Lei Liang: Hearing Landscapes/Hearing Icescapes

, composer


Acclaimed composer Lei Liang releases Hearing Landscapes/Hearing Icescapes, a multidisciplinary diptych that marries diverse areas of inquiry into Chinese landscape painting and folk song, oceanography, software development, earth science, and underwater acoustics. The result are two inspiring linked works that employ these varied methodologies to explore our relationship to and sonic experience with our planet.


At the heart of Lei Liang’s multi-disciplinary Hearing Landscapes/Hearing Icescapes is a yearning to connect with essential, elemental forces and voices. As with many of his works, the path to connection is methodical and exhaustive, displaying a diligent approach that is borne of deep respect and reverence. Both works are byproducts of Liang’s residency at the Qualcomm Institute at the University of California at San Diego, where he collaborated with a team of specialists to cultivate a unique approach to generating material for a sound based work. Hearing Landscapes places the landscape paintings of Huang Binhong (1865-1955) at the center of its inspiration. Hearing Icescapes is built around field recordings made 300 meters below the ocean surface in the Chukchi Sea, north of Alaska. Both works invite the listener to contemplate a world apart from the one we live in, first, separated by temporal and cultural distance, and second, by geographic and environmental separation.

Hearing Landscapes is in three parts, each framed by a different sonic reference point. The first, “High Mountain,” is based on a folk song sung by Zhu Zhonglu, an influential singer from the Northwestern Qinghai province of China. The track opens with Zhu singing a mournful melody; his voice is quickly subsumed by a halo of electronics that trace the contour of the original phrase. The bell-like electronics reflect the subtle tonal inflections embedded in the diction of the folk song. An immersive wash of sound emerges and gradually intensifies, the incarnation of the patient brushstrokes and expansive landscapes in Huang’s paintings. This connection goes beyond the symbolic; working with his collaborators, Liang analyzed the pigments in Huang’s work, translating the spectral analysis of the colors into pitch information in order to “sonify” the paintings.

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The work’s second section, “Mother Tongue,” focuses on the inherent musicality embedded inside Liang’s own Beijing dialect. Using recordings of famous Chinese comedians from the 1950s, Hou Baolin and Guo Qiru, engaging in xiangsheng (“crosstalk”), Liang enhances the sonic relationships in their interaction through various production techniques, in particular, alternating between highlighting individual voices and subsuming them in a chorus that renders the words unintelligible. “Mother Tongue” does not mine the words to construct overlapping rhythmic patterns, instead it uses fragments of the voices to build an animated tapestry of sound, waves of activity that undulate and form larger structural shapes punctuated by brief spotlights on lone voices.

The guqin master Wu Jing-lüe’s rendition of Water and Mist Over Xiaoxiang is heard towards the end of “Water and Mist,” the third part of Hearing Landscapes. It serves as the culmination of the percolating material that unfolds earlier in the movement. It opens with a “sonic rain storm” created by dropping styrofoam peanuts inside the piano, a technique Liang pioneered. Electronic manipulations of Wu Jing-lüe’s guqin follow, bouncing off the sides of a spatialized stereo field. Liang’s Hearing Landscapes finds several ways of honoring Huang Binhong’s landscape paintings, through three movements that focus on practices concurrent to the era in which he worked, as well as through more systematic deconstructions and transformations of their essence into the language of sound.

Like the environment within which the source material was recorded, Hearing Icescapes is austere and spare, drawing the listener into the subtlest variations in finely etched sounds. The recordings Lei and his team garnered from deep below the surface of the arctic waters outside of Alaska reveal a complex auditory landscape, including the sounds of ice forming and cracking, survival sounds for marine animals, and increasingly, sounds that result from anthropogenic activity. Liang’s investment in this sonic world is an act of deep empathy for this threatened environment, calling our attention to what we risk losing. The opening movement “Call” proceeds in three larger sections — first we hear the fragile, disjunct creaks and crackles of ice formation, then sound masses of white noise produced by oscillations, surface wind, and pressure containing a fascinating array of acoustic variation, and finally a symphony of communication between various marine animals. Liang’s editing and compilation of the archive of recordings is elegant in its deference — it facilitates a contemplation of the intricacy of the sonic sources themselves without calling attention to the curator.

“Response” enlists the artistry of three improvising musicians to inhabit and respond to this rarefied sound environment. Interwoven with excerpts from “Call” and following its overall structural trajectory, trumpeter David Aguila, flutist Teresa Díaz de Cossio, and violinist Myra Hinrichs find analogues for the sounds from the “living score” on their instruments.

In this way, Lei Liang has flipped the narrative of humanity’s impact on the natural world, asking human musicians to adapt to the realities of a rarefied environment, instead of the other way around. Indeed, Hearing Landscapes/Hearing Icescapes lives entirely in a reverential space. Using tools available to artists and scientists, Lei Liang shines light on cultural traditions and natural phenomena that we endeavor to preserve despite a world that moves too fast to see their deep, enduring value.

– Dan Lippel

Producer: Lei Liang

Recording engineer: Andrew Munsey

Hearing Landscapes:

Lei Liang — composer and principal investigator

Audio Team: Zachary Seldess — principal collaborator / Greg Surges — audio software developer Eric Hamdan — audio system developer

Visual Team: Falko Kuester — visual explorer; Samantha Stout — cultural heritage engineer; Eric Lo — robotic engineer; James Strawson — robotic engineer; John Mangan — software engineer; Alex Matthews — video production

Chris McFarland — software developer

Hearing Icescapes:

Lei Liang — composer / artistic director; Joshua Jones — oceanographer / principal scientific advisor; Theocharis Papatrechas — audio engineer / sound designer; Nicholas Solem — sound designer

David Aguila, trumpet; Teresa Diaz de Cossio, flute; Myra Hinrichs, violin

Hearing Icescapes was recorded at Studio A, University of California, San Diego on January 24-25, 2022

Hearing Landscapes and Hearing Icescapes were created for multichannel surround sound environments. This recording is a binaural rendition.

Zachary Seldess is an inventor, creative coder and musician. He was Liang’s principal collaborator at Qualcomm Institute where he served as researcher. Among the important software he developed include MIAP which was used for multi-channel sound spatialization and served as a control interface, Granular Sorting which granularly modify the original source material, Blur, which applies various levels of “blur” to multiple sound material by 1 to 100 times, and Stampede, which generates dynamic sound-particle movements. Zachary Seldess is CTO and Chief Architect at BoomCloud360 Inc., based out of Encinitas, California.

Gregory Surges received his PhD in computer music from UC San Diego. He was Liang’s research assistant during his residency at Qualcomm Institute. Among the important software he developed include concatenation synthesis, and filtering through specific harmonic grids. 

Eric Hamdan was technology director at Qualcomm Institute. His main contributions to Liang’s project include Multi Delay and Multi Phase Vocoder which allows a single sound to be stretched or compressed in time without changing the original pitch of the sound. 

Joshua Jones received his PhD in biological oceanography from UC San Diego where he directs the Arctic marine mammal research program. He served as principal scientific advisor to our Arctic project. As a member of the Whale Acoustics Laboratory at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Dr. Jones provided bioacoustics data and relevant information about the data to our sound team. Our weekly conversations were stimulating and thought-provoking, leading to several projects that inspired our team and our students. 

Theocharis Papatrechas is a composer, sound & data artist. He holds a PhD in music composition from UC San Diego, and served as Liang’s research assistant. His main contributions include using Audacity, Logic and Audiosculpt software for downsampling, normalization, and noise reduction. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar at Qualcomm Institute. 

Electronic musician, audio engineer, and audio software developer Nicholas Solem served as Liang’s research assistant at Qualcomm Institute. His main contributions include using Reaper software for noise reduction and spectral compression to achieve pristine sonic results. He is currently a PhD candidate in computer music at UC San Diego. 

Lei Liang

Chinese-born American composer Lei Liang is the winner of the Rome Prize, the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Koussevitzky Foundation Commission, a Creative Capital Award, and the Goddard Lieberson Fellowship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His concerto Xiaoxiang for saxophone and orchestra was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2015. His orchestral work, A Thousand Mountains, A Million Streams, won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition in 2021.

Lei Liang was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and Alan Gilbert for the inaugural concert of the CONTACT! new music series. Other commissions came from the Fromm Music Foundation, Meet the Composer, Chamber Music America, among others. Lei Liang’s ten portrait discs are released on Naxos, New World, Mode, Albany and Bridge Records. He has edited and co-edited five books and editions, and published more than forty articles.

Lei Liang studied with Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Robert Cogan, Chaya Czernowin, Mario Davidovsky, and received degrees from the New England Conservatory of Music (B.M. and M.M.) and Harvard University (Ph.D.). He is Chancellor’s Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of California, San Diego. His catalogue of more than a hundred works is published exclusively by Schott Music Corporation (New York).

David Aguila

David Aguila is a performer and composer currently based in San Diego, where he is pursuing a DMA in Trumpet Performance from UC San Diego. Aguila’s multifaceted practice focuses on the intersection of trumpet, electronics and music production; working in the fields of contemporary, experimental, electro-acoustic and improvised music. His current research is focused on parametric and gestural notation and performance, sound projection practices and alternative approaches to trumpet pedagogy.

Teresa Díaz de Cossío

Teresa Díaz de Cossío is a flutist, improviser, and educator. Currently a DMA student at UC San Diego, and flute instructor at Universidad Autónoma de Baja California. From the beginning of her musical endeavors, she was inclined to reach out for meaningful engagements with communities through her creative practice. An iteration is her work as co-organizer/founder of the Festival de Música Nueva, Ensenada. Currently, her research examines the life and work of the composer, teacher, and pianist Alida Vázquez Ayala (1931-2016). It explores how Vázquez navigated race, gender and transnational networks in her teaching, performance, and compositional work between Mexico and New York.

Myra Hinrichs

Myra Hinrichs, violinist, is currently enrolled in the DMA program at the University of California, San Diego. Before that she lived and worked in Chicago after graduating from the Oberlin College and Conservatory and the Civic Orchestra training program. She is a member of Chartreuse, a string trio devoted to performing the music of living composers from around the world. In the coming year, Chartreuse is collaborating on new pieces with composers Pablo Chin and Bergrún Snœbjörnsdóttir. Myra also appears with other ensembles including 3+1 Quartet, Mucca Pazza, the Morton Feldman Chamber Players, and a.pe.ri.od.ic.



The WholeNote

Lei Liang’s disc Hearing Landscapes/Hearing Icescapes could easily have opened with the voice of Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise as it sets off to “go where no man has ever gone before.” With a sense of deep mysticism and a philosophical and artistic leap, Liang has first pierced the celestial dome of the sky and then returned to plumb the roar of the deep.

On the riveting works of this album the composer has created a sonic diptych that beckons the listener to traverse with him from celestial heights to oceanic depths. In the first work – Hearing Landscapes – Liang takes off from the terrestrial promontory guided by the invisible hand (brush, really) of Huang Binhong, a fin de siècle painter, whose landscapes prove inspirational.

On the opening movement of the work the composer also gives wing to a Chinese folk song sung by the celebrated Zhu Zhonglu from Qinghai, in Northwestern China. The mournful lyric gives way to the jagged soundscape of electronics, becoming eerily speech-like at one point in the second movement, ultimately evaporating by the end of the final part of the work.

Liang, though, is far from done and the album continues in the raspy rustling of Hearing Icescapes, constructed around field recordings made literally 300 metres below the surface of the Chuckchi Sea north of Alaska. On paper this sounds impenetrable. Nevertheless, the performance of the whole score carries its powerful physical weight, obviating the necessity of narrative clarity.

— Raul de Gama, 6.02.2023


Sequenza 21

From 2012-2022, composer Lei Liang did a residency at the Qualcomm Institute at UC San Diego, where he is a full professor. At Qualcomm, Liang worked with scientists in a variety of disciplines – software developers, robotic engineers, material scientists, cultural heritage engineers, and oceanographers – to infuse his music with ecological and ethnographic elements. The result, Hearing Landscapes Hearing Icescapes, are two electronic works that incorporate samples, folk songs, and a few live musicians.

Hearing Landscapes is an homage to Huang Binhong (1865-1955), a gifted landscape painter. The audio components of this electronic score were in part realized by analyzing the types of brushstrokes used by Binbong, and translating them into sound. Visual artists did further analysis of the painting using their own methodologies. There are three samples from 1950s China used successively in each of the piece’s movements: a hu-aer folk song performed by Zhu Zonglu, a renowned singer from northwest Qinghai Province, xingsheng (crosstalk) in the Beijing dialect by comedians Hou Baolin and Guo Qiru, and guqin performer Wu Jin-lüe playing “Water and Mist over Xiaoxiang.” Other sonic devices used by Lei Liang include a “rainstorm” made by dropping styrofoam peanuts in an open piano, and the distorting of spoken voices to create indecipherable “tea house chatter.”

It is fascinating to learn of the roles of many integrated disciplines used to fashion Hear Landscapes. The musical results are compelling. In “High Mountain,” the “strokes” found in the melodic lines, passages of upper partial drones, and the piano storm, ebb and flow and set the stage for Zhu Zonglu’s singing. Movement 2, “Mother Tongue,” a reference to Lei Liang’s own preferred dialect, creates swaths of distressed, unintelligible speech alongside the banter of the two comedians. “Water and Mist” returns to the clarion harmonics and brushed melodies. Dripping water appears alongside Wu Jin-lüe’s elegant playing of the guqin. A passage that incorporates sustained strings follows, succeeded by a lengthy passage of solo guqin and water sound receding until the piece’s conclusion.

Hearing Icescapes uses different source material, including recordings of contemporary performers: David Aguila, trumpet, flutist Teresa Diaz de Cossio, and violinist Myra Hinrichs. Oceanographers provide sounds they had recorded in the nearly inaccessible Chuckchi Sea, north of Alaska. It takes echolocation as a formal design, with one part of the piece indicating the “Call” and the other the “Response” of this phenomenon. Ice, wind, bearded seals, belugas, and bowhead whales create an extraordinary variety of sounds that, without this project, would be available to be heard by few humans. At over twice the duration of Hearing Landscapes, Hearing Icescapes is expansive, the first movement gradually unfolding from the cracking of thin ice to flowing water to an effusive whales’ chorus at its close. Throughout, crescendos and diminuendos of water sounds are accompanied by short whistles from whales. The live instruments are fairly subdued, playing sustained tones underneath the surface of the soundscape.

The second movement begins with snatches of the main source material, a combination of the ice noises and whale song. The live instruments are then foregrounded, imitating the whale sounds in a response to the first movement’s mammalian outcrying. Hinrich uses bow pressure to create an imitation of the ice noises. Aguila is an imaginative interpreter of the more boisterous sounds from “Call,” and de Cossio mimics the whale whistling with considerable fervor. A pause, followed by falling ice, demarcates the movement’s structure. Once again, the whales take up their echolocation, this time in a virtual colloquy with the live instruments. The combined forces end the piece in thrilling fashion.

Artists are often, by necessity, so focused on short term deadlines for projects, that they don’t get to innovate. Lie Liang’s decade spent with his colleagues at Qualcomm Institute has resulted in considerable innovation and two significant works that resonate with cultural studies and ecology, while at the same time providing diverting music. Recommended.

— Christian Carey, 4.03.2023



In two immersive works linked by Liang’s interest in the natural world, including oceanography, and how people interact with it, whether through exploration or making art, like the Chinese landscape paintings that also serve to inspire him. In the first piece, three movements take us through different zones of experience, whether Ligeti-like constellations of sound, overlapping voices, or a collage of electronics and Chinese folksong. The second piece, which also features David Aguila (trumpet), Teresa Diaz de Cossio (flute), and Myra Hinrichs (violin), consists of two long tracks combining the instruments pushed into abstraction with equally abstract electronics and white noise. As a form of sonic landscape painting, Liang’s work succeeds marvelously.

— Jeremy Shatan, 5.08.2023


Percorsi Musicali

The path of a composer is often guided by the desire to make new discoveries and to try to contribute to complex and seemingly borderless topics. On this point, an example comes from the composer Lei Liang, when he was appointed music professor and researcher at the Qualcomm Institute in San Diego: a center of particular importance for music, with its offshoots in technology, the right promotion of the environment (physical and cultural), and medicine, Qualcomm tends to improve humanity’s living conditions through the correct use of the elements that relate to the various fields of knowledge and Liang, immediately after his appointment, set to work for the center with topics particularly interesting for the musical subject. Liang has put in place at least a couple of specific projects, areas of work that involve advanced experimentation far from the normal canons of composition. Scientific vision and adequacy of the means employed (services, men, innovative technological approaches) were the drivers of this maxi analysis by Liang and all those whom he involved in carrying out the required planning.

The first project that Liang implemented at the Qualcomm Institute was that of Hearing Landscapes in 2013, a universality of men and technological means that I had the opportunity to comment on in PM: in the article I tried to briefly illustrate the incredible relationships that can be scientifically established between images and sounds in one-to-one correspondence, i.e. the transformation of forms of visual representation into music or even its opposite. On the one hand the sonification of paintings, photos or any other type of image and on the other scientifically established methods to obtain an image given certain sounds (you can read it here). For Hearing Landscapes, Liang naturally dealt with the first case and it seems useful to me to repeat what was said there:

“…a more elaborate example of sonification from a visual basis to sounds, which incorporates image diagnostics, color processing techniques and the MIAP system (specially implemented for an abstract spatiality of sounds), is the one built by the work team del Calit2, the Californian Research Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology affiliated to the University of San Diego, with a project attributed with a wide range of action to the composer Lei Liang: giving vent to the passion for the paintings of the Chinese Huang Binhong, Liang organized a multidisciplinary group of sound engineers, software developers and video explorers to transform the Chinese’s enigmatic paintings into music. Equipping himself with all the means at his disposal to plumb the nooks and crannies of Binhong’s paintings, Liang nonetheless tried to preserve the composer’s function, studying the possible emotional connections between Binhong’s painting and some popular themes of the past that provided him with stylistic analogies, in so as to provide a characterization of the project strongly purified of pure randomness; the spectral density of the sounds is amazing, it is a spectacular audio-video that works like a perfect soundscape, whose dignity is given by the sequence with which the visual scanner parcels out the portions of the painting…”.*

Liang’s second project came after the composer was appointed to the Chancellor’s Distinguished Professorship, a chair established at the University of San Diego for those with a high profile for teaching and research; this time Liang focused on natural environments, climate change and above all on the possible relationships between the sounds of marine or oceanic habitats and the extreme sounds of instruments. Supported by oceanologists (Joshua Jones), sound designers, audio technicians and musicians eager to enrich themselves with unconventional experiences, Liang created Hearing Seascapes (together with engineer Falko Kuester), an immersive sensory experiment that starts from the collection of sounds made in the seabed. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography has captured hundreds of sounds through microphones installed in the deep cavities of the sea, has recorded the sounds at tropical coral reefs or under the ice of the Arctic, an echolocation capable of making us listen to all the sounds of marine fauna, and the sounds of the organisms that live inside them, including the noises related to the compressions that occur in the sea, from the cracking of ice to the pressures exerted by the currents. The choice of sounds/noises was then coordinated in the concert hall with the musicians, with an efficient spatialization to be understood as a real immersion in the marine habitat (even a “ceiling” of sounds with which one is confronted), with an electronic control that regulates the dynamics and with a symbiotic operation with the musicians themselves, who will have to improvise with acoustic somatizations of their instruments in response to the cacophony of sounds collected from the archive and chosen by Liang (see here an eloquent trailer of the project by the Chinese composer), looking for assonances or natural dialogues.

On the basis of the two projects just described, a CD was also made for New Focus Recordings, the title of which shows very clearly the nomenclature of Liang’s programs: Hearing Landscapes/Hearing Icescapes therefore consists of 5 tracks (3 for the first project and 2 for the second) which appear as splendid appendices of the research by Liang and his partners as described above.

The sonic exploration of Hearing Landscapes led by Liang is based on a mixed flow of electronics which on the one hand contains the effects of the spectral analysis of the colors of Huang Binhong’s paintings (to understand, the sonification of his paintings), on the other he invents methods of sound production that follow three different points of reference in each of the three pieces that make up Hearing Landscapes:

1) a traditional Chinese song by Zhu Zhonglu;

2) the Beijing dialect used by two Chinese actors in the case of the comic play (xhiangsheng);

3) Wu-jing’s guqin and the “sonic rain storm” created by Liang by dripping polystyrene into the piano.

In 1) the melody, very clear at the beginning of the piece, slowly dissolves into electronic outlines (movement I. High Mountain); in 2) the electronic segmentation of the voices creates a sound texture almost in the manner of Berio, autonomous in its development but not intelligible in its sense; they are individual voices clashing with the voices of a crowd (movement II. Mother Tongue); in 3) attention is directedto the sound confluences of the guqin, a traditional Chinese instrument appropriately stripped of its enigmatic presence through a manipulation that first highlights musical flourishes and an apoplectic germination of sounds and then a confusion within the blanket of a dense soundscape, something that Liang calls a “sonic rain storm”, in light of the technique that originated it, i.e. polystyrene infiltrated in the piano (movement III. Water and Mist – here an excerpt illustrating the luxurious modalities of intervention on electronics).

As far as Hearing Icescapes is concerned, the two movements abstractly recall the ancestral concept of call and response. In the first, the call, we have to deal with the biological sound world of Alaska, with the sounds of ice forming and breaking in a silent environment, with the stratifications and sonic revolutions captured by the field recordings of the Scripps Institute during the days of wind and high pressure (approaching in substance to white noise) and with a “concert” of verses of various marine species. Instead, in the second movement, the response, we have concrete proof of the mixing experiment between recorded and acoustic sounds, with three musicians who undertake to bring out sounds somatically close to those taken from the ice or at least who undertake to imagine them: David Aguila on trumpet, Teresa Diaz de Cossio on flute and Myra Hinrichs on violin, completely distort the ordinary parameters of the music, measuring themselves in solo or comparing themselves with extracts from the first electronic part; we are faced with improvisations with a guided electronic part in which the most ambiguous unconventional techniques go perfectly together; on a compositional level, probably only a suggestion of gesture supports them. It is clear that what Liang wants to bring out is that musicians need to be able to get on par with the natural world during performance.

It is with great pleasure that I welcome Lei Liang to these pages. Liang is a recurring presence on Percorsi Musicali and ever since I met him years ago in Rome during a concert at the American Academy of Music, I have never had any doubts about his stature as a composer, an excellent continuer of contemporary compositional hybridization between East and West born in the twentieth century, with music having its own characteristics, something that I had the honor of highlighting also as a biographical contribution in a book published only in China. After the orchestra, the ensembles, the traditional instruments, the saxophones, the piano and the opera, now it’s the turn of electronics, always approached from the point of view of the “big project”, with the utmost creativity available to create it.

EG: Lei, welcome to Percorsi Musicali. It is a great pleasure for me to host you on these pages and, since I have talked so much about your music in the past, I will focus on your recent years of composition. Thanks to the prestigious assignments you received in San Diego you are living a period of intense musical research: your compositional style has built a bridge on the capabilities of electronics and on methods for exploring the relationships of music in other interdisciplinary fields (the sonification of paintings by Huang Binhong, the marine and oceanic environment). Let’s start with Huang. Why did you choose his painting and what role did Huang play in Chinese painting?

LL: Thank you, Ettore! I love reading your essays, and oftentimes the writing inspires new ideas! Huang was very unique in that he was both one of the most important landscape painters of the last century, and a formidable scholar. His theory of brush, ink, water, and paper, is insightful, innovative and unparalleled. As in music, it is rare to encounter an artist who not only create incredibly imaginative work but also articulate one’s vision and practice in concrete terms.

EG: In Hearing Landscapes there is an incredible team that supports very advanced technologies and from a musical point of view a powerful spectral analysis also comes into play. How were the associations created between the figures, spaces, and colors of Huang’s painting and the sounds derived from the electronic transformation? Did you follow a particular criterion?

LL: Some of Huang’s practice can be transformed into sonic expressions, some cannot, or at least we haven’t found methods that are interesting enough to my ears. Our team developed more than a dozen softwares to make meaningful transformations between the visual and the aural. One example is the data our team was able to collect based on the spectral of the materials of the painting. We used the elemental peaks in the X-ray Fluorescence analysis and built a sonic filter, so that we can quite literally listen to the materials of the painting itself. This idea expands in to my current project, including converting the data of 188 common minerals into harmonic spectra, to reveal that each mineral can be identified by a unique harmony of its own. Just imagine what we can do what we start to learn about these minerals not only by watching, touching, but also by listening to them; and what one can do when combining these minerals as if forming

new rocks sonically…

EG: Have you ever discussed with the Calit2 team cymatics and the inverse process to Hearing Landscapes, i.e. extracting images from sounds?

LL: This is a wonderful idea, Ettore! I am intrigued by it…

EG: Does your immersion in sound production techniques have a particular inspiration? (I mean: have you considered in your style certain electronic composers or musicians?)

LL: I have encountered many compositions that are inspired by an image, by nature, or by concerns for climate change, etc. My personal motto is: if the same music can be created without a deeper intergration of the arts and sciences, then it is not worth my time to compose it. Merely depicting an impression of an image or nature is fine, but we have more tools to inspire us to investigate that relationship further. I am no longer satified to create works related to ocean as if we were sitting in a comfortable beach chair. Science enables us to listen to the ocean in unprecedented ways; it reveals to us that oceanis noisy, unpredictable, and it is in crisis. How do we musicians respond to this reality in the 21st century? That’s the question I ask myself.

EG: Can you explain the ‘sonic rain storm’ technique?

LL: This is a technique I discovered (or at least I don’t know anyone else who used this before I did) during my student years. At the time, I spent a lot of time at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, immersed in its collections and art studios. I experimented with some discarded materials and used it on instruments. I discovered throwing pieces of packing styrofoam peanuts onto the inside of a grand piano, with the pedal down, and with the right size and kind of styrofoam peanuts, thrown into the right registers –and they do need to be dry– they make the most beautiful and completely unpredictable harmonies. These sounds, transformed and multiplied by technology, can create the effect of a gentle rain shower or a violent storm.

EG: Is there a compositional instruction in the Hearing Icescapes performance? What are the musicians to do?

LL: The most interesting part for me is to have my collaborative partner, the oceanographer Dr. Joshua Jones to be in our rehearsals and recording sessions. It is one thing for a composer to coach an ensemble, another for an oceanographer or a geologist to engage in a dialogue with the musicians, telling them what they are hearing, the stories behind these sounds, how precious they are, what they might mean, and how they are made. Every bit of information can inspire the musicians to create new relationships with their instrument.

EG: You are very communicative with the musicians and give a lot of credit to their feelings and suggestions. What kind of feedback do you prefer from them?

LL: There are many incredible moments in our collaboration. There are moments of joy, moments of revelation and epiphany, moments of tears, etc. Perhaps one that I can describe to you now is when I first played the fixed media part, “Call” for the musicians. By that time, I had lived with these sounds for at least 4 years. But I had no idea what to expect when I shared it with the musicians. The complete silence when we listened to it in my studio was the most reassuring thing – they were immediately drawn into this world, so strange, and beautiful, so rarified yet deeply familiar, as if they were echoes of our own sonic DNA.Their deep silence was probably the most wonderful feedback I could ever receive.

EG: The last question mainly concerns the motivations of your work, in such a stimulating place as the Qualcomm Institute and the University of San Diego. You’ve been there for several years and I wonder if you can take stock of your activities there or if other works are already in progress that would postpone the conclusions you might draw?

LL: I have the conviction that we are living in the age of an inevitable convergence of arts and sciences; that the entire university is one indivisible unit; that creative listening offers unique potential for learning; and that we need to collectively and imaginatively respond to issues challenging all of us. My current projects include the “Inaudible Ocean” which focuses on the rich sonic world that is below or beyond human hearing; “Singing Earth” focuses on transforming the mineral content into harmonies that can be used both for teaching, and for artistic creation.

EG: Congratulations to you! Thank you for what you do in music!

— Ettore Garzia, 4.12.2023



Approaching this release of electronica as a music album shortchanges its ambitions. The promotional material for Lei Liang’s latest project declares that it “marries diverse areas of inquiry into Chinese landscape painting and folk song, oceanography, software development, earth science, and underwater acoustics.” I’m reminded of earthworks by conceptual artists who construct pieces from rocks and soil, or build them under the sea. It takes a strong affinity for conceptual art to appreciate them, and the same is true here. Liang’s far-reaching intentions are crucial to the appreciation of sound worlds that feel more chaotic than structured.

That’s wholly acceptable in New Music and has been from the dawn of electronica, where the traditional aesthetics of classical music are essentially irrelevant. Methodology replaces inspiration. Liang’s “multi-disciplinary diptych,” Hearing Landscapes and Hearing Icescapes, isn’t the first work that would come fully alive as an immersive art installation. As a kind of aural environment its Chinese characteristics are prominent. There would be more meaning to someone who speaks Chinese, since Liang’s medley of recorded and electronically manipulated sounds incorporates Chinese words as a mainstay in the overall texture.

I don’t really grasp why this is an “inquiry” or why Liang identifies himself as “composer and principal investigator,” but the composer’s strong emphasis on collaborating with teams of scientists and engineers comes foremost. Liang, who was born in China in 1972 before emigrating to the U.S. and who holds a distinguished professorship at the University of California, San Diego, has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He spent a decade at the university’s scientific Qualcomm Institute. On one level the two pieces here are artistic responses to the Chinese landscape paintings of Huang Binhong (1865–1955). But far more impenetrable, from a listener’s perspective, is a creative process that involves “software developers, robotic engineers, material scientists, cultural heritage engineers, and oceanographers,” according to Liang.

This is multimedia carried to the nth degree in scientific garb. The complexity of Liang’s intentions is unfolded in an 80-minute YouTube video (search Liang, landscapes) that extensively covers his indebtedness to Chinese culture. The rich visuals help to enhance the present release, which reduces the audiovisual surround to the electronic score solely. I don’t know of any access to the choreography listed in the album’s documentation; dancing doesn’t appear in the video.

I’ve offered a long prelude in the hope of outlining the aesthetic environment of Hearing Landscapes and Hearing Icescapes, because the listening experience was baffling. There is chatter and singing in Chinese, much of it fragmented, overlapping, and electronically massaged. There are stretches of white noise that sound like radio static, along with underwater burbles and hints of sounds from nature. The acoustic instruments listed in the headnote (violin, flute, and trumpet) were not discernible, to me at least, in the mélange of electronics. Almost no traditional musical gestures, such as notes of the scale, any scale, occur except incidentally.

Separate events are discernible, sometimes strikingly. In Hearing Landscapes, for example, Liang says, “‘Mother Tongue,’ the second movement, is based on xiangsheng (crosstalk) by the legendary comedians Hou Baolin and Guo Qiru, whose Beijing dialect is the mother tongue of this composer.” I only wish that the blizzard of syllables, as subjected to splintering and electronic distortion, felt like more than chaos.

The extensive composer’s notes are intelligible and provide all the background needed to enter the aural installation that is the only format I can assign to this release. Liang is prominent and rewarded in his field, and our old notion of the avant-garde as socially on the fringe needs to be replaced with an image of teams of technicians exploring new frontiers of software engineering. But as a listening experience, Liang’s work didn’t bring me close to comprehension, much less enjoyment, which I regret.

— Huntley Dent, 7.10.2023


Take Effect Reviews

An extremely detailed listen, the composer Lei Liang treats us to a multidisciplinary affair that touches on Chinese landscape painting and folk song, oceanography, software development, earth science and underwater acoustics across these 2 well thought out pieces.

The 3 chapters of “Hearing Landscapes” opens the listen with strategic use of vocals and thickly textured electronics that come in waves of dissonance, droning and noise. The middle portion is just sporadic voices pieced together from famous Chinese comedians from the ‘50s, and it finishes with the nature-esque moments of “Water And Mist” that are quite soothing.

The back half of the disc, “Hearing Icescapes”, recruits David Aguila’s trumpet, Teresa Diaz de Cossio’s flute and Myra Hinrich’s violin that are sparingly used in between the ambient gestures, sci-fi quivering and sparse moments of minute tweaks of sound.

A highly creative display of contemporary classical and artistically manipulated ideas, both synthetic and organic, Hearing Landscapes/Hearing Icescapes uses instruments like tools for a uniquely unclassifiable and fascinating experience.

— Tom Haugen, 7.31.2023

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