“He (Ge Gan-ru) has all the contemporary sounds but done in such a way that are appealing to both sophisticated and unsophisticated ears.” His music is “immediately recognizable” and “communicates on all levels.”
– José Serebrier, Grammy winning conductor
Ge Gan-ru: Fall of Baghdad
Naxos 8.570603, 2009
String Quartet No. 1: Fu – Prose Poem
String Quartet No. 4: Angel Suite
String Quartet No. 5: Fall of Baghdad
Played by ModernWorks
“Fall of Baghdad” is chosen as a notable CD from 2009 by The New York Times.
Excerpts from ”Intrepid Journeys Lead to Ambitious Works” - A Feature Article on Ge Gan-ru, The New York Times
… that humanity and individualism are evident in Mr. Ge’s gripping String Quartet No. 5 “Fall of Baghdad” (2007), given a mesmerizing performance by the ModernWorks Ensemble on a new release on the Naxos label.
The first movement of the work (a homage to George Crumb’s 1970 “Black Angels,” for amplified string quartet) is subtitled “Screaming — Living Hell — Barbaric March — Abyss — Threnody.” It lives up to those descriptions with a cacophonous, microtonal frenzy that subsides into a poignant melodic solemnity, echoed at the end of the second movement, “Music From Heaven.” In “Desolation,” the final section, which uses traditional and avant-garde techniques, the strings weep, growl and shudder until the stark conclusion. His String Quartet No. 4 “Angel Suite” (also featured on the Naxos disc) is similarly haunting.
All Music Guide
The designation “first Chinese composer of avant-garde music” is such a prescient one that it sets up, perhaps, an unreasonable expectation for Chinese composer Ge Gan-Ru: with every release, one is looking for Ge to come down to earth in some fashion, for worm holes in his silk screen. Ge only seems to come back stronger and better every time, and for the moment it seems as there’s no stopping him. Naxos’ Ge Gan-Ru: Fall of Baghdad focuses on Ge’s cycle of string quartets which of this writing (August 2009) are five in number; this features the group ModernWorks, under the leadership of arch new music cellist Madeleine Shapiro, in the First, Fourth and Fifth of Ge’s string quartets. From the first, this disc makes clear that Ge’s string quartet cycle is as strong and substantive at least as Nicolas Bacri’s; perhaps as much as Bartók’s.
Ge’s String Quartet No. 1 (1983) is contemporaneous with his well-known cello solo, Lost Style, often identified as the first avant-garde composition to come from China. Subtitled “Fu” (i.e. Prose Poem), he could have just as easily titled it “feu” — French for “fire” — as that’s how this remarkable and concise movement begins, like an individual tongue of flame lapping up from a stray branch, ultimately building to a blistering conflagration. String Quartet No. 4 (1998) is subtitled “Angel Suite;” with this piece, Ge provides his take on Western tradition. The atmosphere of the fourth quartet is suffused with late romantic-early expressionist style, particularly that of Arnold Schoenberg. But one would never confuse it with Schoenberg; it’s more like Schoenberg as angel and devil in a sort of fin-de-siècle psychodrama scripted by Ibsen, with stage designs by Edvard Munch. Where there have been so many works by Western composers that imitate this general sound only to appear derivative and out of date, Ge has mastered the idiom so well that this not only mirrors it effectively but takes it into another dimension where the image shuttles back and forth between blindingly brilliant colors and hushed, black and white stillness. It is a fabulous piece.
However, for sheer visceral excitement, neither of these quite approach Ge’s String Quartet No. 5, “Fall of Baghdad.” Inspired by George Crumb’s Black Angels, but relating to — ahem — topical events, the opening movement “Abyss — Screaming, Living Hell, Barbaric March” kicks up a fuss that would scare the hell out of Helmut Lachenmann. From there it achieves a sincere and organic dramatic arch made up out of small sections and the string quartet exactly plays out the various parts described — “Bazaar,” “Music from Heaven,” “Desolation” and so forth. The piece makes use of all kinds of bizarre techniques of tone production, yet never seems to be “about” that; Mr. Ge has picked his program, and he sticks to it. This is perhaps the most impressive string quartet written since Bacri’s No. 4, “Omaggio á Beethoven” (1995).
Ge Gan-Ru: Fall of Baghdad is one of the best recordings Naxos has made of anything; it is spit clear, spacious yet intimate and completely three-dimensional. ModernWorks sounds so terrific that their dedication to the cause of new music only is almost to be regretted; one wishes we could hear them do Bartók or Schoenberg. Nevertheless, Naxos’ Ge Gan-Ru: Fall of Baghdad, while not for the faint of heart perhaps, will have those who value adventure and an intense musical experience on the edge of their seats, especially listeners who are well acquainted with the quartets of Bartók, Lutoslawski and other first class modern works in the modern tradition and have already concluded that there’s no way that relevant, new works in this idiom can be born.
International Record Review
Ge Gan-Ru (b. 1954) has been described, in The New Grove and elsewhere, as “China’s first avant-garde composer,” a claim I have no reason to doubt. As a youth, he had to study Western music in secret—the Cultural Revolution was in full swing—but when the Shanghai Conservatory reopened in 1974, he was admitted, and he earned degrees in violin and composition. He was greatly impressed with the likes of Cage, Crumb, Ligeti, and other trailblazing Western composers. His own music, which was inspired by that of his role models, excited comment and controversy in China. In 1983, Ge came to the United States, where I believe he remains to this day. This is the third CD to be devoted entirely to his music. It is preceded by a collection of orchestral works on BIS, and another of chamber works—including his important Yi Feng (“Lost Style”) for solo cello—on New Albion. They deserve to be explored too.
In the past, a lot of the Chinese classical music we were exposed to was pleasant, but (to my ears, anyway) not very forward-looking. For example, The Yellow River Concerto (for piano and orchestra) and The Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto juxtapose traditional Chinese melodies and Western neo-Romantic tropes. Ge Gan-Ru’s music also contains Chinese and Western elements, but here they are seamlessly blended, and the results are not derivative.
These three string quartets are tough but rewarding. The First and Fourth are stylistically reminiscent of works in the same genre by Ligeti, Gubaidulina, and Gloria Coates. The Fifth is, in the composer’s words, both a “tribute to Crumb” and a record of “musical thoughts provoked by the [Iraq] war.” In this last work, Ge calls for extended playing techniques similar to those used by George Crumb in Black Angels. (Crumb’s work was inspired by the war in Vietnam, of course.) It’s not at all pleasant to hear, but that’s the point, I imagine, and one appreciates both Ge’s passion for the subject and his musical imagination. The music is shocking, but not self-indulgent. The movement titles—“Abyss,” “Music from Heaven,” and “Desolation”—should give listeners an idea of what to expect.
The “Fu” of the String Quartet No. 1 is a literary genre in which prose and poetry are combined and ornate calligraphy is valued. In this concise quartet (11:30 here), Ge apparently has tried to depict this genre through music. “Angel Suite” is based on his interest in Christianity. The four movements are “Cherub,” “Gnomes,” “Prayer,” and “Angel’s March,” and I’ll eat my Fanfare collection if the latter doesn’t sound like it was co-composed by Bernard Herrmann!
I don’t want to make extravagant claims for Ge’s music. It is daring for a Chinese composer, but not so daring for works composed between 1983 and 2007. It is well written, though—and emotionally, it puts one through the wringer. Also, in its creativity and imagination, it is far preferable to some of the Chinese alternatives in the “pretty music suitable for accompanying travelogues and nature scenes” genre. If you like any of the composers already mentioned in this review, Ge Gan-Ru’s string quartets are worth checking out.
ModernWorks is a contemporary music ensemble, and as far as I can tell, the four musicians who participate here (Airi Yoshioka, Mayuki Fukuhara, violins; Veronica Salas, viola; Madeleine Shapiro, cello) present Ge’s music faithfully and passionately. The engineering is fine, and the booklet notes are in both English and (I think) Mandarin Chinese.
Baker & Taylor CD Hotlist
Ge Gan-Ru is the most exciting composer to emerge from China this century, and these three string quartets demonstrate why. Of particular note is no. 5, “The Fall of Baghdad,” which is essentially a tone poem for string quartet depicting the horrors of wartime experience from the perspective of its victims. That work is also an explicit homage to George Crumb’s Vietnam-era quartet Black Angels. A must for every library collection.
Ge Gan-ru: Lost Style
New Albion NA-134, 2006
Four Studies of Peking Opera (quintet for piano & string quartet)
Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! (for voice self accompanied by a toy ensemble)
Yi Feng – Lost Style (for solo cello)
Played by The Shanghai Quartet, Kathryn Woodard, Margaret Leng Tan, Frank Su Huang
The New York Times
Youth and Beauty, and Wails, Whispers and Growls
GE GAN-RU: ‘LOST STYLE’
Innovative fusions of Chinese and Western music have by now become familiar. But when the Chinese composer Ge Gan-ru wrote the solo cello piece “Yi Feng” (“Lost Style”) in 1982, the way he used the unorthodox techniques of Western experimental music to evoke the ritualistic sounds and gestures of ancient Chinese musical idioms seemed unprecedented.
The piece, which originally occasioned controversy and drew harsh criticism, earned Mr. Ge the often-cited distinction of being China’s first avant-garde composer. Heard now, its lurching pace and explosive techniques clearly represent a powerful, even joyous reclamation of traditions suppressed during the Cultural Revolution.
“Yi Feng” was written for the cellist Frank Su Huang, one of Mr. Ge’s students at the Shanghai Conservatory; heard here is an unedited performance Mr. Huang taped in Shanghai in 1983. The boomy, metallic recording, rough but listenable, makes the music sound even more otherworldly. A sense of history being made is palpable.
Mr. Ge relocated to America in 1983 and has continued to refine this hybrid style. In “Four Studies of Peking Opera,” from 2003, he evokes the clattering percussion of the genre with snapping string pizzicatos and a piano radically altered with metal and glass implements. Wild glissandos and glowing melodies represent the operatic vocalists. The Shanghai Quartet and Kathryn Woodard, a pianist, provide a dynamic account.
The sounds of Beijing opera also inspired “Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!,” a 2006 monodrama based on a 12th- century poem. Margaret Leng Tan wails, whispers and growls in a stylized Sprechstimme, accompanying herself on toy instruments and cheap gadgets. It’s a strikingly unconventional creation even by Mr. Ge’s standard, but Ms. Tan’s fierce commitment produces a powerfully moving experience.
Controlled Anger and Defiance – the Musical Outburst of a Liberated Man
“Yi Feng” (‘Lost Style’) by Ge Gan-ru is China’s first avant-garde work” – that’s the striking claim of this remarkable composer-portrait CD. Ge Gan-ru, (b 1954) matured as a composer during the Cultral Revolution. His solo cello piece Yi Feng is from 1983, the year he relocated to New York to study composition, and grabs back a right to think freely from party control.
The work channels coolly controlled anger and defiance into positive creative ends. The cello is overhauled sonically by retuning in fourths an octave lower than is customary, which creates a strategic compositional paradox – the cello can now relate both to the Western avant-garde and to the feral sounds of indigenous Chinese string and percussion instruments. The range of timbres and articulations Ge provokes is unheralded. Cage’s prepared piano pieces perhaps created some precedent, but the gestural freshness and sheer liberated wildness of these punky percussive tones invents a radical new syntax for the cello. Cellist Frank Su Huang intrepidly throws himself into the unknown.
The other works have Peking Opera as their source. Four Studies of Peking Opera (2003) for prepared piano and string quartet is a response to the distinctive sonic quality of the music, with tactile string glissandi imitating nasal vocal inflections. Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!(2006) was designed around the talents of toy piano specialist Margaret Leng Tan, who also sings as she plays a battery of supplementary toy instruments. Described as a “Peking Opera-inspired melodrama”, the work is a brilliant re-imagining and a nique meeting of minds between composer and performer.
It’s not very often that you get the honor of purchasing for your library a copy of an instrumental work that, upon its premiere in China 25 years ago, was denounced by the government as “decadent” and “incendiary” (a work for solo cello, no less). That opportunity alone makes this disc worth the purchase price, but the long-form “Four Studies of Peking Opera” and the wonderful “Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!” (for voice and toy instruments) are just as good. Ge Gan-ru is a rare and brilliant talent, one whose work should find a place in most collections.
American Record Guide
The New Grove Dictionary describes Ge Gan-ru (b. 1954) as China’s first avant-garde composer. At first I found it hard to imagine that there couls still be such a thing as an avant-garde composer. What hasn’t been done? after listening to this release, though, I think there is still, if not a real avant-garde, an avant-garde spirit that’s very much alive in new music like Ge’s. It has to do with the composer’s attitude toward sounds and to the design of a composition.
In that light, the earliest on this release – Yi Feng (Lost Style) for cello solo (1983) sets the tone for the later works. The 11-minute composition is written for a cello whose strings have been tuned in fourths an octave lower than usual, and the performer must also strike the body of the instrument as well as bow and pluck the strings in unconventional ways. As Kathryn Woodward points out in her informative notes, the sounds thus produced suggest audible ties to such venerable Chinese instruments as the pipa and qin.
The way these sounds unfold in the work suggests no clear pattern on a first hearing but, rather , a more complex network of correspondences where one might construct continuity in any number of ways. In this sense, Ge’s work resembles John Cage’s, though the individual gestures of Ge’s music are quite different. Frank Su Huang commissioned the work, which was harshly criticized when it was premiered; the recording dates from the time of the 1983 premiere and so carries the freshness and intense conviction that performers bring to music when it is quite new.
The Four Studies of Peking Opera (2003) is an impressive, 30-minute work that combines prepared piano with string quartet to evoke four distinct aspects of Peking Opera: the Prologue emphasizes repetitive phrases that accompany athletic or likewise demonstrative stage action; ’Aria’ is more lyrical and contains a number of heterophonic passages; ‘Narrative’ is more discursive even while it maintains melodic richness; ‘Clown Music’ unfolds more rapidly and includes a few passages that remind me of Western music. The musical materials are mostly dissonant and complex, but Ge explores these sounds so thoroughly that I never feel overwhelmed by them. And once again, the succession of ideas in the music defies easy description, and Ge is not afraid to introduce elements that at first seem incompatible (for instance, a delicate, ascending figure for the string quartet at the end of ‘Aria’). The performance is excellent.
My Favorite work here is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!, a kind of solo operatic scena for a soprano who accompanies herself on a variety of toy instruments. It’s hard to imagine anyone performing it except for Margaret Leng Tan, who has championed Ge’s music for some time. Tan suggested the instruments from her own collection, and Ge’s choices from a beautiful array of timbres, including a toy table harp and toy glockenspiel, various toy percussion, and of course Tan’s beloved toy piano. The text, which dates from 1155, is an eloquent lament. Tan brings to this music the qualities that make her performances so unforgettable: an intensity and complete concentration that one senses even without seeing her, an unerring sense of timing, and a dramatic approach that emphasizes her great joy on the stage. I hope that a film of this performance will be released. All in all, this is a fascinating release.
All Music Guide
Chinese composer Ge Gan-ru has experienced in his lifetime the full rite of passage in the bewildering and terrifying legacy of China’s Cultural Revolution. In love with the violin from childhood, Ge was “re-educated” at 17 and served in a work camp where he nonetheless managed to study under a master violinist. After three years alternating planting rice fields and playing revolutionary music in an ad hoc group, Ge was able to enter the Shanghai Conservatory, though he attracted some negative attention from authorities owing to his openness to avant-garde techniques associated with the West. Through the help of composer Chou Wen- Chung and others, Ge was able to travel to the United States in 1983 and has lived in New York ever since. New Albion’s “Lost Style” is Ge’s first domestic American release; an earlier disc, “Chinese Rhapsody,” appeared on Bis in 2005.
Upon listening to even the first minute of Ge’s “Four Studies of Peking Opera,” listeners accustomed to the distinct sound world of Chinese Opera will immediately find themselves in familiar territory, but with a difference. Ge’s “studies” are a dreamlike re-invention of Chinese Opera, much as some of Harry Partch’s “The Wayward” seems like a dreamlike reinvention of American hobo folk music. Ge’s gestures, however, contain the best of both worlds in a formal sense; the music is both loaded with surprises and familiar sounding as his way of unfolding the music is so well worked out and naturally stated. The drama of the dream may contain a narrative that in distended in the manner of a dream, but it is a narrative nonetheless, something that moves with an inexorable sense of forward progression.
Margaret Leng Tan plays 17 different instruments on Ge’s “Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!,” ranging from one of her trademark toy pianos to “a smiley-face bead rattle drum.” Anyone who has heard Leng Tan talk is acquainted with what a thoroughly charming speaking voice she has, and Ge has, for the first time, put it to work in “Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!,” a setting of a twelfth-century Chinese poem. Tan’s voice swirls and swoops, exhorts and moans as her one-woman orchestra of toy instruments rattle, toot, ring and shimmer in uncanny synchronicity. Lest one should think this panoply of textures was achieved in the studio, Leng Tan is uncommonly ambidextrous and highly disciplined as a performer — she can do all of this stuff live. “Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!” is a happy and entirely successful collaboration between an artist of extraordinary, and extremely specialized, talents and a composer who has the ability to match the challenge.
The title track, “Lost Style,” is performed by cellist Frank Su Huang in a recording made in China in 1983. It is a startlingly well made recording and holds up well to the 2006 recordings with which it is paired — the average listener will not be able to tell the difference. It is a historically important recording as well, as “Lost Style” is considered to be the first avant-garde composition in the history of China, a nation plagued with unimaginable horrors and privations in the last decade of Mao which had only begun to recover in 1983. That recovery continues, but Ge Gan-Ru’s music is not so much the evocation of a “style” that is “lost,” but that of rebirth, in terms of personal creativity and freedom. His music on “Lost Style” imparts a sense of promise for the future that is, in itself, stronger than individual pieces or performances. Ge’s music provides a glimpse into the hope that the Chinese have about the future, even as one might only be able to regain a little of the past in the wake of the Cultural Revolution.
Pianist Margaret Leng Tan emailed me recently to remind me of a comment in a review I wrote I can’t recall how many years ago –– at least seven, probably longer. I wondered whether she had a future as a vocalist. (I’ve also forgotten what occasioned the remark.) Anyway, the e-correspondence led to the present review of a recent release, New Albion NA 134, entitled Lost Style. The music is by a Chinese composer residing in the US, Ge Gan-ru. Having survived the Cultural Revolution and a “re-education” labor-camp stretch, Ge developed an interest in Western art music’s avant-garde. For solo cello, the title work, Lost Style, engages in heavily camouflaged references to aspects of traditional, pre-Mao Chinese music with, ironically, the farthest- out new-music gestures a cello can make. Among mavens, this kind of thing is generally referred to as extended technique.
Four Studies of Peking Opera, performed by pianist Kathryn Woodard and the Shanghai String Quartet, and Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!, written for Margaret Leng Tan’s voice and a toy orchestra she operates solo, are excellent recent recordings engineered by, respectively, Tom Lazarus and Joel Gordon. Alas, cellist Frank Su Huang’s Lost Style performance suffers from an inept 1983 Shanghai production. To make its point effectively, a recording of an edgy new-music solo calls for up-close intimacy in order to capture the work’s novelties, harmonic complexities, microdynamic bits, and the like. Maybe, some day, another try….
Meanwhile, as they say on the baseball diamond, two out of three ain’t bad. Like its companion pieces, Four Studies of Peking Opera alludes obliquely to Chinese tradition. Here, however, the music’s modernistic aspects defer somewhat to an array of beautifully expressed sentiments. For example, the second of four parts, entitled Aria, works its way through a gorgeous, bittersweet melody at least as reminiscent of Western opera as not. The writing throughout is handsome, subtle and quite affecting. Woodard and the Shanghai Quartet’s performances sound to me in perfect accord with the music’s intent.
I emailed Margaret that on first hearing Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! her vocal part actually scared me. Think of a shaman high on magic mushrooms –– and anything but shy. I also asked whether her simultaneous manipulation of the toy orchestra was a real-time event or had it been necessary to lay down a track or two. No. She performs the piece live pretty much as recorded. Quite a feat. The words are Lu You’s, a twelfth-century Chinese poet. The squeaky, wheezy, tappy, variously tinkly orchestra’s toy piano, toy glockenspiel, toy table harp, cup-gongs, toy accordion, gourd rattle, plastic hammer, plastic flute, cricket boxes, and foot-stomps contribute nicely to a where-in-the-world-am-I experience. Again, quite a feat: amusing and deliciously weird. And, for the adventuresome, not to be missed.
Ge Gan-ru: Chinese Rhapsody
BIS 1509 (SACD), 2005
Wu – Rising to Heights (for Piano & Orchestra)
Six Pentatonic Tunes (for orchestra)
Margaret Leng Tan, piano
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
“Ge’s marshaling of his orchestral resources is overtly virtuosic.” “Chinese Rhapsody (1992) and Wu (1986/91) are examples of the extraordinary power Mr. Ge can summon with a full orchestra fitted with Chinese percussion. Emotionally gripping works, they both seduce and pummel the listener.”
“. . .fully in control of his craft. . .” “Chinese Rhapsody (1992) manages to fashion from the triumvirate of musical vocabulary – pitch, rhythm and timbre – a Western modernist piece that, with its battery of additional percussion and accelerating rhythmic structure, remains recognizably Chinese. . . an orchestrational tour de force worthy of Stravinsky or Villa-Lobos at their most dazzling.”
The Times, London
“one of the most talented of the Chinese composers who had to endure the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution is Ge Gan-Ru”
The Philadelphia Inquirer
David Patrick Stearns
“His music is indeed forward-looking … Chinese Rhapsody is a true journey in that new musical vistas are constantly opening before you – with no turning back. Wu (for piano and orchestra) is a marvelous parade of sounds, with the keyboard soloist frequently plucking the inside strings of the instrument – always with great theatricality and a firm sense of overall direction.”
TimeOut New York
“. . .Winning collection. . .” “Chinese Rhapsody demonstrates Ge’s mastery of the modern orchestra, including lushly scored passages reminiscent of Ravel and Debussy, barbaric outbursts worthy of Stravinsky and ghostly sonorities akin to those of George Crumb.”
Sacramento News & Review
Greg La Traille
“Not since Krzysztof Penderecki startled the music world with the novel idea of making the avant-garde accessible has there been such a refreshing sound as that of Chinese composer Ge Gan-Ru. … picturesque … pleasant … Ge is a creative composer who loves the sounds he’s working with.”
“Ge’s music has its own vigorous individuality, as witness BIS’ release of his ‘Chinese Rhapsody’ … The blending of Chinese sound with western symphonic techniques actually has fascinating results – … shuffling, rustling, fluttering, so many birds’ wings, proceeding with vivid percussion, soulful melodic lines, shimmering textures and brazen blocks of sound.”
“… it’s no surprise that composer Ge Gan-ru draws on a wealth of percussion in his music. … whimsical to expansive, shimmering orchestrations and animated musical character may represent a new phase in Ge’s evolving style.”
Lawrence A. Johnson
“This disc of music by Ge Gan-ru testifies to the globalization of classical music … Gan-ru’s music is a fascinating gumbo of Asian Impressionism, Western symphonic elements and edgy modernism. … The charming Chinese melodies are delightfully scored with great flair and economy, and the Six Pentatonic Tunes would spice up a concert or even an adventurous pops program.”
“His writing for the orchestra is inventively melodic and his lithe turns of phrase allow the fastidiousness of the piano part to shine.”
BBC Radio 3
“I have to admit I was charmed by the sheer guilelessness of the music (Wu for Piano & Orchestra) and its delicate touch.”
San Jose Mercury News
“Chinese Rhapsody.” — Fabulous webs of whistlings and stirrings, inspired by Debussy and Ligeti but immersed in the composer’s knowledge of microtonal pitch, pentatonic song and timbrel characteristics drawn from his experience and training in China. Alluring music which, in bridging two worlds, strives to find another.
“He (Ge Gan-ru) creates new music that is strikingly listenable, thought-provoking, and extraordinarily beautiful.”
International Record Review
Ge Gan-Ru is one of a number of Chinese-born composers brought up during the Cultural Revolution, when music was effectively banned and most young people were forced to work in rural labour comps, who subsequently established their reputations in China’s newly reopened music conservatories before being lured to America, where they have since settled. As composers they have addressed the matter of maintaining their Chinese identity within an essentially western culture in differing ways and with varying degrees of success. They have, however, mostly avoided the bland sentimentality and studied naivety which characterized so much pre-revolutionary Chinese music and, for his part, Ge, while acknowledging a debt to Chen Gang, whose ubiquitous The Butterfly Lovers Concerto typifies pre-revolutionary Chinese symphonic music, has adopted the techniques of such native American composers as John Cage and George Crumb.
Any ‘Chinese-ness’ in Ge’s music is achieved largely through abstract instrumental colour in which, as this disc vividly reveals, he is an absolute master, producing exotic and imaginative sounds from what is, in essence, a conventional western symphony orchestra. Only in the percussion section does he introduce some uniquely Chinese instruments and exhibits these in breathtaking cadenza-like passages which crop up around the half-way mark of the two principal works here, Chinese Rhapsody and Wu. The latter is, in effect, a 25-minute concerto for prepared piano on which Margaret Leng Tan proves herself to be exceptionally adapt. Moving from one side of the instrument’s action to the other with suppleness and not a little athleticism, she gives and scintillating portrayal of Ge’s use of the instrument to represent cross-culturalism; from the keyboard it reeks of western tradition, but from work done on the strings it bears an uncanny resemblance to the Chinese dulcimer-type instrument, the yang ch’in.
Ge’s impressive handling of large orchestral resources is magnificently showcased in the 20-minute Chinese Rhapsody. Here, under Jose Serebrier’s unfailingly perceptive guidance, the RSNO, on absolutely cracking form, weave through Ge’s kaleidoscopic textures to produce a soundscape which is exotic and stimulating, but not overtly Chinese (although there are evocative effects from, particularly, the alto flute). But then, as Ge acknowledges in the informative insert notes by Richard Freed, the title was something of an afterthought, the musical language not so much evoking China as building on nuances of Chinese traditional music.
Rather more blatantly Chinese are the Six Pentatonic Tunes. Not only the title, but the conventional tempo markings which distinguish each one (Largo, Andante, Moderato), would seem to go against the assertion that GE is ‘China’s first avant-garde composer.’ Certainly the musical language is far more conventional than in either Chinese Rhapsody or Wu. But while these pieces’ folk-music origins (the second, for example, is built around on of those almost obsessively repetitive Chinese melodies) are inescapable, they are rescued from any hint of mock-chinoiserie by Ge’s deft handling of the orchestra and his pointedly unsentimental style.
Now into his fifties, Ge is clearly a composer of international standing, which makes this superbly played disc, recorded in vivid sound by BIS, a particularly welcome debut of this music into the international record catalogues.
Sino-American composer Ge Gan-ru writes in an immediately identifiable, intriguingly personal style. On the one hand, you find passages based on texture and timbre using various avant-garde playing techniques and sonority in the manner of say, George Crumb. This means of course that they aren’t really that “avant” at all, having been around for the past four or five decades, but what matters is Ge’s confident use of them. In contrast to these, he offers lovely, lyrical episodes based on simple, consonant harmonies in gently pulsating strings, often with beautiful solos for oboe or horn and punctuated by isolated interjections from the percussion section. Lastly, there is a vigorous rhythmic element, led by virtuoso fusillades from the generously endowed percussion battery (which may include Chinese and well as Western instruments).
This, then, is the basic mix, but it doesn’t describe just how alternately exciting and ravishing this music is, nor does it suggest Ge’s ability to organize his materials in such a way as to suggest a clear formal balance and evolving musical argument, qualities often missing from much contemporary music. It’s also worth noting that the purely textural passages, also unlike much contemporary music, have an evocative beauty all their own, partly the result of imaginative use of harp and string sonorities, and that Ge’s language is capable of a wide range of expression. The moods in Chinese Rhapsody, for example, run the gamut from nostalgic to ferocious, and even find room for touches of witty woodwind writing toward the work’s center. The next piece on the disc, Wu (never mind what it means; it doesn’t matter), takes this same idiom and reinterprets it in terms of a piano concerto, as a dialogue between soloist and orchestra, with the piano played both conventionally and with various timbre-altering devices in and on the strings.
Six Pentatonic Tunes reveals the composer’s ability to relax and write excellent light music, full of warmth and humor, very much in the vein of Tveitt’s Hardanger folk song settings or Skalkottas’ Greek Dances. In other words, Ge treats his melodies with respect but also manages to create highly sophisticated and harmonically piquant settings that enhance their character without smothering it. This, by the way, is not an easy task, and it says something about his artistry that Ge manages the job so deftly. I am sure that he must also be quite satisfied with these very exciting performances. Absent a score, I wouldn’t bet money on whether those snap pizzicatos roughly 8 minutes into Wu are quite together or not, but under José Serebrier’s leadership the Royal Scottish National Orchestra responds with great brilliance and enthusiasm, and it goes without saying that contemporary music specialist Margaret Leng Tan, for whom the solo part of Wu was written, plays it as well as anyone possibly can.
State-of-the-art sonics, whether in stereo or SACD multichannel format, complete a compelling portrait of a vital, vibrant creative voice. I have to say that, speaking personally, I’m a bit fed up with composers (whether Oriental or Occidental) exploiting the East/West nationalist angle with such tiresome regularity. I suppose if the quality of the results were higher, it would be a different matter, but as it stands this trend bores me. More often than not it simply provides a smokescreen behind which we find idioms that are expressively limited, superficial, and predictable. I’m not naming names, but you should have no problem creating your own list. Ge Gan-ru, on the other hand, deserves your consideration. What certainly does not bore me is imaginative, well-written music of any stripe, and that is exactly what we have here. This guy’s for real.
Chinese born Ge Gan-Ru now lives in America. The three works here are significant evidence of his compositional powers and two of them are particularly powerful in their organisational mastery. That said, Chinese Rhapsody is a post-facto title and we are advised not to make too much of it. Ge has managed to coalesce avant-garde standpoints with more traditional material, the East with the West, to greatly beneficial effect.
The Rhapsody opens like the wind, with a gush of string sound but it subsequently embraces percussive taps and evocative timbres. There is something fluid about it that makes the title apt, despite the disclaimer; harp glissandi maybe hint at impressionism, and the percussion section deliberately evokes the sounds and sonorities of Chinese instrumentation – if not explicitly at least generically. There’s some puckish wind writing here as well (amazingly some even put me in mind of The Planets) and moments that seem connected to Berg – the Violin Concerto specifically. Though his technique is capable of embracing tough modernism Ge is equally willing to position himself in the tradition – note the fugato passage which presages a return to brisk, pensive avant-garde devices.
Wu for piano and orchestra was written in 1986, originally for chamber forces, and was revised for orchestral performance five years later. Heavily rhythmic and full of percussive attacks the piano sounds very “timbral” if I can put it that way; it sounds entirely consonant with the devices explored in Chinese Rhapsody – harpsichord-like sonorities, sheer white violin tone, with a fast finale animated by incursive percussion and rasping trombones. Quiet descends before one final hectic helter-skelter piano drive. Though Wu is a fine work in its own right, and one that augments the piano into Ge’s sound world, it shares with the Chinese Rhapsody a strong sense of colour and sonorous drama.
These in differing ways are qualities that shine through in the Six Pentatonic Tunes for orchestra. With essentially Western orchestration but with a Chinese accent these range widely to include Debussyan-cum-Delian (Brigg Fair) impressionism (though as ever with Ge there’s always a touch of grit along the way) as well as some rhythmically engaging, wittily orchestrated and terpsichorean writing. To add to the two influences noted, if such they are, we can also add a touch of Prokofiev in the last of the six.
Superbly recorded and sumptuously played this is a most engaging showcase for Ge’s evocative music-making. Far more than routine East-West hybrid this music occupies another level of compositional seriousness altogether – and it’s full of interest in all sorts of ways.
All Music Guide
Ge Gan-Ru is widely identified as the first Chinese composer to work in an avant-garde style, a Western conceit once completely prohibited in China, especially during China’s Cultural Revolution, the era in which Ge grew up and served three years in an agricultural labor camp. Ge has lived in the United States since 1983; BIS’ Super Audio CD Chinese Rhapsody is the first solo outing devoted to the work of Ge. Its program of three pieces includes one item from each decade in which he has worked, the piano concerto Wu (1986) for Margaret Leng Tan and two works for orchestra, Chinese Rhapsody (1992) and Six Pentatonic Tunes (2003). Of these, Chinese Rhapsody seems the most edgy and exploratory; some listeners may not find it so “rhapsodic” in a traditional sense, and Ge admits that the choice of title was rather arbitrary. Nevertheless, it is rhapsodic in feel — huge, impressive washes of orchestral sound lead from one to the next, greatly aided by the terrific audio quality of BIS’ recording and conductor José Serebrier’s committed advocacy. Wu is an ideal showcase for Leng Tan, and she spends most of her time away from the keyboard, playing on the strings, while Ge’s ripieno — more distinctively “Chinese” sounding here than elsewhere on the disc — contributes a widely ranging superfluity of textures that support, encompass, and interact with Leng Tan; a very different approach to the standard piano concerto. Ge states, “I’m seeking timbres that I think you don’t usually hear in Western music,” and he has that right; even as it may seem that the Boulezes and Stockhausens have exhausted the palette of resources given to Western music and its acoustic instruments, Ge manages to find yet more colors.
Less experimental and more lighthearted is the Six Pentatonic Tunes, where Ge allows himself a bit more of a direct reference to traditional styles. TheLento movement features a haunting melody set in a style that is recognizably Chinese in sound, whereas the second Moderato is a near-polka almost reminiscent of Shostakovich. Although his adoption of the avant-garde may be Ge Gan-ru’s calling card, that doesn’t mean that he shuts out other forms of expression through which he may want to communicate. In sum, BIS’ Ge Gan-Ru: Chinese Rhapsody is a positive and fulfilling medium through which to acquaint one’s ears with this fascinating and highly gifted contemporary composer.