For all that critics like to talk about distinctive compositional voices, individual pieces by a given composer don’t always sound that much alike. Composers experiment from work to work, delving into new sonic material or bringing different aesthetic concerns to the fore. In any given piece, it’s impossible to tell the quirks from the constants; it’s only in the context of a survey of works by the same creator that such distinctions begin to emerge. The Miller Theatre’s Composer Portrait series is a boon to this kind of listening, offering evening-length programs devoted to one composer at a time. On Feb. 21, the devotee was Wang Lu, whose works were presented in style by members of the International Contemporary Ensemble and Yarn/Wire, in varying combinations.
One constant that emerged from the evening’s five works was a restlessly mercurial approach to texture. Skittery contrapuntal lines filled the air in one moment, only to be cut short by percussive interjections in the next. A breath later the contrapuntal scurry would be back, only to give way immediately to a recording of a recycling truck.
Such jittery moment-to-moment constructions might seem like a natural metaphor for the chaotic overstimulation of social media, but Wang is more interested in charting the physical landscape of the external world and the inner landscapes of fading memories. Urban Inventory (2015), which opened the concert, offered, in its first movement, a tour of a city park, the recorded hubbub of a café cutting to a thicket of glassy string glissandi and bass clarinet key clicks that conjured a huddled of disgruntled pigeons. (The samples for this piece were recorded on a cell phone and they sound like it, in sharp contrast to the precision and clarity of the live performers.)
Subsequent movements pick up echoes of ’90s pop and ballets from the Cultural Revolution, a thread of memory carried further in Childhood Amnesia (2017). A set of six short movements inspired by various childhood games – ranging from a Chinese form of Duck Duck Goose to Pac-Man – the work includes a frazzled, deconstructed march and a slow, stately dance built around poised chords rolled across all three string instruments (violin, viola, cello) in a strummed multi-stop pizzicato. There’s a fair amount of humor in the piece – including a runaway flexatone solo in the final moments, played with mischievous glee by Russell Greenberg – but there are harder feelings as well, as in the alarms and percussive interjections that rend the fabric of the second movement with the impotent rage of not being able to remember something that was once the center of your world.
A-PPA-Aratus, the world premiere that concluded the evening, ditched the childhood memories, and with them the humor. According to the program note, the work is inspired by a massive textile factory and a collection of poetry written by workers, an ancient Greek poet, and teacher planning periods. I am still not sure of the exact connection between these ideas, and the piece was similarly diffuse. The spare, solemn introduction was captivating enough, and early on the vibes led an almost-tonal passage of blithe serenity that wafted through, blissful and beautiful, on a passing cloud. But after a barrage of flurrying piano lines and discordant percussion that came across as a parody of how a stodgy aesthetic reactionary might describe New Music™, the work lost its way. There was an expanse of sparseness subtly but significantly transformed from the opening soundscape, but then the work just kept going, atmospheric texture piling on atmospheric texture in a tedium of endless continuation.
There was a clearer concept in Rates of Extinction (2016), but it was undercut by the accompanying visual projections by Polly Apfelbaum. Written for solo piano, the music uses the heart rates of recently extinct animals to build yawning chasms and mournful ballades; the projections show a pair of human hands aimlessly rearranging paper cuts of various animals, much like you might mix up the tiles before a game of Scrabble. Most of the animals were dinosaurs, creatures memorably not wiped out by human activity, and none of them were removed from view, thus removing any sense of urgency or loss.
At the other extreme, in terms of both ensemble size and emotional weight, was Siren Song (2018), a dramatic romp lovingly infused with the Qinqiang opera Wang heard as a child in Xi’an. It’s a joyous piece, full of raucous eruptions and volcanic soundscapes, the climax a full-throated rendition of various opera tunes (full of hearty disruptions and unapologetic parallel tone clusters), the conclusion a playful game of pizzicato cat-and-mouse. In this, the piece hearkened back to the Homeric vision of the Sirens, who seduce Odysseus not with a promise of carnal delight but with the offer of past glories relived with those who share the pertinent memories. Xi’an’s Guangzhou dialect is difficult for most Mandarin speakers to understand; in Siren Song, Wang taps into a deep well of memory just as inscrutable to outsiders as the experience of the Trojan War.
Siren Song is fun, and you want to spend more time with it, but the title suggests that that might be a dangerous impulse. Heard in isolation, it would be hard to say much more than that, but with the added context provided by the rest of the Composer Portrait, this ambivalent relationship with the past comes to the foreground as a long-running theme in Wang’s work. She is not trying to erase the past or quash the memories that bubble to the surface, but even as she preserves these fragments of the past in lo-fi recordings and decaying paraphrases, she does not wholly welcome them. These things happened, she seems to say. It’s up to you to figure out what to do with them.
Brin Solomon writes words and music in several genres and is doing their best to queer all of them. Solomon majored in composition at Yale University before earning their MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at NYU/Tisch. Their full-length musical Window Full of Moths has been hailed for its “extraordinary songs” that “add magic to otherwise ordinary lives”, and their latest one-act, Have You Tried Not Being A Monster, has been described as “agitprop for Julia Serrano.” Their writing has appeared in VAN, New Classic LA, and National Sawdust Log, and they recently won runner-up at the 2018 Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.