, the work draws on, according to the composer, “Tibetan and Thai rituals” which have “kindred therapeutic and spiritual properties”. The music is to do with healing both medically (Wang spent a period in hospital during the work’s composition) and socially (by bringing together ideas from a large array of cultures and, particularly, linguistic groups). Shimmering sounds akin to swarming insects, birds, chattering incantations and various street noises (perhaps we can identify things here which evoke nothing other than ambulance sirens) assay our ears. It is highly effective and this is certainly a most compelling performance.

Urban Inventory is perhaps the ultimate example of Wang’s multi-layered style of writing. Cast in five movements and scored for a quintet of players on flute, clarinet, violin, cello and keyboard alongside a background of pre-recorded street sounds, the music depicts in the most vivid terms, the noises of a Chinese city at dusk, including a baby crying, children playing, people walking and a street busker. Included in this amazing kaleidoscope of sounds are a recording from a 1990s Chinese pop idol, and, again to quote from Wang’s own note, “broken instruments mixed with songs of praise to western and eastern gods”. This is probably the most accomplished work here, and it is certainly given a very fine studio performance by the work’s dedicatees.

The two most recent works are Backstory and Cloud Intimacy. The former was first performed by Alarm Will Sound at the Mizzou International Composers Festival in Missouri during July 2017 – this live recording seems to be of that first performance. It is lushly scored for the 16 musicians of the ensemble and is predominantly reflective in its language. Wang writes of “seemingly loose yet tightly wound blocks of sound”, but these blocks are held together by various flights of instrumental fancy which weave around almost like spiders spinning intricate webs between the branches of a tree. Unique among the works on the disc in that it has no clear story and sets out to invite the listener to “experience a series of constantly developing situations”, as an exploration of instrumental sound without external interference, it is a highly effective work superbly performed here.

On a personal note, I find Cloud Intimacy the most fascinating and intriguing of all the works included on this CD, and this is certainly one of the most arresting and compelling performances. Alongside Urban Inventory, it is the only studio recording here, and the fact that it was recorded by Wang’s colleagues at Brown University possibly gives the performance a greater sense of conviction. Whatever the reason, this is a work which unfolds beautifully, only gradually releasing itself from a long-breathed, mystical, almost Messiaen-like opening (by means of a gorgeous Gershwin-esque clarinet riff) into a frantic maze of weird and wonderful sounds including that incredibly annoying wolf-whistle which certain mobile phones give off on receipt of a text message. Its symbolism here lies in the “cloud” of the title; it is the digital cloud where, for many, the only true life now exists. Wang talks of the “unbounded and uncommitted intimacy” created by so-called dating apps, and of how everyone “has a chance to construct a perfect social profile separate from the imperfections of reality”. It is a social issue which concerns many for its negativity; here it is vividly used as a distinct and alluring force for musical positivity.
Marc Rochester


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