One of the most exciting voices in New Music, Lei Liang strips cultural identity of nationalistic, and even hemispheric, agenda. Born in China and now resident in San Diego, he follows the example of Chou Wen-chung and others in trying not so much to synthesize Western and Asian musics – which inevitably results in fusion food – as to recalibrate their languages and philosophies in a new common realm.
His recent music – only one piece is from the 90s, part of the piano suite My Windows – has developed the idea of ‘one-note polyphony’, an extension of his interest in the spectral harmonies of guqin music. The title piece, performed by Stephen Drury’s Callithumpian Consort, combines a very narrow pitch set, signature motifs on the dominant woodwinds, interspersed with wild percussion passages and moments of almost total stasis.
This approach is even more clearly evident in the instrumental pieces. The My Windows sequence ends on three full bars of rest, to allow the accumulated resonances to die away. Built around just six pitches, it’s virtuoso writing of the subtlest sort. Other pieces are more extreme, in the sense that they flirt with extremity. Serashi Fragments, for The Arditti Quartet, is fiercely technical but expressive. Memories of Xiaoxiang for alto saxophone and tape might almost be an alternative soundtrack for Woman of the Dunes, its wailing, ghostly cry played on a detached mouthpiece, its storyline delivered in a Chinese opera version of recitative. Lei Liang requires the harpsichordist on Some Empty Thoughts of a Person from Edo to pluck and palm strings in an approximation of lute or koto music. Some of the playing (the composer’s wife Takae Ohnishi) borders on violence, but there is also a delicate lullaby, interrupted by wild shouts.
Lei Liang is an important musical philosopher, coming into mature expression. The carefully won emptiness of his thought allows sound to flow and cohere in new directions and forms. East and West lose any slack associations.
– Brian Morton, The Wire, Issue 311, January 2010
This disc features a flute solo piece entitled “In Praise of Shadows.” The title is taken from Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s essay, and it demonstrates the composer’s empathy with Japanese aesthetics. Born in China and now based in the US, Lei Liang (b.1972) departs from the Chinese ‘New Wave’ composers that include Tan Dun, Zhou Long and Chen Yi. It is not clear whether their discrepancy results from generational or personal differences, but in any case, his music transcends nationalism. A lament for alto sax and electronic was written for one of the ‘New Wave’ composers, Mo Wu-ping (1959-93) who died prematurely. The collage of sound material associated with an opera by Mo Wu-ping, along with the color of ethnic music convey a sense of melancholy. The opening piece ‘Serashi Fragments’ is played by the Arditti Quartet. Although the piece contains elements of Mongolian instrumental music, its musical intention and sonic features are extremely abstract. It must be said that this disc embraces a broad vision of attributes that are quintessential to Asia, encompassing those of Japan, China, and Mongolia.
– Kazushi Ishida, The Record Geijutsu (Japan), Vol. 59 No. 712, January 2010
What is immediately noticed after listening to the album [Brush-Stroke] is the intent, for the most part successful, to flee from the weight of a musical tradition that burdened Chinese avant-garde creation for decades.
Lei Liang (a student of H. Birtwistle, Chaya Czernowin, among others) appears to have taken on the grammar of European avant-garde completely. Fortunately, the work of this composer goes beyond the mere absorption of the usual habits of the old continent’s modernism, an error in which not few composers/imitators incur when rejecting their traditional cultures and turn themselves into mere emulators without personality. Liang, on the contrary, sporadically hints, masterfully, at bits of Chinese folklore; but instead of falling into the anecdote or exoticism, he opens a small window into a type of sonority that, in the midst of the abstract calligraphic framework of his pieces, entices an effect of longing, rare remoteness, or, in the case of Memories of Xiaoxiang, an uneasy presence.
The Arditti Quartet takes part in the opening piece of the disc, Serashi Fragments, a homage to the Mongolian musician Serashi, d. 1968, one of the most important personalities of Mongolia’s popular culture. Lei Liang’s work, using violent contrasts and comfortable pianissimo, showcases different techniques such as pizz sul pont, staccatissimo, harmonic glissandos and other speculative practices that remind us, in a more radical way, Serashi’s style of playing, in this case, using the violin to cite melodies of Mongolian roots.
A different world, that of Zen Buddhism, appears in Some Empty Thoughts of a Person from Edo, a piece for harpsichord (that comes to us performed by its dedicatee, Takae Ohnishi). This piece, fortunately, escapes the empty virtuosity in which many works written for this instrument inexplicably incur. In certain passages, Lei Liang treats the harpsichord like a lute, manipulating the strings, creating uncomfortable silence and producing bitter dissonances in a context of a play of shadows and responses that include reminiscences of Japanese koto music.
It is in Memories of Xiaoxiang, the gem of the CD, where Lei Liang lets his origins be seen. Written for saxophone and electronic music, this piece recalls a tragic incident that took place in the Hunan region during the Cultural Revolution. There, the wife of a man who was tortured to death for being considered a traitor to the regime decided to turn herself into a ghostly shadow in order to induce the official in charge of the execution into madness and suicide. Half fact half myth, Liang captures the woman’s laments through whispers in the saxophone and introduces, in the tape part, fragments of recitations recorded at the Peking Opera. The resultant collage, violent and, from a certain perspective, sinister, results in a novel composition that is heard with a wince of amazement.
The album concludes with the notable Brush-Stroke for chamber orchestra (performed by the Callithumpian Consort conducted by Stephen Drury). Inspired by Chinese calligraphy, Lei Liang develops a compelling work in the timbral aspect through an original technique that he himself has named ‘one-note polyphony,’ in which during the execution of one note and over its resonance, another notes emerges played by another instrument giving the resulting sound a ritualistic quality. In this work, Liang also explores sounds that emulate those of the guqin, a Chinese string instrument similar to the zither. A score based on transitions in which the whole weight of the piece rests, Brush-Stroke also houses hints of Japanese Gagaku and of the Aak (the ancient music of the Korean courts). A final rhythmic sequence ends this dense score, which never loses its powerful breath of spontaneity. I do not know any other Chinese composer capable of embracing his past from a global and transcendental perspective, overcoming outdated watertight compartments, understanding today’s music as a free space where, with the aid of talent, everything can be made fit.
– Ismael G. Cabral, Chorro de luz [Spain], Nov 3, 2009
This CD [“Brush-Stroke,” Mode Records] is a very nice introduction to the recent music of Lei Liang. The selected compositions on this CD are very diverse in character as well as in instrumentation. Yet there is unmistakable a strong identity in all of the compositions. Liang’s music is sophisticated, complex at times, but never fails to be immediate in expressive meaning. This accessibility, together with the detailed craftsmanship makes his music special.
The first composition Serashi Fragments, is played by the Arditti String Quartet. A very bright performance, which puts in great profile a Chinese folk tune appearing in the middle. This is not just a quotation but rather a very meaningful moment: the expressionistic music in which it appears makes this timid melody very fragile and tender. And it also questions the previous music. These kind of questions often appear in Liang’s music and the great quality is that he leaves the mystery of the question open. There are possible attempts to an answer, but never a final one. This charming subtlety is a very strong characteristic of Liang’s music.
In Some Empty thoughts of a Person from Edo Liang achieves the formulation of a similar question through a very strong contrast. Heavy violence tries, but never succeeds in suppressing the subtle and tender music. Also, it must be said that the writing for harpsichord is excellent. Liang finds and uses with great effect the different timbral possibilities of the instrument.
Mastery of instrumental writing is equally found in Memories of Xiaoxiang for saxophone and tape. As an example: by using the mouth piece alone, an expressivity very close to the human voice is created. This brings another quality of Liang’s music to the fore: his music is always immediately understandable. The expressivity of his music always grasps the listener. This music is not only for intellectuals, or New Music aficionados, but for anyone who devotes themselves to careful listening.
In praise of Shadows is a little, marvelous work, like a piece of jewelry. It is extremely well written for the flute, and wonderfully performed by Paula Robison. The music just speaks for itself, everything is beautiful in a meaningful way.
My Windows, for piano solo, is different from the other compositions: this is a set of four short pieces, each of which opens a window to another aspect of Liang’s imagination. The four pieces explore a broad range, demanding quite some virtuosity of the performer. Aleck Karis seems to be the perfect person to play this music, not only is he a virtuoso, but he lets the imagination speak through his playing.
The final work on this CD is Brush-Stroke. A large ensemble piece, in which Liang’s technique of one-note-polyphony is clearly present. This technique is very personal to Liang, and he achieves a very delicate sound world with great imagination. The performance of this work by the Callithumpian Consort is excellent, and it is clear that they have a good understanding of Liang’s music.
The Chinese cultural background of Liang is always present, not superficially, but integrated in the expressive trajectory of each piece. Sometimes the presence is obvious, as in his string quartet. At other times it remains at a distance, a background against which the music unfolds, as for example in the composition for flute solo. The music of Lei Liang is strong and personal, and the performers absolutely do bring out the qualities of his music. Lei Liang is definitely a composer who found his own voice.
– Bert Van Herck, Zeitschichte, Nov. 16, 2009
“Serashi Fragments” featured the Arditti Quartet and it is only 7 minutes, yet extremely intense for its duration. From sparse moments to fractured shards, this music is demanding to the musicians as well as the listeners. I love the way the strings sound as if they are about to leap out of the speakers as they move from silence to explosiveness. “Some Empty Thoughts…” is for solo harpsichord and even this ancient instrument is transformed into a more Eastern or koto-like sound. Stark at times with sections of intense eruptions. “Memories of Xiaoxiang” is for alto sax & tape and is a scary piece about a woman whose husband is murdered by a local official. The sax mouthpiece wails and tapes of the woman’s voice & other violent sounds are used. This piece is often extreme yet most effective. “Trio” is for cello, piano & percussion and it was inspired by a snowstorm. The three instruments are constantly shifting positions and are played in different combinations. I am reminded of the way a kaleidoscope slowly transforms visual ideas into other things. “My Windows” is for solo piano in four movements. It sounds like the piano is being used to paint a picture of the world as it evolves through time from a calm beginning to more restless volcanic activity with dark waves occurring at times. The final piece is the title piece and it is performed by the Callithumpian Consort, a chamber orchestra. This piece is eerie with high notes sliding into one another for the reeds, horns and strings. Each note is carefully placed so that each part of the piece evokes different feelings with some disturbing vocals near the end. This piece is a perfect conclusion to a fascinating disc that covers a great deal of stylistic ground.
– Bruce Lee Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery, July 2009
The music of Chinese composer Lei Liang (b.1972), now based in the US, is immediately distinctive due to its lack of cliché. The current brand of musical ‘chinoiserie’ written for public consumption is reductive, taking certain narrow traditions and relishing their dearth in the name of popular success. Liang, in contrast, is expansive. He begins with the music of his roots, far from cosmopolitan, and explores the netherworlds of these sounds. The resultant technique is called one-note-polyphony, but even that label seems inadequate. Liang is sure to be a fine discovery for the open-eared.
The opening work, a mere seven minutes, seems typical of his current style. It is a stark reimagination of what the traditional Mongolian musician Serashi plays. Having heard Serashi himself on recording brought forth by Liang on CRC, the discrepancy could not be more gaping. Based on improvisations, Some Empty Thoughts is much less taut and seems diploid, with meditative sections framed by a central manic cadenza. Memories are literal, with the composer’s inspiration coming from the Yao people of Hunan. The saxophone seems onomatopoeic at times, crying or screaming, but never excessively; a dramatic pause in the middle is a fine device. In Praise, its title lifted from the more “polite” world of oft-salacious Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, makes rich use of the lower flute registers. For 15 players, Brush-Stroke has a lucid orchestration that is marred occasionally by intentional vocal interjections.
Overall, much is to be praised here: the sumptuous without the ostentatious.
– Dan Albertson, La Folia, Nov 2009
Liang’s compositions take compellingly contrasting paths. The wonderfully fractured Serashi Fragments, played by the sterling Arditti String Quartet, darts around the recesses of your noggin like Norman Bates wrestling with his mom-fixation and Janet Leigh. The stark yet tender, yearning In Praise of Shadows for unaccompanied flute encapsulates Eastern mysteries without being cornball or hokey. The solo piano suite My Windows evokes the beautiful simplicity of Chopin and the elegant eruptions of McCoy Tyner. While Brush-Stroke isn’t entirely ‘easy’ listening, Liang doesn’t go out of his way to rebuff/alienate the Listener with a lot of dense or arcane hoo-hah. Rooted in Chinese and Western music, his stuff is prickly but has heart. We need that, y’know?
– Mark Keresman, ICON, Sept 2009
[Mode Records MODE 210] Here is an alluring Portrait CD of Lei Liang, a notable Chinese-born American composer (b. 1972) of great accomplishment and distinction. He studied with Birtwistle, Czernowin and many others. Liang researches traditional Asian music and in his composing “reclaims his cultural identity in a global perspective which transcends cultural boundaries” (Y U Everett).
This is a splendid compilation which should delight, in part or whole, everyone who comes across it. The pieces are well contrasted and cover many moods and styles, yet with an overall integrated musical personality. He is familiar with most modern developments and is particularly interested in resonances (notably in his piano pieces) derived from a personal technique of One-Note-Polyphony (which smacks of Scelsi’s seminal Quattro pezzi chiascuno su una nota sola, and none the worse for that).
The flute solo In Praise of Shadows explores shakuhachi techniques and Memories of Xiaoxiang has a tape with fragments of field recordings, including excerpts on the guqin, a lovely traditional instrument to the beauties of which, coincidentally, I had been introduced at a Chinese/Japanese concert last weekend.
Fine production and, with an exceptionally beautiful cover image, this disc is recommended not to miss!
– Peter Grahame Woolf, Musical Pointers, July 2009