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Of Being
Wang LU
Rates of Extinction (2016) [12:35]
Misato MOCHIZUKI (b. 1969)
Moebius-Ring (2003) [12:34]
Of Being (2018) [23:40]
Ning Yu (piano)
Recording details not given

Pianist Ning Yu is a force to be reckoned with in the modern music scene, appearing in concerts all over the world and having given world premieres by composers such as Tristan Murail, Steve Reich and Terry Riley, performing with ensembles such as Bang on A Can All- Stars, ICE and the Talea Ensemble, Signal Ensemble, and as a member of the piano/percussion quartet Yarn/Wire. This is her first solo recording, and a very intriguing one it is.

Wang Lu’s Rates of Extinction is structured in five contrasting movements. The title is graphically explored in the music, as it “starts from the idea of using gradually decreasing and decelerating polyrhythmic layers and simple tempo/pulse motives to represent the heart rates of different animals that went extinct around 2015.” There is a duality here, in a “sorrowful, almost lament-like irreversible winding down process of precious life”, but in music that at the same time “celebrates an imagined eternal freedom through the blossoming of pianistic virtuosity.” Some of the passages are almost dance-like, with a feeling of urgent abandon, while elsewhere there is a feeling of mystery, those heart rates explored in repeated notes with quasi-tonal rhythmic relationships setting up a feeling of impressionistic openness and endless cadence.

Moebius-Ring by Misato Mochizuki sets up a musical representation of that well-known paradox of a ribbon that folds back on itself, allowing a viewpoint from the front to the back of the ring while always remaining on only one side of the ribbon. The music here is “a sequence of variations based on repetitive pulsations. In each cycle, the piano tries to escape these pulsations, but invariably they return, as in an experience of ‘déjà vu’ or a prophetic dream.” These ‘escapes’ are a clever way of giving substance to something which is otherwise quite Ligeti-like in its explorations of repeated notes. The spirit of Ligeti is indeed evoked in those scales just beyond the 5-minute mark. There is plenty to get your teeth into with this substantial work, with passages that use overtones on the strings, extremes of range and some excellent uses of the low register. The obsessive feel of the piece is retained even while the tempo is relaxed as the work progresses, and there is an intensity of energy which keeps you engrossed. The final two minutes might arguably be a coda, but you always have the feeling the material is being constantly renewed and transformed, the final gesture almost a challenge for the music to continue beyond its allotted duration.

Emily Praetorius’s Of Being takes its title from Virginia Woolf’s ‘moments of being,’ “a concept described in her essay, ‘A Sketch of the Past,’ as sudden moments, or ‘blows,’ of experience[s] [that] uncover ‘a token of some real thing behind appearances.’” These ‘moments’ point towards patterns of the “interconnectedness of all things” just beneath the surface of ordinary life. The music uses a variety of “fairly minimal” materials, pianistic techniques and sonorities “in an attempt to continually focus the listener's attention on the fleeting moment of the present—a moment of suspended time, just before your memory influences the present and you begin to anticipate the future.” This might suggest something more insubstantial than what you actually hear, which is a fascinating meeting between abstraction and allusive musical semantics. The first movement is quite a busy affair, contrasting with the George Crumb-esque working of the strings inside the piano to create magical effects. The third of four movements is the shortest at just under three minutes, but it is no scherzo, with descending note patterns setting up a poetic space that grows in intensity and darkness before retreating into its own shadows. The final movement made me think of fragmented Beethoven with its building of a considerable structure with really minimal means: a sometimes four-note repeated motif, occasional low chords… “Past memory and present experience combine, working simultaneously to create an expectation of the future—a state of mind characterized by the consciousness of the flowing of time.”

This is indeed a fascinating recital of some intriguing and rewarding contemporary music. It is of course superbly performed, and the recording is excellent. The CD comes in a minimalist sleeve with notes inside its gatefold which will have you looking for your reading glasses, but you won’t need more than that to set in motion the vibrations of your imagination.

Dominy Clements

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