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WANG Lu (b. 1982)
An Atlas of Time (2013) [15:18]
Ryan and Dan (2017) [6:50]
Double Trance (2016) [9:10]
Unbreathable Colors (2017) [9:20]
Siren Song (2008) [7:34]
Ryan Muncy (saxophone), Daniel Lippel (electric guitar)
Momenta Quartet
Miranda Cuckson (violin)
Boston Modern Orchestral Project/Gil Rose
rec. 2016-18; WGBH and Brown University, Boston, USA
NEW FOCUS FCR277 [47:12]

An Atlas of Time launches itself with a cacophonous din of sampled sounds mixed with desiccated instrumental effects and thickly clustered orchestral noise, all of which verges on the overwhelming but is relieved, if violently, by abrupt changes of volume, density, and tempo. Booklet notes, from both Wang herself and Lara Pellegrinelli, offer an insight into what lies behind this mind-blowing assault on the sense of hearing. Pellegrinelli observes that “scenes abruptly shift, collide, and dissolve”, while Wang, looking back over her 38 years of life, recalls certain “musical moments” which struck her. These include “the resonances of childhood memories in China, 1980s rock with its anti-authoritarian message, ear-popping bicycle bells in morning traffic, the next-door incessant chatter and kitchen noise of neighbours, my six-year-old self banging on the piano, construction workers drilling through concrete…fragments of memory and sensation that I hope to pass along through my music”. The unstated and unanswered question is, why would anyone do this? We all experience horrendous noise coming at us from every direction in our daily lives, yet do we feel it is something not only to preserve and celebrate but actually share with others? I remain unconvinced. Impressive though this performance is by 19 players (and tape) from the Boston Modern Orchestral Project, I find little here that does anything more than mimic these sounds in a way that even that great pioneer of what was then labelled musique concrète, Edgard Varèse, would probably have regarded as primitive and pointless.

I am fully aware that a goodly proportion of those who read reviews in MusicWeb International have musical tastes which tend to the conservative, while others look for a challenge. Selling An Atlas of Time to either group is an uphill struggle, and one which I feel is ultimately pointless, since the former are never going to like this kind of chaotic mishmash of sounds while other have been through it all before and are looking for music which reflects something more akin to the stylistic attitudes of the 21st century than the 20th. An Atlas of Time dates from 2013.

Reviewing an earlier disc of Wang Lu’s music (review) I described it as “taking its cue from what she sees around her”. While An Atlas of Time is not only based entirely on memories of sounds, but also uses electronics and computer technology to recreate them, other works on the disc are more immediate responses to everyday experiences, and confine themselves to conventional instrumental means. Ryan and Dan, named after the two dedicatees of this piece who perform it here on electric guitar and saxophone, is an intriguing foray into the unusual sound world of these two instruments which endeavours to create, in Wang’s words, “a faint melodic trace that resembles the ancient Chinese seven-string guqin, and the tranquillity one experiences while plying it”.

Even more effective in reflecting time and place, is Double Trance, scored for string quartet. It evokes a trip Wang made to Rome when she walked into a 5th century church where nuns were singing their evening service. Like Ryan and Dan, it is a work full of calm, peacefulness, and tranquillity, and effectively recreates the idea of a “spiritual trance” with its moments of almost ecstatic joy. Taking its cue from a very different environment, Unbreathable Colors was prompted by the “heavy smog that engulfs the city, silently swallowing and making invisible the outlines of buildings and landmarks”. It is a terrific tour-de-force for solo violin, and is played with mesmerising intensity by its dedicatee, Miranda Cuckson. I am not sure that Wang’s description of the work’s non-musical stimulus would sell it even to the most adventurous listeners, but Cuckson’s superlative playing of a very complex score makes this a musical experience all should seek out.

Siren Song can be thought of as a short dramatic opera”. Wang was born in the Chinese city of Xi’an, and “a dry, panicking, yet seductive old male voice” she recalls from her youth there, seems to have been the stimulus for this action-packed, multi-faceted piece. Hints of China, in the instrumental timbres and musical language, abound, as do dramatic gestures (such as the cackling laughter of an audience), and while the piece is, in many ways, as overwhelmingly abundant with dramatic, abrupt shifts of direction and texture as An Atlas of Time, it has a coherence and distinctive originality which makes this an intriguing listen for all except the most hardened conservatives.
Marc Rochester

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