Tag Archives: music from china

New Listen: PRISM Quartet’s ‘The Singing Gobi Desert’


Artist: PRISM Quartet
Album: The Singing Gobi Desert (2014)

The recently-released The Singing Gobi Desert showcases PRISM Quartet in collaboration with Music from China. Here they are also joined by guests conductor Nové Deypalan and sheng soloist Hu Jianbing. Don’t be fooled by the billing of Music from China as “Guest Ensemble” – this is a true musical partnership. It’s better to think of this recording as performed by a chamber ensemble comprised of saxophones and traditional Chinese instruments as opposed to a binary orchestra. The album is a follow-up to 2010’s Antiphony (my review here), PRISM’s first outing with Music from China.

The Singing Gobi Desert is a natural successor to and evolution from Antiphony. The first album had somewhat of an “East Meets West” ethos, and was even billed as such to a certain degree – e.g., the album title itself. (Thankfully, it was tastefully executed and avoided Third Stream traps.) Here, however, this sophomore release displays a true “fusion” – in the best sense of the word – of styles and cultures. While Chinese and Western influences no doubt reign supreme here, the end result transcends both sources, resulting in a new stylistic language that speaks to all listeners of that catch-all category known as “contemporary music.”

On the whole, Gobi features fewer but meatier works than its predecessor: four compositions ranging from 14 to 20 minutes each. They are, in album order:
Bright Sheng‘s The Singing Gobi Desert (2012) for erhu/zhonghu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, saxophone quartet, and percussion
Lei Liang‘s Messages of White (2011) for saxophone quartet, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, and percussion
Fang Man‘s Dream of a Hundred Flowers (2011) for saxophone quartet and four Chinese instruments
Huang Ruo‘s The Three Tenses (2005) for pipa and saxophone quartet

All four pieces have an orchestral quality that blend PRISM and Music from China into a unified whole that sounds much larger than the sum of its parts. One way in which this is achieved right off the bat is by the title track’s heavy use of the sheng, a mouth organ. That, coupled with myriad percussion as well as long, flowing melodies, gives the piece a thick, lush texture. Extended techniques abound here and throughout, but they are written and implemented tastefully and with purpose. Messages of White, on the other hand, employs a similar instrumentation but to strikingly different effect. Instead of lyrical passages, Liang’s emphasizes rhythm and harmony, focusing on stark, repetitive staccatos juxtaposed with subtle, often nebulous harmonies.  Dream of a Hundred Flowers takes the listener back toward a vocal space, but one quite different than Gobi. Here, Fang Man guides the musicians to “imitate Peking opera speaking voices.”1 The drama unfolds in manners both cacophonous and whispered, with the coda taking on an almost electro-acoustic quality. (It’s no surprise that Man studied at IRCAM-Paris.) Rounding out the set is Ruo’s The Three Tenses. Even though it is for a pared-down ensemble, it again transcends “saxophone literature.” (Because of its minimal instrumentation, it perhaps helps that it’s last on the album and sonically buoyed by the first three pieces.) The pipa’s extensive presence and the multitude of extended techniques also lend an orchestral quality to this quintet composition – a tribute to the composer.

Arguably the album’s greatest triumph is that the compositions take center stage, not simply the blending of instruments and styles. Antiphony was a valiant and substantive first step for such artistic exploration. The Singing Gobi Desert, however, opens up a wider and more comprehensive world of sonic and aesthetic possibilities, making this “novelty” instrumentation seem like anything but. I highly recommended this album.

Innova link here
Amazon link here
iTunes link here

1. [Schaefer, John. The Singing Gobi Desert. Liner notes, p. 7]

New Listen: PRISM Quartet’s ‘Antiphony’

Artist: PRISM Quartet
Album: Antiphony (2010)

This album is “newish” for me as I got it a few month ago, however I wanted to shift away from jazz for this post, and I was recently able to give this album the careful listen it deserves.  In case you’re unfamiliar, PRISM is arguably the premiere classical saxophone quartet in North America.  The ensemble  has not only championed new music for saxophone quartet (largely outside of France), but it has done much to promote the saxophone within the classical community.  Antiphony (2010), the latest release, features PRISM in collaboration with Music From China, a quartet focusing on both traditional and contemporary Chinese music.  This (at times) double quartet features mostly new music blending Eastern and Western styles.

From the liner notes:
“Representing profound contrasts of timbre and culture, this ‘odd couple’ of traditional Chinese instruments and saxophones bridges remarkable distances of space and time.  The instruments of Music From China…have been played for a millennium or more.  The saxophone, in contrast, bears a French patent dating from the Industrial Revolution.” -Alyssa Timlin, p. 5

(While I don’t/won’t make a habit of quoting liner notes, it’s appropriate in this instance.)

Overall, the two ensembles gel nicely within each composition.  There are only a few instances, for me, in which I’m caught off guard a bit.  All but two of the compositions feature a mixed ensemble. (Lang’s Yuan features saxophone quartet only, and Dun’s Shuang Que for Erhu and Yangqin features only members of Music From China.)  The multi-movement works which bookend the album – Songs for Huqin and Saxophone Quartet and Chinatown, respectively – are the most accessible, helping to ease the listener (especially the layperson) into and out of the more abstract selections.  Songs is one of this album’s many highlights, as its ethereal, almost filmic first movement, “Pastorale,” serves as a wonderful introduction to the album’s materials and overall concept.  PRISM and MFC are introduced separately, but quickly combine into a single lyrical soundscape.  Yuan, however, is arguably the collection’s most abstract composition.  (I attended one of the first public performances of this work by PRISM and experiencing the work in context with the rest of the pieces, it made much more sense to me.)  Many extended techniques are featured throughout – this should be of particular interest for saxophonists – such as multiphonics, slap-tonguing, and playing the mouthpiece alone.

Without going into great detail about each composition individually (that’s not the purpose of these entries, but rather a “quick review), suffice it to say that there’s much variety in this album, featuring many different avenues of the general “East meets West” motif.  What I like most about Antiphony is that the music is organic and genuine, as opposed to the forced “third stream-esque” nonsense that is often the result combining disparate styles (a serious pet peeve of mine).  In fact, the successful blending of both instrumentation and styles make one wonder if the album’s title is a misnomer.  This would make a great investment for any serious classical saxophonist, or anyone interested in new/contemporary music.

Innova (record label) link here
Amazon link here
iTunes link here