For the past 30 years, the Toronto new music presenter Soundstreams has been commissioning, developing and presenting new Canadian music that reflects the cultural diversity of that country. Music For China at Koerner Hall in the TELUS Centre of the Royal Conservatory Toronto on May 14, 2013, showcased an interesting approach to this diversity. By commissioning works for traditional Chinese instruments and Western classical instruments, both separately and in combination, Soundstreams elicited music that reflected cultural exchange at its best. The concert, including five world premieres for Eastern and Western instruments, was the kickoff for an upcoming tour of China and Taiwan, taking Canadian music and musicians to the Beijing Modern Music Festival, as well as several other events.
The Chai Found Music Workshop is a Sizhu (Chinese chamber music) ensemble hailing from Taipei, Taiwan. Their repertoire includes contemporary classical music, in addition to traditional music from Taiwan and China. The quartet performs on the erhu (a bowed instrument with two strings), the pipa (a four-stringed, plucked instrument resembling a lute), the di (a flute, played horizontally), and the zheng (a plucked instrument with many strings, an ancestor of the Japanese koto). These instruments were used as a quartet in premieres by Ching-Yu Hsiau and Chi-Chun Lee, both Taipei-based composers. Ching-Yu’s Intermezzo (2013) explored the tonal possibilities available by using extended techniques on these instruments. We heard the di played as Western flutes are often played in contemporary classical music, with a variety of breath sounds and effects. Some sounds from the zheng were also familiar as techniques used in contemporary Western string music: slapping and tapping the wooden base of the instrument, and employing a ‘Bartok pizzicato,’ an effect where the string is pulled away from the instrument, and then allowed to snap back, creating a mixture of percussion and pitch. In Layers of Waves (2013), Chi-Chun also employed many extended techniques for these traditional instruments, in addition to a language that was at turns chromatic and atonal. This piece contrasted long, rhythmic atmospheres on the erhu with short, percussive sounds from the di and some bowed gestures on the koto.
Working with a combination of the Chai Found Music Workshop, the Accordes String Quartet and several other performers of Western instruments, Fuhong Shi and Dorothy Chang built new sonic palettes in their pieces for this concert. Fuhong, who received her Doctorate of music at the University of Toronto before returning to Beijing, explored the idea of space and time between these two sound worlds. Distance (2013) incorporated a traditional-sounding, pentatonic melody on the Chinese flute into a shimmering accompaniment from the Western strings. Her wide and creative use of textures also included a series of echoes between the Eastern and Western flutes.
Rather than highlighting contrasts between cultural traditions, Chang approached the ensemble “as a group of individual instruments and their unique characteristics, with none more distinct or exotic than the others.” By doing so, she found interesting new sound combinations in her piece Small and Curious Places (2013): a melody played on clarinet and erhu, accompanied by well-balanced string chords felt raspy, dark and Schoenbergian; sharp breath sounds in Eastern and Western flutes were mixed with wire brushes played on drums, and built in sharp waves. Chang teased out short, pentatonic moments from her rich textures, balancing energetic and intellectual elements well through the five-movement piece.
The three other works on the program, though all very worthy musically, were thematic non-sequiturs, and made for a long and slightly unfocussed program. Kaija Saariaho’s Terrestre (2002), featuring Leslie Newman on flute, is a fascinating and challenging reworking of Saariaho’s flute concerto. Newman attacked this piece with verve, giving an excellent rendering of the wide range of timbres Saariaho has written for the flute. A dramatic and narrative work, R. Murray Schafer’s Theseus (1983) is a rollicking adventure for harp and string quartet. Harp was also featured in Alexina Louie’s Cadenzas II for Harp and Percussion (2012), a work commissioned by Soundstreams. Working mainly in the upper register of the harp with repeated patterns, Sanya Eng performed this duo tightly with Ryan Scott, who danced between vibraphone, marimba, glockenspiel, several large and small drums, and a host of other percussion.
Among many innovative projects that they have on the go, Soundstreams provides live streams all of their concerts online and archives them on their website. It is well worth checking out this concert to hear the sounds of the Sizhu instruments, alone and in combination with the other performers, to experience for yourself the results of this cultural exchange.