When we think of chamber music, the most familiar canonical repertoire tends to cover a small range of instruments. Members of the violin family dominate, with or without a piano.
Of course, many composers have explored more innovative arrangements. December Chrysathmum, a new release by French group Les Temps Modernes, features chamber works by the Chinese composer Xiaogang Ye. And the opening track immediately dazzles with a kaleidoscopic array of colours.
Basong Cuo is scored for six instruments, including a zheng, a Chinese plucked zither with a distinctive twang. But it also calls for harp, a mellower but similar sound. In fact, Ye’s scoring is built around three pairs of timbral near-neighbours, with flute, clarinet, violin and cello completing an ensemble equally comprised of plucking, blowing and bowing.
The colour contrasts that arise, with subtler shades of differentiation within the pairs, create an intriguingly balanced palette. The opening is a vivid constellation of bright bursts and tactile flourishes – like a child with a new box of toys, Ye seems impatient to discover what all these instruments can do. But it soon passes into more shadowy realms, with eerie tremolo strings and woodwind trills.
Born in 1955, Ye was part of a legendary class that graduated from Beijing’s Central Conservatory, which included figures such as Tan Dun and Guo Wenjing. In an interview, he explained this illustrious intake as the accumulation of untutored talent during the institution’s ten-year closure in the Cultural Revolution.
His music on this disc has a sense of immediacy – ideas seem to unfold in a spontaneous stream. But composing like this has structural limitations, which perhaps explains why all of the works are single tracks that barely exceed the ten-minute mark. Ye’s wizardry is in making it so compelling.
For all the frenetic energy in Basong Cuo, it does have something of a downward arc – it eventually subsides into a long, low tremolo on the zheng. Other works stay closer to this more tentative world. The piano trio Colorful Sutra Banner starts delicately, coming together in sudden unison eruptions, but mostly staying poised and restrained. Stranger is the mixed-ensemble piece Hibiscus, which has something of a false ending – a climax is followed by a long pause, then a curiously deflated epilogue.
One puzzle, for me at least, is how to square this mercurial music with the simple, postcardy titles Ye chooses – two of the works, including Basong Cuo, are named after Tibetan lakes, another two are named after flowers. The composer’s own liner notes elaborate on these simple images in quite broad-brush terms, mentioning emotions and spirituality, which doesn’t much help.
Perhaps something is lost in cultural translation. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating disc of beguiling music. Listening to Basong Cuo, it seems the ensemble’s centre of gravity has levitated. So much of Western classical music is built from a strong bass, the root of harmony, and resolves itself in thunderous depths. But the lower tones of the harp and zheng are dusky, while the cello is outnumbered here by the higher instruments – in fact both of the strings recede somewhat from the foreground.
Ye’s cleverly paired scoring results in a different balance – an airy swirl of colour and sensuousness in the middle and high registers. And although the sound of the zheng falls on Western ears as a familiar symbol of the ‘Far East’, it doesn’t act like one: it’s integrated into the ensemble as one segment of a colour wheel.
A different dynamic is found in Gardenia, not on this disc, but available on YouTube in a performance from La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest 2017. The work combines the pipa, a Chinese lute, with string quartet. Listening to Wu Man and the Miró Quartet in the video, the two make for equal forces in a free-flowing dialogue. Gardenia is the symbolic flower of Yueyuang City – more flora! – and Ye incorporates folk music from Hunan province, so the pipa’s presence here seems to play a more traditional Chinese role.
And yet, much like Basong Cuo, Gardenia ends with a long, quiet tremolo on the pipa. It’s an effect he’s evidently fond of, only this time it’s at the top of its register, accompanied by ethereal high notes from the strings. Another ten-minute conjuring act trembles away into silence.
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