The New Zealand String Quartet has shown much care and attention to detail in bringing to life the music of four Asian composers on their latest recording for Naxos. The CD, Asian Music for String Quartet, presents disparate sound worlds influenced to varying degrees by Asian music and instruments. The techniques, timbres, and stylistic nuances demanded of the performers would be a challenge for the best of ensembles, and it is testament to the New Zealand Quartet’s hard work, expressive sensitivity, and diligent interpretation that each composition’s unique qualities shine.
Perhaps my personal favorite on the disc is Chinary Ung’s Spiral III. After its bold beginning, the piece patiently explores different colorful timbres, giving each new sound a sense of clarity yet moving through its palette with an elusive, unsettled quality. The harmonies are sometimes presented in wide spacing between the instruments, and at others times verge on clusters. Within this shifting soundscape, discernible motives present themselves, and I was especially impressed with the way an upward-slide motive had, to my ears, both a Romantic sensibility and an Asian ornamental quality. Melodies that emerged from the texture often began as a solo voice that was then treated to imitation, getting busier and settling into a steady rhythm before breaking down. This sense of new shapes coming and going gives Spiral III an evental character. On the whole, Ung allows for individual voices to come to the fore and shine while also achieving a synthesis of the different elements. A particular beautiful moment to me was hearing the first violin soar above the quartet while maintaining a sense of serene calm. Ung (who was recently interviewed by Arlene and Larry Dunn for ICIYL) has succeeded here in drawing on musical textures and spiritual influences from his native Cambodia while mastering string quartet composition in his own way.
Gao Ping’s Bright Light and Cloud Shadows also displayed a tremendous sense of patience, letting the music breathe and develop. Its barren, almost spooky beginning allowed for dissonances to creep in to the texture. I was impressed with the way the few melodic motives used would emerge and be “worked on” by the quartet, with a two-note accented motive providing a coherence and destination to the piece. A passage in which the cello furiously plucked away especially stood out as a burst of excitement within the more open texture, almost like a fidgety human voice emerging from the clouds. Above all, I felt drawn to listen deeply to the different sounds being created, and I’m sure each listening will be a different experience. Though completely different in style, something about this piece makes me think of Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question. In any event, I’ll be sure to check out more of Gao Ping’s music after hearing the enticing tone colors and different musical voices he has created here.
Zhou Long’s Song of the Ch’in has the quartet imitating the ch’in, a Chinese seven-stringed zither that is plucked with tremendous sophistication. This instrumental quality was realized well by both composer and performers here. I was impressed with the full tone of each plucked note in the New Zealand Quartet’s capable hands. The quick slides after the strings were plucked were just one of the nuances brought out among the myriad of ornaments throughout. The harmonies were full of color, while the restrained dynamics and style made for a sense of refinement, with the music only getting “big” in a couple places.
What is fascinating to me in Toru Takemitsu’s music is hearing the distinct influences of different composers while also hearing Takemitsu’s highly individual voice. On A Way a Lone, I personally hear a lot of Debussy in the lush harmonies and flowing motion around the quartet. This is no cheap imitation though, and it’s noteworthy how much there is to listen to in this piece, with background figures darting in and out of the texture along with quick, churning melodic lines.
Tan Dun’s aptly titled Eight Colors consists of short character pieces that draw out sounds ranging from siren-like, slinky, urgency with that horror-movie foreboding, heavily accented with pizzicato explorations, to a ticking nervous energy. Each movement is just long enough to explore its sounds and techniques, but the tremendous variety is a good contrast to the other pieces on this CD (which, in a good way, gradually explore less material).
On the whole, Asian Music for String Quartet is a well-executed showcase of four very different composers who often foster organic musical connections between the Western art music tradition and Asian musical practices. Besides being a good introduction to their work, each track will undoubtedly provoke new reactions with each listen given the sense of detail and enticing sound worlds they create.
New Zealand String Quartet, Asian Music for String Quartet (Naxos 8.572488, November 2012) | Buy it on Amazon
David Pearson is a saxophonist residing in NYC and a doctoral candidate in musicology at CUNY Graduate Center.