Composer Wang Lu brings a wide range of influences to her work, ranging from her background growing up and studying in China to the prism of contemporary instrumental techniques and new sonic possibilities. Throughout this debut portrait recording, featuring performances by Ensemble Intercontemporain, International Contemporary Ensemble, Alarm Will Sound, Third Sound Ensemble, and Ensemble Nouvel Moderne, Wang Lu's openness, curiosity, and joie de vivre is balanced with her deft craft and command over orchestration, harmonic color, and gesture.
|The Third Sound Ensemble, Sooyun Kim, flute, Joshua Rubin, clarinet, Karen Kim, violin, Michael Nicolas, cello, Orion Weiss, piano, Patrick Castillo, conductor|
|02||once upon a time, in another lifetime, (dream of the) red detachment|
once upon a time, in another lifetime, (dream of the) red detachment
|03||gifts of gab|
gifts of gab
|04||two voices of the people|
two voices of the people
|05||tell you softly|
tell you softly
|Holland Symfonia, Hans Leedners, conductor||9:13|
|Alarm Will Sound, Alan Pierson, conductor||7:23|
|Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, Lorraine Vaillancourt, conductor||10:14|
|International Contemporary Ensemble, Katie Schoepflin, clarinet, Ryan Muncy, saxophone, Kyle Armbrust, viola, Daniel Lippel, electric guitar, Jacob Greenberg, piano, Nathan Davis, percussion, Ross Karre, conductor||9:55|
|Ensemble Intercontemporain, Susanna Mälkki, conductor||16:16|
Composer Wang Lu’s debut full length recording opens with a sonic portrait of a late afternoon in the life of a Chinese city park, with pre-recorded sounds of conversations layered on top of ephemeral gestures in a mixed instrumentation ensemble. It is the perfect opening of a recording featuring music by an artist whose ears and mind are always observing the interface between life and music with openness and wonder. Wang Lu is wonderfully adept at painting a scene through sound, using several small gestures that heard together add up to a unique world unto themselves. The ensemble writing that follows in the subsequent movements of Urban Inventory, performed here by the recently formed Third Sound Ensemble, is both virtuosic and also often tongue in cheek, displaying a refreshingly dry sense of humor. We hear more interspersed “found sounds” from the Chinese urban environment, creating an expressive world that is both quotidian but also indicative of endearment and a touch of nostalgia. Wailing, written for and performed by the Holland Symfonia, is a bombastic work for orchestra that is indicative of Wang Lu’s colorful approach to orchestration. She employs glissandi and pitch smears liberally, evoking the “wails” of Northern Chinese peasants mourning a funeral and celebrating a wedding (the wails are the same despite the drastic contrasts between events). This piece is characteristic of a hierarchy in Wang Lu’s music — she favors expressive gesture that communicates narrative and shape over the overt projection of calculated compositional techniques. However, Backstory, written for Alarm Will Sound, seems to subvert the tendency in her music to project narrative and “plot”, instead suggesting contrasting sections of material rubbing against each other, holding out the possibility that they may be fleshed out in another work (perhaps one entitled “Story”?). Cross-Around, written for Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, is a musical portrait of human interaction and mystical connection. On Cloud Intimacy, Wang Lu explores the murky realm of internet dating. By quoting the “Tristan chord” from Wagner’s “Liebestod” within the piece and including the sounds of cell phone notifications and visual gestures of “swiping” left or right on someone’s profile picture, Lu pits a purist notion of romantic love against our utilitarian, sometimes impersonal contemporary online reality. The instrumental writing in this mixed ensemble sextet dips into the world of "downtown" extended techniques, with screeching saxophone passages, electric guitar whammy bar shakes, and long clarinet smears and glissandi. past beyond for Ensemble Intercontemporain opens with a technique heard in other pieces on the disc reflecting Wang Lu’s interest in imbedding linguistic tendencies into instrumental writing, or as she describes, “expanding speech-like properties of rhythm and contour into more heavily massed textures.” These speech inspired passages are balanced with sections inspired by Tibetan and Thai ritual incantations, gongs, and cymbals. The result is a ritualistic texture that blends very human and otherworldly sounds. Wang Lu’s music is dynamic, colorful, and expressive, drawing from influences that reflect her background without being defined by them. Hers is an important compositional voice for the current generation of artists shaping the contemporary music scene, and this recording is a pivotal document of her recent work for ensembles.
- D. Lippel
Alarm Will Sound:
Erin Lesser, flute
Christina Robinson, oboe
Bill Kalinkos, clarinet
Elisabeth Stimpert, clarinet
Michael Harley, bassoon
Philip Browne, horn
Sam Jones, trumpet
Michael Clayville, trombone
John Orfe, piano
Chris Thompson, percussion
Matt Smallcomb, percussion
Yuki Numata Resnick, violin
Courtney Orlando, violin
Nadia Sirota, viola
Stefan Freund, cello
Miles Brown, bass
Jocelyne Roy, flute
Normand Forget, oboe
Mark Bradley, clarinet
Simon Aldrich, clarinet
Michel Bettez, bassoon
Jocelyn Veilleux, horn
Lise Bouchard, trumpet
Angelo Muñoz, trombone
Jacques Drouin, piano
Julien Grégoire, percussion
Alain Giguère, violin
Johanne Morin, violin
Brian Bacon, viola
Julie Trudeau, cello
Yannick Chênevert, bass
Sophie CHERRIER, flute, piccolo
Emmanuelle OPHÈLE, flute, piccolo
Didier PATEAU, oboe
Philippe GRAUVOGEL, oboe
Alain DAMIENS, clarinet
Alain BILLARD, clarinet
Paul RIVEAUX, bassoon
Pascal GALLOIS, bassoon, contrabassoon
Jean-Christophe VERVOITTE, horn
Jens McMANAMA, horn
Jean-Jacques GAUDON, trumpet
Antoine CURÉ, trumpet
Benny SLUCHIN, trombone
Jérôme NAULAIS, trombone
Jérémie DUFORT, tuba
Samuel FAVRE, percussion
Vassilena SERAFIMOVA, percussion
Victor HANNA, percussion
Géraldine DUTRONCY, piano
Frédérique CAMBRELING, harp
Hae-Sun KANG, violin
Jeanne-Marie CONQUER, violin
Odile AUBOIN, viola
Grégoire SIMON, viola
Pierre STRAUCH, cello
Eric-Maria COUTURIER, cello
Nicolas CROSSE, contrabass
Composer and pianist Wang Lu (born 1982, Xi’an, China) writes music that reflects a very natural identification with influences from traditional Chinese music, urban environmental sounds, linguistic intonation and contours, and freely improvised traditions, through the prism of contemporary instrumental techniques and new sonic possibilities. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Music at Brown University, after receiving her doctoral degree in composition at Columbia University and graduating from the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music. Wang Lu’s works have been performed internationally, by ensembles including the Ensemble Modern, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Alarm Will Sound, Minnesota Orchestra, American Composers Orchestra, Orchestre National de Lille, Holland Symfonia, Shanghai National Chinese Orchestra, Taipei Chinese Orchestra, Musiques Nouvelles, Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, International Contemporary Ensemble, Third Sound, Curious Chamber Players, Ensemble Pamplemousse, Argento, and Momenta Quartet, among others. Her most recent works have been written for the Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players, violinists Miranda Cuckson and Jennifer Koh, and pianist Joel Fan. Wang Lu received the Berlin Prize in Music Composition (Spring 2019 residency) and was a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow. She won the first prize at Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne’s Young Composers Forum in 2010 and shared the Tactus International Young Composers Orchestra Forum Award in 2008. She was selected for a Tremplin commission by IRCAM/Ensemble Intercontemporain in 2010 and the International Composition Seminar with the Ensemble Modern in 2012, and has also received two ASCAP Morton Gould awards. Her music was programmed on festivals such as the 2014 New York Philharmonic Biennial, MATA Festival, Cresc. Biennale in Frankfurt, Gaudeamus Music Week, Tanglewood, Cabrillo Music Festival, Beijing Modern, Pacific and Takefu festivals in Japan, Mostly Mozart, Aspekte Festival in Salzburg, Mizzou International Composers Festival, and the Havana New Music Festival. She has also been a resident at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation. Collaborations have included an installation at Brown University’s Cohen Gallery with artist Polly Apfelbaum and an evening of poetry and music with Ocean Vuong.https://www.wanglucomposer.com
The title composition with which Wang Lu's debut full length recording begins is in many respects representative of the sixty-seven-minute release. Teeming with life, the five-part evocation of an afternoon in a Chinese city park blends sounds of real-world elements, including pre-recorded conversations, with the playing of an instrumental ensemble. Much like the experience one would have in the park, the music is often turbulent, even at times chaotic and cacophonous, though an occasional moment of calm also arises to ease the impression of vertigo, and dizzying degrees of activity likewise permeate the other five settings on the composer's arresting collection. If Lu's music is anything, it's kaleidoscopic.
Though the acclaimed ensembles that appear on the release, namely Ensemble Intercontemporain, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Alarm Will Sound, Third Sound Ensemble, and Ensemble Nouvel Moderne, recorded their pieces in different parts of the world across a seven-year span, what unifies the material on the release is Lu's distinctive sensibility and the sonic richness of her writing. Now an Assistant Professor of Music at Brown University, she's comfortably ensconced in America. But prior to that she graduated from the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music and grew up in China, and thus her music naturally reflects the influence of both cultures. In her material, elements of traditional Chinese music and contemporary classical music entwine, resulting in music of striking harmonic design and melodic shape.
Traffic, nature, animals, and people sounds intermingle with The Third Sound Ensemble's expressions during the fifteen-minute title suite, a vivid sound portrait that dazzles the senses with its evocation of park activity. The acoustic instruments—flute, piano, clarinet, violin, and cello—weave gracefully in and around the real-world elements, making for a collage that's unpredictable, stimulating, and often disarmingly pretty. With memory-based details also working their way into the presentation, the mass grows dense when sounds from the immediate environment fuse with sounds of a propagandist dance troupe, conversations, and pop singing. If the sound field flirts with cacophony in isolated moments, the piece ultimately conveys affection and nostalgia for the world captured in the piece.
In contrast to the electro-acoustic collage style of the opening work, Wailing, performed by Holland Symfonia, hews to a more conventional symphonic line, comparatively speaking. It's as expressive and bold, however, in keeping with a piece designed to evoke the wailing that Lu overheard as a child expressed by Northern Chinese peasants in response to both betrothal and death. Orchestral colour in all its glory is called upon during the ten-minute setting, with horn blasts and glissandi effects deployed to convey the forcefulness of the remembered experience. As clearly different as it is from the opening suite in many respects, Wailing shares with it an emphasis by Lu on expressive flourish over standardized compositional form.
An orchestral jazz dimension emerges in Backstory, attributable to Lu's writing but also to the sonorities of Alarm Will Sound, the sixteen-member ensemble for which the piece was written. Passages featuring percussion, piano, woodwinds, horns, and strings fluidly overlap, the impression created of elements woozily seeping into one another. Commissioned and performed by Montreal's Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, Cross-Around is Lu's attempt to distill into musical form the notion of interaction in all its variegated splendour, be it human, cosmological, or otherwise, and once again instrumental forces are marshaled to convey the complexity of such experience. Here and elsewhere, Lu's combustible material seems less music and more life force, a dynamic energy field rendered into physical form using instrumental means.
More earthbound in its subject matter, Cloud Intimacy draws for inspiration from the practice of internet dating. In this realization by ICE, Lu references Wagner's Tristan und Isolde alongside ambient sounds of cell phones, cameras, and other noises, and with Dan Lippel's electric guitar, Katie Schoepflin's clarinet, and Nathan Davis's percussion prominently featured, the piece begins to sound a bit like a performance by the Bang On A Can All-Stars. The album concludes with the longest and perhaps most ambitious of its pieces, the sixteen-minute past beyond, which the Ensemble Intercontemporain brings into being with poise and sensitivity. For this composition, she drew upon ceremonial practices associated with Tibetan and Thai rituals and threaded brass sonorities, cymbals, and strings into a shape-shifting design whose scope is as deep and wide as an ocean. Scored for twenty-eight musicians, the piece is emblematic of Lu's approach in the way it integrates multiple strands into a dynamic sound field. Regardless of the differences from one piece to another, the six settings testify to the boldness of Lu's vision and serve as a collective argument on behalf of her vitality as a compositional voice.
— Ron Schepper, textura, 5.2018
I’ve listened at least a dozen times to the composer Wang Lu’s new album, “Urban Inventory” (New Focus Recordings), and remain happily lost in its riotous maze of ideas and images. Every moment is vividly etched, drenched in instrumental color, steeped in influences that range from ancient Chinese folk music to the latest detonations of the European avant-garde. A starry array of ensembles, including the Ensemble Intercontemporain, Alarm Will Sound, and the International Contemporary Ensemble, bring the music to rambunctious life. The flow of events is so rapid and so variegated that nothing settles into the groove of the familiar.
Some listeners might find this aesthetic overloaded, but Wang Lu is not some facile mixmaster of a kind that was too prevalent at the end of the last century. Beneath the tumult of sounds is a more contemplative, integrative layer—one that becomes fully audible in “Past Beyond,” the piece with which the album ends. Before that comes “Cloud Intimacy,” in which she offers a richly sardonic instrumental portrait of Tinder and other dating apps—what she calls the “frantic digital reality” of “endless notification sounds” and the “theatrics of swiping.” Brooding behind the scene is the Liebestod from “Tristan und Isolde,” the ultimate music of restless, unfulfilled longing. The sense of loneliness that emerges at the end of “Cloud Intimacy” lurks behind all of Wang Lu’s meticulous frenzies: it is of a piece with the essential solitude of composing, of sitting in silence and dreaming of a music that has never been heard.
-- Alex Ross, The New Yorker, 5.17.2018
Is Chinese musical creativity caught prisoner to a polarity between folk styles, imitations of a dated European avant-garde and a post-Soviet art pompous style? Wang Lu belongs to a generation which finally manages to set itself free, thanks to open-minded, international education. This album reveals her strong personality and vivacious spirit, supported by very solid technique. It also reflects the young pianist and composer’s various sources of inspiration.
The disc opens with urban ambiances: Urban Inventory (2015), for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, consists of five snapshots in which street recordings (pop songs, words, laughter, a most likely patriotic female chorus) are intermingled with airy, clear and colorful instrumental writing, energetically rendered by New York’s Third Sound Ensemble. The third piece, Gifts of Gab, divulges Wang Lu’s particular interest in the tonalities of the spoken voice, confirmed in Cross-Around (2010) and especially in Past Beyond (2012), in which a phoneme-free arc encounters the rawness of a brass- and cymbal-rich orchestration, clearly yet peripherally evoking Tibetan rituals. The astringency of this episode is well-suited to the Ensemble Intercontemporain.
The cries in Wailing (2009) echo childhood memories—a Chinese village in which young peasants alternately weep and, at weddings and funerals, play poorly tuned brass and folk instruments and percussion. Here, the melodic contour of an a priori non-musical sound is key, but also leans on the improvised jazz sounds of clarinet glissandi.
The subject of Cloud Intimacy (2016)—a virtual existence on social networks, an oversaturation of images and messages—could have yielded an anecdotal piece. Instead, Wang Lu pitches the International Contemporary Ensemble an ideal scenario in which to exercise its responsiveness. Frenzy, permanent switches, jingles and the invasion of notification tones build up an extremely coherent and controlled narrative. This is a particularly exhilarating anthology of scores and collaborative ensembles.
Translated by Alice Teyssier
Wang Lu is one of the new generation of Chinese composers, born and brought up in China after the Cultural Revolution, who studied and now lives and works in the USA; she is currently on the staff of Brown University, Rhode Island. Unlike the older generation of Chinese composers who have settled in the West and who deliberately set out to fuse (or, in some cases, simply juxtapose) musical and cultural elements from both East and West, these younger composers have no such desire to promote their Chinese-ness and are happy for it to seep out of their music in more subtle ways. Still in her early 30s, Wang Lu is evolving a musical language which is underpinned by her Chinese roots and background, but seems more concerned with taking its cue from what she sees around her. It has been said of her that she sees music as integral to the fabric of life itself, where the past and present coexist, and where cultures, ages, and languages freely intermingle in a kind of cosmopolitan goldfish bowl. Her music is clearly a reflection of a society where ethnic and sociological differences are consciously blurred in an endeavour to create cultural integration. Which is not to say that elements from Chinese traditional music are not to be found in Wang’s music.
The astonishingly riotous tapestry of sounds which constitutes the headline work here, Urban Inventory, includes Chinese ethnic music and instruments, albeit taken from pre-recorded samples. But more especially the most obvious characteristic in her music, as evidenced by this release, is an almost riotous maze of disparate sounds, including imitations of sirens and animal calls (Past Beyond) and actual mobile phones in text mode (Cloud Intimacy). You do not need to spend much time in a Chinese community to recognise this kind of multi-layered noise as a fact of daily life.
As the recording information reveals, this CD is more in the nature of a compendium of performances – most of them live – given over the past decade, of pieces which span Wang’s entire creative career, from the autobiographical orchestral piece Wailing of 2008 through to Backstory and Cloud Intimacy scored for 16 and six musicians respectively and both dating from 2016. As such it charts the evolution and development of a distinct musical voice.
The autobiographical element of Wang’s first work for large orchestra, Wailing, is explained in her own booklet notes. It was, she tells us, inspired by “my experiences in a small remote town in a mountainous area of Northern China when I was five years old”. It is heavily scored, to recreate an occasion when “some young peasants were wailing and crying desperately while others were playing out-of-tune brass and percussion folk instruments in all ranges and with full force”. The music is nothing if not vividly descriptive of this scene, with occasional episodes evoking Chinese folk melodies, and the performance on this disc, given by the Holland Symfonia during the 2010 Gaudeamus Music Week, is powerful and vivid, the contrast between the raucous and reflective vividly conveyed despite a less than sympathetic acoustic setting.
Chronologically, the next work on the disc is Cross-Around commissioned by the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne and first performed in Montreal in November 2010 – this recording is of that premiere performance. As with the earlier work, the music is vividly descriptive of its non-musical inspiration – in this case the continual movement of “stars, people, events, thoughts, sounds … crossing each other [and where] moments of interaction are certain yet unpredictable”. Again there is the vivid contrast between hefty orchestral sonorities (the work calls for a 15-piece ensemble) and distant, almost intimate sounds, and the overall impression given by this performance, is of a work which both glitters and astounds in its scope.
Dating from 2012, Past Beyond was commissioned by Ensemble Intercontemporain who gave the first performance in Paris – which is recorded here. In it we encounter a style of writing which seems to have become Wang’s own hallmark; a juxtaposition, rather than integration, of a huge array of diverse elements to create a tapestry of sound which is both invigorating in its vitality and quite astonishing in its textural richness. Opening with sliding chords form violins above rumbling figures from the basses, the work draws on, according to the composer, “Tibetan and Thai rituals” which have “kindred therapeutic and spiritual properties”. The music is to do with healing both medically (Wang spent a period in hospital during the work’s composition) and socially (by bringing together ideas from a large array of cultures and, particularly, linguistic groups). Shimmering sounds akin to swarming insects, birds, chattering incantations and various street noises (perhaps we can identify things here which evoke nothing other than ambulance sirens) assay our ears. It is highly effective and this is certainly a most compelling performance.
Urban Inventory is perhaps the ultimate example of Wang’s multi-layered style of writing. Cast in five movements and scored for a quintet of players on flute, clarinet, violin, cello and keyboard alongside a background of pre-recorded street sounds, the music depicts in the most vivid terms, the noises of a Chinese city at dusk, including a baby crying, children playing, people walking and a street busker. Included in this amazing kaleidoscope of sounds are a recording from a 1990s Chinese pop idol, and, again to quote from Wang’s own note, “broken instruments mixed with songs of praise to western and eastern gods”. This is probably the most accomplished work here, and it is certainly given a very fine studio performance by the work’s dedicatees.
The two most recent works are Backstory and Cloud Intimacy. The former was first performed by Alarm Will Sound at the Mizzou International Composers Festival in Missouri during July 2017 – this live recording seems to be of that first performance. It is lushly scored for the 16 musicians of the ensemble and is predominantly reflective in its language. Wang writes of “seemingly loose yet tightly wound blocks of sound”, but these blocks are held together by various flights of instrumental fancy which weave around almost like spiders spinning intricate webs between the branches of a tree. Unique among the works on the disc in that it has no clear story and sets out to invite the listener to “experience a series of constantly developing situations”, as an exploration of instrumental sound without external interference, it is a highly effective work superbly performed here.
On a personal note, I find Cloud Intimacy the most fascinating and intriguing of all the works included on this CD, and this is certainly one of the most arresting and compelling performances. Alongside Urban Inventory, it is the only studio recording here, and the fact that it was recorded by Wang’s colleagues at Brown University possibly gives the performance a greater sense of conviction. Whatever the reason, this is a work which unfolds beautifully, only gradually releasing itself from a long-breathed, mystical, almost Messiaen-like opening (by means of a gorgeous Gershwin-esque clarinet riff) into a frantic maze of weird and wonderful sounds including that incredibly annoying wolf-whistle which certain mobile phones give off on receipt of a text message. Its symbolism here lies in the “cloud” of the title; it is the digital cloud where, for many, the only true life now exists. Wang talks of the “unbounded and uncommitted intimacy” created by so-called dating apps, and of how everyone “has a chance to construct a perfect social profile separate from the imperfections of reality”. It is a social issue which concerns many for its negativity; here it is vividly used as a distinct and alluring force for musical positivity.
Composer and pianist Wang Lu grew up in China in a musical family with strong Chinese opera and folk music traditions. She teaches at Brown University and composes for Western and Chinese ensembles. ‘Urban Inventory’ offers five of her compositions, all composed between 2008 and 2016. It is her first full-length release. The album opens with the title piece, a work played by the Third Sound Ensemble. Ensembles like Ensemble Intercontemporain, Alarm Will Sound, perform other compositions. These are top ensembles that give lively and virtuosic interpretations of Lu’s compositions. These have a lot to offer. Lu has a playful and creative mind. She mixes influences of Chinese traditional and modern music with Western avant-garde. Makes good use and combinations of pre-recorded sounds with orchestra. For sure a strong voice. There is an attractive lightness in her complex compositions. And the arrangements are very colourful. Sparkling music!
— DM, Vital Weekly, August 2018