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The Justice (November 26, 2013)

MusicUnitesUS presents traditional Chinese music

by Nate Shaffer

Friday evening in Slosberg Music Center, guest ensemble Music From China performed student compositions as part of the New Music Brandeis series. Music From China visited campus for four days in conjunction with MusicUnitesUS, a non-profit run by Prof. Judith Eissenberg (MUS) that seeks to further the understanding and appreciation of diverse cultures through music.

The music presented in this concert was very carefully considered, both by the composers and performers. There were several different compositional approaches put forth, and thankfully, a range of affects explored. The ensemble’s traditional Chinese instruments are rich in their sonic possibilities; there was a lot of room for innovation and freshness in applying these delicate and novel timbres to the Western tradition.

Regardless of what one may have thought of these student composers, these amazing performers delicately and expertly rendered the music—it was certainly a treat to watch and hear their authoritative interpretations of these new works.

As for the works themselves, despite success in expressing interesting ideas, most of these pieces lacked the nearly absolute cohesion of truly great works.

That is not to say that creating simple, easily understood tunes is the optimal strategy—or that Beethoven’s paradigm-shattering symphonies never rambled on. Rather, on the whole, the pieces themselves were a bit unwieldy; their perceivable logic left something to be desired.

More than once, I found myself preparing to clap as a piece reached a poignant silence or arrival which, to my dismay, was actually somewhere in the middle of the piece. Likewise, at endings, I didn’t always feel that the piece was really over. The concert felt a bit vague (not to be confused with artistic ambiguity) especially in trying to understand what the music was asking of me.

The pieces that stood out, in a positive way, didn’t present more or superior content; they simply felt more logical and, as a direct consequence, provided a more engaging and rewarding experience for the audience.

The concert began with “Es” by Richard Chowenhill. This piece began with rich melodic material, commented on by curious, interrogative percussive sounds. It made beautiful use of the erhu, a two-stringed Chinese violin. As the texture thickened, it worked into a steady groove. Through the piece’s development, it did feel like some promising material had been abandoned, though there were some well-earned moments and the ending tied the piece together nicely. There were perhaps a few too many affects explored, though nearly all the ideas presented were compelling. I would like to listen to it again to see if I could get more out of it.

“Primordial and Proper,” by Emily Eng ’14, began strongly, with torrents of notes from the dulcimer-like yangqin and passionate outbursts from the erhu. Though it developed in pleasantly unpredictable ways while also incorporating moments of repose, at times it felt a little redundant. Impressively, Eng was the only undergraduate presenting work at this concert. Her music was more intimately attached to tonality than the graduate students’, but in terms of craftsmanship, it didn’t stick out as being made by someone less experienced.

By far, my favorite piece was “Chantre: et l’unique cordeau des trompettes marines,” a solo for erhu by Victoria Cheah (Ph.D.). This piece lived, and thrived, in the space between silence and tone. The light bowing of the erhu, which created scratchy notes high on the overtone series, sounded like a whispering wind.

The effect was something like a kettle on the brink of boiling. As the piece continued, this ethereal atmosphere was broken by assertions of solid tone. After more contemplative music, the piece ended rather poetically, correcting the downward gestures by an upward glissando toward silence.

The next New Music Brandeis concert will be held on the evening of Dec. 7. YiGuo Yan, M.F.A. will be presenting her thesis: Colors of Obsession. If you’re interested in New Music, or even just new music, you should definitely mark this event in your calendar.

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