Exploring Xiaogang Ye

cover - DE 3559

YE: Basong Cuo. Colorful Sutra Banner. December Chrysanthemum. Namucuo. Hibiscus. San Die / Les Temps Modernes: Michelle Lavignolle, fl; Jean-Louis Bergerard, cl; Claire Bernard, vln; Florian Nauche, cel; Emmanuelle Maggesi, pno; Anna Astesano, harp; Benoit Poly, perc; Su Chang, zheng; Fabrice Pierre, cond / Delos DE 3559

It always rather amazes me that there are so many composers out there who are “widely acclaimed,” one of the “most talented of his/her generation,” “internationally acclaimed” and “prize winners,” who most of us have never heard or heard of. Xiaogang Ye, born in 1955, is apparently (according to Wikipedia) “one of China’s most active and most famous composers of contemporary classical music,” yet this is the first time I’ve either heard or heard of him.

But, as they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and this is clearly inventive, interesting and well-written music, built around Western principles despite the use of the zheng or Chinese zither in the first piece. His music is built around the atonal system, yet—at least in these performances—it has a wonderful sweep and forward momentum about it that is enticing, and his uncanny ability to move his musical materials around like so many fast-moving chess pieces on a board is quite dazzling. Ye also has a great sense of balance and proportion; he does not overwrite, often a bane of many modern composers whether tonal or atonal, and his music does not overstay its welcome for one second longer than it needs to be heard. In addition, he has a great ear for color. Without looking at the album info, I think you’d have a hard time believing that Basong Cuo uses only six instruments: zheng, flute, clarinet, violin, cello and harp. Indeed, you might think, in advance of hearing it, that having a harp present would be superfluous since he is already using the zheng, but such is not the case. Ye finds a way of giving each instrument interesting and important music to play, and of somehow scoring it to give the illusion of textural fullness without overcrowding the instruments. It is a remarkable piece.

In Colorful Suta Banner, written for piano trio, one hears only the violin and piano at first, and the former plays on the edge of the strings, creating a purposely thin, almost edgy sound. In this piece, too, Ye uses chromatic glissandi at certain moments to make a point. When the cello does enter, it is scored high up in its range, making it sound almost like a viola in most of its passages. (I wonder why he didn’t just write the piece for violin, viola and piano.) As the piece progresses, it actually becomes more abstract, with themes juxtaposed rather than presented sequentially. Obviously, he intended this to be primarily a bit of a “show-off” piece, though again his sense of structure is impeccable. At around 5:30, the piano bangs out a series of contrabass low Cs, then there is a pause in the music before it resumes, the tempo now much slower for a few bars before regaining its rapid pace, now with the piano playing a running bass passage and eventually joining the strings in upward-rising figures. The low, contrabass Cs return for a bit, then Ye suddenly moves into a more lyrical, almost minimal theme, played very softly. This is yet another fascinating piece.

Perhaps because the focus is on the flute, a quintessential Chinese instrument, December Chrysanthemum has the most Oriental sound. The music intertwines traditional Chinese scales and harmonies with a Western aesthetic. In a sense I applaud this, since the flute, like the harp, is not an instrument conducive to really expressive playing. In my lifetime I’ve only heard two flautists, Claude Monteux and James Galway, really make the flute sound expressive, and only one harpist, Nicanor Zabaleta. Our performer here, however, Michelle Lavignole, does a very good job on this piece, thus I have no complaint. The latter half of this piece contains much delicate and contemplative music, making an effective contrast with the first part.

Interestingly, the opening of Namucuo with its rolling arpeggio piano chord, almost sounds like a continuation of the previous piece, but the piano quickly moves into a quite different mood and pace. Here the music is modal rather than strictly atonal, and since it is the only instrument used it has to create its own contrasts—which it does, not only in thematic material but also by juxtaposing soft, delicate passages with crashing chords. Around the 3:28 mark, the music becomes livelier and more aggressive, the latter a rare quality in Ye’s scores.

Hibiscus is another work for six players, in this case substituting a percussionist for the zheng player. It opens with just the solo flute, then the violin cello and percussion enter before Ye moves on to fully orchestrated passages. Interestingly, he explores different sonorities here than in Basong Cuo. What’s interesting about this piece, however, is Ye’s use of the opposite effects. Rather than a rich, full-bodied sound, this sextet breaks apart and plays in smaller combinations most of the time, sometimes just one or two instruments (including a cello solo or cadenza around 7:30). It is also a less strictly developed piece, emerging in sections that almost make it sound like a string of short movements rather than a continuous piece. Ye also employs a strong ostinato rhythm before and after the nine-minute mark that is not too dissimilar from George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique. The slow end section is even slower and more minimalist.

With San Die for zheng and flute, we come to the last piece on this CD. Using two such traditional Chinese instruments, one could easily have expected it to sound the most Asian piece on the disc, but surprisingly Ye uses the zheng almost like a piano, alternating chordal and arpeggiated passages as an accompaniment, and the flute, for the most part, maintains a more Western bias in its music. Yet what I found fascinating was that the listener can indeed hear it, without knowing the composer, as a Western piece emulating Eastern sounds. The flute sets up its own whirling passages, to which the zheng responds with its own arpeggios and chords. Like much of the other music on this disc, the music is attractive yet rather quirky. One follows its unusual path through its various tempi and moods, and in the end it is, again, a very satisfying piece.

For me this is truly one of the most interesting and revelatory CDs of the year. I enjoyed every single moment of it!

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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