Lei Liang: Hearing Landscapes/Hearing Icescapes

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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.