Pianist Ning Yu (Yarn/Wire, counter)induction) releases "Of Being," a compilation of three pathbreaking works by composers Wang Lu, Misato Mochizuki, and Emily Praetorius. Combining traditional virtuosity with a mastery over contemporary keyboard performance practice and extended technique, Ning Yu is an ambassador for significant piano repertoire that exists at the forefront of current aesthetic trends.
Rates of ExtinctionWang Lu
Of BeingEmily Praetorius
Pianist Ning Yu (Yarn/Wire, counter)induction) releases her debut recording, “Of Being,” featuring the premiere of works by Wang Lu, Misato Mochizuki, and Emily Praetorius that together form a conceptually powerful collection. With various embedded themes from humanity’s impact on the natural world to the deceptive nature of temporality, the three works on this recording celebrate the process of translating an idea into a musical manifestation.
Wang Lu’s Rates of Extinction is both a lament for mortally endangered species and a celebration of pianistic virtuosity. The opening movement begins with a repeated pulse, slowly layering different polyrhythmic material and characteristic motives upon it, “to represent the heart rates of different animals that went extinct around 2015.” Messiaen-like bird calls interrupt the ominously insistent D5 that started the piece. Movement two begins more brilliantly, with a rapid repeated note figure in the highest register of the instrument. A pleading two-note motive emerges below as an expressive counterpart to the explosive bursts. Movement three reprises the “heartbeat” approach of movement one, with a primary pitch one step lower on C, tolling low bass notes and bell-like pitches in the high register. The fourth movement introduces the work’s most extroverted music, again opening with insistent, Morse-code like repeated figures, around which dart angular, stabbing chords and fleet passagework. Wang Lu’s ecosystem of sound takes a brief, introspective pause before the movement closes with a vigorous intensification of the previous material. The final movement of Rates of Extinction is more subdued, as sustained ethereal harmonies invite us to contemplate a future robbed of the vibrancy of species diversity.
Misato Mochizuki’s Moebius-Ring is a musical manifestation of the mathematical paradox with the same name. Mochizuki writes, “we pass successively from the front to the back of the ring while remaining on the same side of the ribbon.” The work is arranged into a series of variations, also based on repetitive pulsations. The stark processional opening leads through staggered off-kilter entrances, sequential chords, fast repeated notes in the high register, and percolating alternating textures marked by spiky accents. In each case, Mochizuki establishes a pattern and gradually deconstructs it, ultimately leading back to the repetitive pulsations that represent the inescapable starting point of the ribbon. After the piece is deconstructed down to one repeated note, Mochizuki begins to build the texture back up, first tentatively with harp-like ascending arpeggios, and then with a jaunty section featuring many of the motivic ideas from earlier in the work.Read More
Emily Praetorius’ four movement title work “navigates a space between suspended time and flowing time.” The minimal musical material is designed to invite the listener to focus on subtleties like decay and intervallic relationships. By weaving phrases across large registral leaps and integrating different articulations like muted pitches and harmonics, Praetorius creates a delicate three-dimensional soundworld. Brief scalar flourishes and moments of increased density accelerate the perception of musical time, as the balance between suspension and flow shifts through the piece. The second movement opens in a more timbrally experimental space, with all of the pitches of an ascending scale sustained with the pedal, followed by a percussive hit on the body of the instrument and a scrape on the strings inside the piano. Silence frames these hybrid gestures as Praetorius introduces subtle variations, expanding the sense of the temporal canvas framing the music. We hear the material within a more rhythmically regular context towards the end of the movement, before several haunting string scrapes highlight otherworldly overtones to bring it to its close. The short third movement opens with floating descending passages reminiscent of wind chimes. As the music enters lower registers, it becomes louder and more impassioned, only receding in intensity once it turns and ascends back to where it started. The final movement hearkens back to Wang Lu’s first movement, opening with repeated muted notes, alternating in different tempi and registers. Over the course of the movement, Praetorius integrates rolled chords, harmonics, and glissandi articulated with a slide on the string. As with previous movements, rhythmic regularity and density of material move the texture towards a peak, but the movement remains ritualistic and meditative.
Ning Yu’s performances throughout are virtuosic and poetic. Taken together, the three works share striking similarities despite being generated from divergent sources of inspiration. “Of Being” is a poignant recording that documents significant new repertoire for piano that speaks to probing themes through sound.
– Dan Lippel
Praised for her, “taut and impassioned performance” by the New York Times, pianist Ning Yu performs with vigor and dedication for traditional and repertoire of the 20th and 21st century on stages across the United States, Europe and Asia. Ning brings virtuosity and adventurous spirit to a wide range of music, both in solo performances and in collaborations with some of today’s most distinguished creative artists.
Working at the forefront of the current creative music scene in the US, Ning has given dozens of world premieres by esteemed composers such as Tristan Murail, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, David Lang, Michael Gordon, Enno Poppe, and collaborated with artists from different genres such as Sufjan Stevens, Glenn Kotche, Pete Swanson, and Bryce Dessner. She has performed with ensembles such as Bang on A Can All-Stars, ICE, Talea Ensemble, Signal Ensemble, counter)induction, and she is a member of the highly regarded piano/percussion quartet Yarn/Wire.
Ning appears in concert halls, international festivals, universities, and other non-traditional performance spaces. These venues include Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Museum of Modern Art , Miller Theater, Guggenheim Museum, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Monday Evening Concerts in Los Angeles, Library of Congress, Issue Project Room, Pioneer Works, Contempo Concert Series at University of Chicago, the Kennedy Center, Kimmel Center, Köln Philharmonie in Germany, Muziekgebouw in Amsterdam, Kwe- Tsing Theater in Hong Kong, Spoleto Festival, Rainy Day Festival in Luxembourg, Ultima Festival in Norway, Transit Festival in Belgium, Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, Singapore International Arts Festival, Princeton University, Stanford University, Columbia University, Yale University, Brown University, and Eastman School of Music.
In theater, Ning performed with Mabou Mines’ Dollhouse — a critically acclaimed production directed by Lee Breuer. She can be seen in the production’s feature-film version, produced by ARTE France. Ning has also collaborated with director Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project on the development of the Tony Award–nominated play 33 Variations.
Ning is the winner of the Boucourechliev Prize at the Ninth International Concours de Orléans in France — a competition devoted to piano repertoire from 1900 to today. Together with other members of Yarn/Wire, the first-prize winner of Open Category of the International M-Prize Chamber Music Competition, and the prestigious “40 under 40 award” of the Stony Brook University for outstanding alumni.
Ning is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music (B.M. And M.M.A) and Stony Brook University (D.M.A.). She is assistant professor of piano and chamber music at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Ning currently resides in New York City with her husband and daughter. She is a Yamaha Artist.
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
Born in 1969 in Tokyo, Misato Mochizuki is amongst those composers who are equally active in Europe, North America and in Japan. After receiving a Masters degree in composition at the National University of Fine Arts and Music in Tokyo, she was awarded first prize for composition at the Conservatoire National Supérieur in Paris in 1995, and then integrated the "Composition and Computer Music" program at IRCAM (1996-1997).
In her very own combination of Occidental tradition and the Asiatic sense of breathing, Misato Mochizuki's style of writing developed exciting rhythms and unusual sounds of great formal and stylistic freedom. Her catalogue of works (published by Breitkopf & Härtel) consists of about 60 works today, including 16 symphonic compositions and 15 pieces for ensemble. Her works, which have been performed at international festivals such as the Salzburg Festival, the Biennale di Venezia, Lincoln Centre Festival, Music days in Donaueschingen, Berlin, Witten, Cologne, Lyon, Zurich, Toronto and so on, have received numerous awards; the audience prize at the Festival Ars Musica in Brussels for Chimera in 2002, the Japanese State Prize for the greatest young artistic talent in 2003, the Otaka Prize for the best symphonic world premiere in Japan in 2005 (for Cloud nine), the Grand Prize of the Tribune internationale des compositeurs in 2008 (for L'heure bleue), and the Heidelberg Women Artists' Prize in 2010. Her most outstanding productions include the orchestral portrait concert at Suntory Hall in Tokyo (2007 and 2019), the cinema concert at the Louvre with the music to the silent film Le fil blanc de la cascade by Kenji Mizoguchi (2007) and the portrait concerts at the Festival d'Automne in Paris, Muziekgebouw aan't IJ in Amsterdam (2010) or at Miller Theatre in New York (Columbia University, 2017).
Between 2011 and 2013 Misato Mochizuki was composer-in-residence at the Festival international de musique de Besançon and did lots of workshops and conferences as well as jury of the renowned young conductors' competition, for which she wrote a symphonic piece (Musubi II) for finalists.
Since 2007 she has been professor of artistic disciplines at the Meiji Gakuin University in Tokyo, and has been invited to give composition courses in Darmstadt, in Royaumont, in Takefu, at the Amsterdam Conservatory, Columbia University and so on. Within the framework of her activities, she continually reflects on the role of the composer in today's society and on the necessity to open oneself to it. In addition, Misato Mochizuki writes about music and culture in her own column every three months for the Yomiuri Shimbun (2008-2015), every week for the Nihon Keizai Shimbun (January to June 2018), most widely read daily newspapers in Japan. In November 2019, some of these writings were published as a book ("The composer's reflection on music and daily life", in Japanese, Kairyusha).
Emily Praetorius is from Ojai, CA and is currently residing in New York City.
She has studied at Columbia University, Manhattan School of Music, and University of Redlands.
For pianist Ning Yu, clearly tradition is a wonderful reality; but not understanding that the inner dynamic of tradition is always to innovate would be a prison. It’s certainly what the lively works by Wang Lu, Misato Mochizuki and Emily Praetorius in Of Being seem to tell us. This is chiselled music; uniquely beautiful, but also defiantly provocative. It is a body of music carved from the bedrock of the Western music tradition and yet it forces the listener to reconsider what that tradition is.
In doing so, Yu actively throws overboard melodic, structural and harmonic hooks that have become expressively blunted through overuse. Then she rebuilds the architecture of the music from what might – or mightn’t – be left. Sound and silence are treated with equal respect, and innovation is always paramount. This means that Yu might also reach outside the keyboard and inside the instrument to create the purest melodies and harmonies as she manipulates the strings – stretched taut across the cast-iron plate, which she often strums delicately or strikes percussively.
Her pedaling adds sudden moments of drama to the music as if opening a window and letting filtered light into the room full of sound, by unexpected use of the sostenuto followed by the unacorda; all of which may be abruptly shut down expressly with the damper. In the end the music seems to unfurl as if in streaming ribbons suspended interminably in time.
— Raul da Gama, 10.15.2020
On her first solo album, pianist Ning Yu—known best as a member of the superb New York quartet Yarn/Wire —interprets three new pieces written for her. Each work is inspired by a different concept—nature, time, and perception, in turn. Rate of Extinction by Wang Lu uses the heart rate of bird species facing extinction as a guideline for its angular matrix of accelerating and decelerating tempos and shifting polyrhythms. The piece toggles between sparse single note patterns and frenetic linear collisions before cresting to a partially improvised climax driven by relentlessly pulsing energy. It concludes with lean, gentle patterns that serve as a gentle lamentation for the loss of natural diversity. Misato Mochizuki’s Moebius-Ring delivers a series of variations on a heavy left-handed pulse, adding dark harmony, subtle rhythmic fragmentation, and heightened intensity as it proceeds, with some boogie-woogie-like action. Shards of melody course through the martial din, which then tempers as the pulsing tone moves to the other end of the keyboard. The album concludes with the Emily Praetorius title composition; it’s built from a series of discrete gestures that ask the listener to live with each interval, decaying note, and terse phrase as they occur. As the piece unfolds, they become raw material for more elaborate patterns, which blur those initial encounters from memory, as additive melodies and harmonies pile up.
— Peter Margasak, 7.01.2020
Decay and growth is the push-and-pull that makes life a journey rather than a stagnation. On Of Being, pianist Ning Yu explores this ideology, performing three new works that each take a different ephemeral phenomenon as inspiration for musical composition. Of Being is suspended in time, asking us to ponder rather than answer, to listen with intent rather than to tune out.
Ning’s piano performance has been heard in groups like boundary-pushing quartet Yarn/Wire and fiery chamber ensemble counter)induction, but Of Being marks her debut solo recording. With the album, she displays a deft understanding of the intricate music she’s playing, moving between styles and techniques with ease. Each piece on Of Being is a premiere; Ning’s capability makes the music feel both cutting edge and lived-in, guiding us through the new compositions with her deep intuition.
The album opens with 2014 Guggenheim Fellow Wang Lu’s Rates of Extinction, which launches thoughts of decay into the forefront. The piece centers on the ultimate fate of endangered species, combining a series of short, vignette-like movements that eventually fade into oblivion. Wang Lu finds a balance between subtlety and passion on Rates of Extinction, using delicate melodies to build complexity. The piece has its most memorable moments during the twinkling fifth movement, where mysterious intricacies leave an unshakable, haunting feeling. Throughout the piece, Ning’s skillful playing is evident: Wang Lu writes for the highest ability, and Ning never misses a beat in highlighting the complexity of the music.
Like Wang Lu’s piece, New York-based composer Emily Praetorius’ Of Being centers timbre. Here, Praetorius explores the liminal space between the flow and stillness of time, slowly building from questioning plinks into striking extended techniques and luminous chordal harmony. The piece is a mixed bag — some moments are pleasantly transportive, while others lack spark. The most arresting moments come in the third movement, where steady harmonic repetition appears in contrast to the sparse sound we had heard before. But it’s only with the ending, whose repetitions are unflinching and evocative, does the music finally lock into place, exhibiting an unforgettable poignancy.
While Wang Lu and Praetorius’ works focus on timbre, Misato Mochizuki’s Moebius-Ring exhibits a different sonic framework. The Tokyo-based composer uses stark juxtapositions: high pitches and low pitches, harsh chords and scattered tones. The brazen sound of the music stands out from the other two pieces, and its pulse-raising motion is infectious. Continual motion is fitting for its subject — the title Moebius-Ring takes its name from a one-sided surface. With the music’s powerful jolts, she illustrates the feeling of running in place, or ending in the same place where you began. Ning accentuates these rises and falls, highlighting the piece’s underlying vibration with an expert flair.
Of Being excels most in its flawless execution of three new works that each delve into the unanswerable questions of existence. It’s no secret that we’ve spent much of the recent past watching the Earth around us decay, in motion that’s sometimes slow and sometimes fast. This entire year, in particular, has been in freefall, a hyperspeed decay where time both exists much too prominently and much too little. Of Being, while created devoid of the context of 2020, slides neatly into today’s collective emotions. In listening, time is both present and lost, reflecting the ways in which time feels like it’s both eternal and never long enough.
— Vanessa Ague, 6.22.2020
Ning Yu's debut CD features first recordings of works that will strike a chord with pianists looking for fresh yet effective music. The album opens with Wang Luis beautiful Rates of Extinction (2016), which compellingly draws one in a sound world depicting the heart rates of different animals recently lost due to the negative effects of our modern world, yet also provides a counterbalance through the celebration of "an imagined eternal freedom through the blossoming of pianistic virtuosity." Pulsation and virtuosity also play important roles in Misoto Mochizuki's dynamic Moebius-Ring (2003), and Yu delivers with excitement and drive. Of larger proportion is the thought-provoking Of Being (2019) by Emily Praetorius. With Virginia Wolfe's "moments of being" as inspiration, extended techniques are placed within a sparse texture to call the listener to the present moment. Yu is a masterful performer who commands attention through this well-conceived and executed recital.
— Elizabeth Moak, 8.27.2021
This debut recording by the Chinese-American pianist Ning Yu juxtaposes a piece by an established Japanese composer with two premieres by US-based creative artists, pieces which all translate specific non-musical ideas into sound. Yu studied in Beijing and the US and now has an academic position in Washington DC, and the first composer on this CD, Wang Lu, is from a very similar background. She was born in Xi'an, China, to a musical family involved in Chinese opera and folk traditions, studied at Beijing Conservatory and Columbia, is also now resident in the US and on the composition faculty of Brown (her solo release, Urban Inventory, was reviewed in issue 287 of this publication). Her five-movement Rates of Extinction (2016) is dedicated to Yu and is intended to celebrate both pianistic virtuosity and the species diversity crisis. (It's interesting to note how many composers are drawing attention to one of the crucial issues of our times; Liza Lim's recent Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus is another noteworthy example.)
According to Dan Lippel's programme note, Wang Lu's work uses 'contrasting motivic material as musical metaphors to represent the different heartbeats of various species'. The musical outcome of this is multi-layered irregular toccata-driven textures, often focusing on the treble register. The last movement has a more elegiac tone and showcases a more expres-sive side of the piano. Yu is an excellent guide through the contrapuntal complexities of the work, alive to the incisive detailing of the faster sections.
Misato Mochizuki first came to prominence in Europe, following studies at the Paris Conservatoire and IRCAM, and unlike the previous generation of Japanese composers including Toru Takemitsu, Joji Yuasa and Yoshihisa Taira, hers is an uncompromisingly international musical language. Her eclectic range of interests includes biology, Gagaku, techno and photography, and her single movement Moebius-Ring (2003) is inspired by a mathematical paradox of a ribbon folded back on itself. She describes the work on her website as 'a set of variations based on repetitive pulsations. In each cycle the piano tries to escape these pulsations, but it inevitably returns there, as in an experience of `déjà vu' or in a premonition. The tempo dilates or contracts itself in each new passage'.
Moebius-Ring is the oldest piece on Ning Yu's album: it is rhythmically playful, intriguing, and constantly returns to a reiterated figure in the lowest register of the piano. Motifs expand and contract, and this 12-and-a-half minute long toccata-type piece is less predictable as a sonic experience than the underlying mathematical source of inspiration might suggest. About three minutes before the end of the piece, the musical lines ascend as if groping for something that seems forever out of reach. Indeed, it is forever out of reach, as this material is replaced abruptly by varied toccata figurations that Ning Yu plays expertly. Another surprise ends the work, a glissando to the lowest register of the piano, dying away to silence which is interrupted by an unexpected treble interjection.
Emily Praetorius's four-movement piece, composed in 2019, is the longest on the album; the programme booklet reveals that the title Of Being is drawn from Virginia Woolf s essay A Sketch of the Past, specifically her concept of `moments of being' that reveal a pattern lying beneath the surface of what Woolf memorably calls 'the cotton wool of everyday life'. The piece might alternatively be titled 'Of time'. In an online interview, Praetorius stated she was interested in the concept of suspending time —something contrary to the nature of music —and in bringing together an apparent contradiction: while focusing intently on individual moments, she also seeks to lose track of the foward momentum of time. She met Ning Yu through writing for the piano/percussion quartet Yarn/Wire of which Yu is a member, and for Of Being she invented her own piano preparation, designing and 3D-printing a mute which can be placed over any individual note of the piano and muted/unmuted by pressing on the device. The sparse, elegiac lines of the four movements show Ning Yu in a subdued light, often plucking or stroking strings inside the piano or knocking the frame or wood. By focusing on the sonic quality of a moment and giving full value to the silences between events, she does indeed create a sense of time suspended. Alternating playing on the keys and directly on the strings sets up a slightly unsettling dialogue of the instrument with itself.
Ning Yu's album shows that the piano still has a good deal to offer contemporary composers, and it is noteworthy that all three composers focus more on the contrapuntal, rhythmic and sonic resources of the instrument than its harmonic possibilities. Yu fully responds to the sonic imagination of each work, conjures up a sense of space and demonstrates flawless control. The only real disappointment in this album is its very short duration — less than 49 minutes —which leaves this listener, for one, eager for more.
— Caroline Potter, 1.01.2021
In these days we live through it is sometimes natural to reflect on how things have come to be. During such times the music we hear can be quite fitting if it is thoughtful and introspective. I've found that to be much the case on a new album, Of Being (New Focus FCR242) by pianist Ning Yu. It is her very first solo album and features the world premier recordings of three solo works.
Each of those works explores the sonorities, the harnessing of substantial virtuoso abilities to a music at hand and the extended technical possibilities of new piano music the way it has opened up in the past 100 years. The works are ripe with expressive potential, well realized by Ning Yu. Each of the pieces seeks to make a conceptual element come alive through evolved, Abstract Modern expression.
The opening composition is Rates of Extinction in five relatively short movements by Wang Lu. As the program notes tell us it is "both a lament for mortally endangered species and a celebration of pianistic virtuosity." There is much going on throughout.
Misato Mochizuki's single-movement Moebius-Ring is a musical realization of a mathematical paradox identified by the title. A set of variations centers around pulsations that repeat, gradually deconstructs down to one note and then rebuilds again.
The third and final work, Of Being by Emily Praetorious seeks to examine the space between time in suspension and time flowing. The music uncovers subtleties in decay, interval-to-interval relationships, the continuous articulation of lines across a wide-set of registers and varied attacks including dampened pitches, harmonics, bursts of pianism and a movement through increasingly high density soundings. It all gives us a heightened perception of time set into motion.
In sum we are treated to a highly sophisticated set of piano works played with emotional commitment and thoughtful precision. It is music difficult to play but not so difficult to explore with a proper attitude and a bit of patience.
Ning Yu is a wonder of contemporary pianism, taking on each of the three works with an ideal sense of focus and aesthetic expression. The works themselves in turn give to us a proverbial Zen rock garden of sound and sensibility exhilarating to hear. Highly recommended.
— Grego Edwards, 5.11.2020
In her solo debut album Of Being (New Focus Recordings), pianist Ning Yu presents three new works related thematically through the experience of existence on planet Earth. Ning is well-regarded as a piano soloist and as a member of chamber music ensembles Yarn/Wire and counter)induction, giving numerous world premieres as both a soloist and chamber musician over the past fifteen years. Of Being fortifies a sonic comprehension of what it means to thrive and how it feels to perish, simultaneously presenting a celebration of human artistic and scientific achievement via virtuoso piano performance while examining the death and decay our species has brought to our home. Released on May 8, 2020, this album provides a respite to our collective art-starved culture of Covid-19 pandemic life, providing a unique comprehension to these compositions that examine temporality and existence. Three premiere recordings by composers Wang Lu, Misato Mochizuki, and Emily Praetorious combine beautifully for an album delivered at the perfect time for humanity on the brink.
Wang Lu’s Rates of Extinction (2016) is a multi-movement work that presents five relatively short unnamed movements, each with its own unique character, unified aesthetically through various multi-layered minimalist polyrhythms interjected with motivic fragments in perpetual orbit. As the title suggests, this work grieves the loss of species that went extinct around the year 2015, utilizing the pace of each species’ heart rate as thematic material for the work. The vastly open and dark first movement explores the extreme ranges of the piano, each heartbeat occupying its own registral space creating layers of sound that spin and orbit each other. The insistent motives of the more urgent second movement invoke the interrelatedness of species. In the slow third movement, sounds overlap creating harmony that laments this tremendous loss. The fourth movement begins with a persistent Morse Code motive, interrupted by jazz comping gestures and melodic fragments unlike anything previously heard in the first three movements. This movement doesn’t lay down and accept a doomed fate, it fights until the last breath, dissonance embodied through struggle, invoking an anger in an empathetic listener, sadness in a compassionate one. The fifth and final movement of this work returns to a peaceful, calm aesthetic. It is both accepting and confused, sad and powerless.
Moebius Ring (2003) by Misato Mochizuki provides relief from the depressing theme and sounds of Wang’s composition. Inspired by science and human intellect, this work conceptually renews a sense of hope that human ingenuity can rise above the challenges we face. Drawing inspiration from the infinity concept of a Moebius Ring, a never-ending loop that has neither a top nor bottom, up nor down, this composition explores how timelessness can be paradoxically both freeing and constricting though series of variations that the pianist battles through and against. The dense spectra of the lowest notes on the piano are fully explored and allowed to resonate though various sustain pedal uses and depressed keys. The variations explore a wide array of stylistic ideas. I was particularly enamored with a few of the variations that include a pointillistic section where Dave Brubeck meets Milton Babbitt, a Grisey-esque spectral explosion, an engine that revs up and shifts gears, jazz through the lens of Boulez, and a calming and open-structure harmonic section. This work is ever-evolving, through-composed, and formally-complex. Upon a first listening, I thought this work didn’t know how to end, but upon additional pondering of the subject matter, realized this makes perfect sense.
The final work on the album is multi-movement title work Of Being (2019) by Emily Praetorius. This composition “navigates a space between suspended time and flowing time,” and its title is derived from a concept explored in Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Sketch of the Past.” Of Being inspires an introspection into one’s own awareness of self and the complexities of how our existence is partially defined by our relationships, as each note does not exist in isolation. As the composition progresses, peaceful gestures meet conflict, showcasing the inevitability of conflict when overpopulated. Ning’s execution of complicated gestures sounds effortless and technically profound. The haunting resonances of the second movement, created by scraping the interior large-gauge strings, seemingly ring for an eternity. Like the soundtrack to a horror movie, the repeated scrapings of the piano string at the end of this movement are like a dying scream of a damned soul. This fascinating composition ends with repeated droning on a single note, representing the singular experience, a philosophical idea that we cannot truly know that anything exists outside of our minds.
One benefit of listening to a recording by the brilliant Ning Yu is how easy it can be to focus entirely on the ideas present in each composition, one almost forgets that a human is performing these amazing feats. The effortless sounding performance presents a clarity and focus that cannot be understated. Ning presents complex new works impeccably and expressively on an album that gives some hope in the complex year of 2020, an outstanding example of art being both beautiful and politic. Of Being deserves a listen by any fan of contemporary music, and it’ll leave you simultaneously hopeful and hopeless, lost in the deeper thoughts of your own subconscious. This album is a brilliant addition to the repertoire of the solo piano.
— Matthew Younglove, 7.15.2020
Chinese pianist Ning Yu gives us here three modern works by relatively unknown composers, those being Wang Lu, Misato Mochizuki and Emily Praetorius. This is music as much involved with pacing and space as it is of edgy passages, though of course the edginess is there, too.
Rates of Extinction is a five-part suite dedicated to endangered species, some of which are threatened by human advancement on their environment. The first three pieces are bleak and forlorn, leaning towards minor modes although no key is firmly established. In the fourth piece, the left hand plays a series of repeated, rhythmic Cs, eventually moving into almost modern-jazz-like development with a great deal of syncopation and very imaginative right-hand flurries before quieting down around 1:56 for some very spaced-out, isolated notes, then moving back into the fast, busy passages once again. The music becomes very complex, almost menacing, towards the end of this segment, returning to spaciness for part five, although a lyrical theme in B begins to coalesce.
Moebius-Ring begins with a bang—literally, a bass bang on the keyboard. This is a piece built around repeated pulsations, which the piano “tries to escape” but fails as the tempo tightens and relaxes in turn. At certain moments, the music becomes much faster and a discernible rhythm propels the music. I wasn’t crazy about the repetitive nature of some of the music, however; for me, it was more gimmicky than emotionally moving.
According to the composer, Of Being “navigates a space between suspended time and flowing time. The material in each movement is fairly minimal and exposed so as to frame sounds and gestures into discrete moments.” The extreme slowness of the pulse or pacing in the beginning puts the listener into a questioning mood. Where is this going, and how will it get there? Little by little, the music develops at its own pace. Once in a while, an unexpected keyboard run is tossed in, perhaps humorously for effect, and every so often certain notes tend to bump into one another, creating a temporary feeling of rhythmic movement. In Part II, Yu plays the inside strings of his piano and occasionally thumps the boards. For me, although some of this was interesting, it again seemed a bit gimmicky.
Nonetheless, this is an interesting album, worth hearing at least once. You may get even more out of it than I did.
— Lynn Bayley, 5.07.2020
The three pieces here, by Wang Lu, Misato Mochizuki, and Emily Praetorius, were all written for Ning over the last two decades and get first recordings on this debut solo album from one of the pianists in Yarn/Wire. The compositions are full of drama and intrigue, but it's the title track, by Praetorius, that hangs in the air long after it ends. Made up of fragments and silences, it constantly threatens to coalesce into something you can grasp - but then it slips through your fingers again, demanding further listening. Ning's playing throughout is as lethally elegant as the album's design, making this one of the finest piano albums of the year so far.
— Jeremy Shatan, 7.19.2020
Pianist Ning Yu is a force to be reckoned with in the modern music scene, appearing in concerts all over the world and having given world premieres by composers such as Tristan Murail, Steve Reich and Terry Riley, performing with ensembles such as Bang on A Can All- Stars, ICE and the Talea Ensemble, Signal Ensemble, and as a member of the piano/percussion quartet Yarn/Wire. This is her first solo recording, and a very intriguing one it is.
Wang Lu’s Rates of Extinction is structured in five contrasting movements. The title is graphically explored in the music, as it “starts from the idea of using gradually decreasing and decelerating polyrhythmic layers and simple tempo/pulse motives to represent the heart rates of different animals that went extinct around 2015.” There is a duality here, in a “sorrowful, almost lament-like irreversible winding down process of precious life”, but in music that at the same time “celebrates an imagined eternal freedom through the blossoming of pianistic virtuosity.” Some of the passages are almost dance-like, with a feeling of urgent abandon, while elsewhere there is a feeling of mystery, those heart rates explored in repeated notes with quasi-tonal rhythmic relationships setting up a feeling of impressionistic openness and endless cadence.
Moebius-Ring by Misato Mochizuki sets up a musical representation of that well-known paradox of a ribbon that folds back on itself, allowing a viewpoint from the front to the back of the ring while always remaining on only one side of the ribbon. The music here is “a sequence of variations based on repetitive pulsations. In each cycle, the piano tries to escape these pulsations, but invariably they return, as in an experience of ‘déjà vu’ or a prophetic dream.” These ‘escapes’ are a clever way of giving substance to something which is otherwise quite Ligeti-like in its explorations of repeated notes. The spirit of Ligeti is indeed evoked in those scales just beyond the 5-minute mark. There is plenty to get your teeth into with this substantial work, with passages that use overtones on the strings, extremes of range and some excellent uses of the low register. The obsessive feel of the piece is retained even while the tempo is relaxed as the work progresses, and there is an intensity of energy which keeps you engrossed. The final two minutes might arguably be a coda, but you always have the feeling the material is being constantly renewed and transformed, the final gesture almost a challenge for the music to continue beyond its allotted duration.
Emily Praetorius’s Of Being takes its title from Virginia Woolf’s ‘moments of being,’ “a concept described in her essay, ‘A Sketch of the Past,’ as sudden moments, or ‘blows,’ of experience[s] [that] uncover ‘a token of some real thing behind appearances.’” These ‘moments’ point towards patterns of the “interconnectedness of all things” just beneath the surface of ordinary life. The music uses a variety of “fairly minimal” materials, pianistic techniques and sonorities “in an attempt to continually focus the listener's attention on the fleeting moment of the present—a moment of suspended time, just before your memory influences the present and you begin to anticipate the future.” This might suggest something more insubstantial than what you actually hear, which is a fascinating meeting between abstraction and allusive musical semantics. The first movement is quite a busy affair, contrasting with the George Crumb-esque working of the strings inside the piano to create magical effects. The third of four movements is the shortest at just under three minutes, but it is no scherzo, with descending note patterns setting up a poetic space that grows in intensity and darkness before retreating into its own shadows. The final movement made me think of fragmented Beethoven with its building of a considerable structure with really minimal means: a sometimes four-note repeated motif, occasional low chords… “Past memory and present experience combine, working simultaneously to create an expectation of the future—a state of mind characterized by the consciousness of the flowing of time.”
This is indeed a fascinating recital of some intriguing and rewarding contemporary music. It is of course superbly performed, and the recording is excellent. The CD comes in a minimalist sleeve with notes inside its gatefold which will have you looking for your reading glasses, but you won’t need more than that to set in motion the vibrations of your imagination.
— Dominy Clements, 7.22.2020
In an album titled Ning Yu Of Being, pianist Ning Yu offers three works that explore notions of time. Rates of Extinction by Wang Lu is, according to the program notes, a reflection of “many animals species [that] quietly suffer and become extinct due to the harsh conditions imposed by human advancement.” This non-tonal work opens with polyrhythms reflecting the heartbeats of several animals. These opening three sections are followed by an improvisatory-sounding section which offers some sense of direction. The final section offers something of a coda, which is reflective in nature. While I find the music to be carefully considered, I do not find it to be particularly engaging. Other works of hers that I have heard are far more impressive.
The work by Misato Mochizuki is, according to the notes, inspired by that ribbon which is folded back on itself. Mochizuki’s work is quite imaginative. Clearly, sonority means a great deal to her. While I find that she will dwell on a particular gesture a bit too long to maintain my interest, the work is full of imagination and creativity. Her music draws one in to its sound world. I was impressed enough that I sought out recordings of some of her other works. Her work, Musubi, available on the internet, is worth checking out. One can find some of the sound world of Ligeti, and perhaps a bit of similarity to the music of Mayuzumi. While the overall impression is music that is static, there are plenty of notes, not unlike Ligeti’s Atmosphères. What I have heard of her music is quite impressive.
Of Being by Emily Praetorius is a work that appears to have sonority as its focus. I am not able to find much in the way of a musical rhetoric to it. Cast in four sections, it has an improvisatory feel to it. Only in the last section am I able find any sense of continuity. Listening to some of her other works, I find that she is capable of writing music that offers excellent communication, more character, and a greater sense of purpose.
Ning Yu plays with great conviction and an attention to detail. She has a remarkable ability to provide subtle gradations in dynamics while providing clearly defined articulation. The recorded sound is excellent.
— Karl F. Miller, 12.14.2020
It’s minimalist but it’s not pots and pans music. Contemporary classical pianist Yu explores sound and white space, checking out the relationship between both, on some new works that are tailor made for eggheads. Full of deep meaning for sonic seekers, this comes close to being the next generation of space rock. Wild trips to out there are here a plenty here.
— Chris Spector, 5.01.2020