Wang Lu: An Atlas of Time

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Composer Wang Lu releases An Atlas of Time, her second recording on New Focus, featuring two large ensemble works performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP). The album title, also the title of the opening work, provides an apt metaphor for Wang Lu's work; her integration of Eastern and Western influences into her compositional style is less about a fusion of styles as it is about tapping into a cartography of her own personal memory and experiences. In this sense, Wang Lu works with "found sounds" that resonate within her own psyche but obliquely reference larger cultural touchstones.


Wang Lu’s second release on New Focus, An Atlas of Time, embodies the intersection in her work between memory and collage. Like many foreign born composers living in the United States, Wang Lu draws on the sonic materials of her native country. But her approach emphasizes personal recollection over formal engagement with traditional music, turning the listener's attention away from a consciously curated dichotomy and towards her genuine and unique perspective. The result is a cartography of her own lived experience that shows up in found sounds, gestures that mimic speech patterns, and musical metaphors that capture the perspective of an artist who straddles different cultures.

The title work was commissioned by Frankfurt based Ensemble Modern and is heard here in a studio recording by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. The five movement piece is exuberant and colorful and integrates electronics into the fabric of the pieces as a tool of evocation. In the opening movement, “Internationale (1989 Edition),” Wang Lu disorients the listener’s sense of space, interrupting clangorous phrases marked by ringing brake drums and urgent descending glissandi with static pre-recorded materials and creaky techniques in the strings. Fragments of processed recordings of the socialist anthem Internationale in several languages are woven into the ensemble texture throughout the movement. “Molten Cathedral” features frightful, towering chords over a pedal point in the bass; vibrato laden violins play unsettling lines in the upper register before the sound of church bells closes the movement. At the beginning of the third movement, “Piccolo Trumpets: A Children’s Broadcast,” we hear a sample of a child singing a melody from the opening credits to a children’s show. Wang Lu proceeds to transcribe and develop this motive throughout the ensemble, distorting it and transforming its character from innocent and playful to increasingly enigmatic, a subtle commentary on the propagandistic nature of the show. “Caravaggio’s Descent” paints a murky scene, a steady dissolution of character represented by slow dripping pizzicato gestures; two keyboards in different microtonal tunings alternate chords for a surreal ending. The final movement, “Tombeau,” features overlapping fanfare-like figures in the brass before rumbling chords in the low winds and strings join to create a dense, cathartic close.

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The saxophone and electric guitar duo, Ryan and Dan, titled after its dedicatees (saxophonist Ryan Muncy and guitarist Dan Lippel), is atmospheric and environmental. Several strings on the guitar are detuned microtonally and the part calls for a saturation of reverb. The result is that over ringing sonorities and harmonics meld together into an amorphous wash, evoking the surreality of an underwater environment or a nocturnal wooded landscape. The saxophone part lives inside this sonic halo, adding subtle key clicks, trills, and swelling gestures that animate the texture. As the work evolves, recurring motifs are established — gradually the pace of the work is compressed, jumping between modular ideas and dispensing with the brief pauses that had separated them previously. Distortion in the guitar and growling saxophone multiphonics intensify the climactic section before the piece closes on an ethereal, disembodied open string guitar chord with a high harmonic, once again highlighting the microtonal tuning.

Double Trance for string quartet is inspired by Pierro della Francesca’s Umbrian fresco, Madonna del Parto, which depicts two angels alongside a pregnant Madonna. The striking image triggered another memory of Wang Lu’s — nuns singing a monophonic melody in a church in Trastevere. This melody is embedded in the ethereal texture of the piece, swimming through otherworldly harmonics, floating glissandi, and pointed pizzicato chords. Throughout Double Trance, the music breathes and sighs, an expressive manifestation of the emotional weight seen in a timeless fresco and heard in a time honored musical ritual.

Though it was written in 2017, Unbreathable Colors has taken on additional significance this year due to the coronavirus crisis. Wang Lu was struck by the untenable air pollution situation in China, a paradigm that often involves color coded warning systems, universal mask wearing, and a regular hindrance to natural behavior that bears an unsettling similarity to the predicament the world has now found itself in under the pandemic. This restricted bandwidth of activity is reflected in limitations Wang Lu has imposed on the violin, performed here by the piece's dedicatee, Miranda Cuckson. The piece largely focuses on two kinds of material: pizzicato arpeggios and plucked double stops, and delicate, bowed harmonics, both sustained and articulated in cross-string bowings. Quiet, delicate gestures are examined and considered, as if the world of the piece is playing itself out in imposed solitude. The final minutes of the work become increasingly rarefied, as the lens of the sound world becomes more and more focused.

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project is also heard on the final track of the recording, Siren Song. Like An Atlas of Time, Siren Song reflects the extroverted side of Wang Lu’s artistry. The gestural language of the work is shaped from a transliteration of the ancient dialect of Wang Lu’s hometown, Xi’an, which is characterized by registral leaps and glissando-like figures that clarify the meaning of spoken phrases. The result is boisterous and conversational, as quasi-linguistic figures are traded between instrument groups, and playful melodies are contorted for dark effect.

– Dan Lippel

Mastering and Editing: Ryan Streber
Executive Producer: Wang Lu
Producer: Daniel Lippel

Recording, Editing and Mixing: Jim Moses (Unbreathable Colors, Ryan and Dan, Double Trance), Joel Gordon (An Atlas of Time, Siren Song)

Cover Design: Polly Apfelbaum, Dan Cole
Design and Layout: Marc Wolf,

Tracks 1-5 (An Atlas of Time): recorded at WGBH, Boston, 02.13.2016
Session Producer: Wang Lu, Anthony Cheung, Joel Gordon
Editing Producer: Wang Lu

Track 6 recorded at Granoff Center recording studio at Brown University, 10.16.2017
Session Producer: Wang Lu, Anthony Cheung, Jim Moses
Editing Producer: Wang Lu, Daniel Lippel

Track 7 recorded live at Martinos Auditorium at Brown University, 02.10.2017
Session Producer: Wang Lu, Jim Moses
Editing Producer: Wang Lu, Jim Moses

Track 8 recorded at Granoff Center recording studio at Brown University, 02.16.2018
Session Producer: Wang Lu, Jim Moses
Editing Producer: Wang Lu, Miranda Cuckson

Track 9 recorded at WGBH, Boston, 02.13.2016
Session Producer: Wang Lu, Anthony Cheung, Joel Gordon
Editing Producer: Wang Lu

Wang Lu

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.

Boston Modern Orchestra Project

The Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) is the premier orchestra in the United States dedicated exclusively to commissioning, performing, and recording music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Recently hailed as “one of the most artistically valuable [orchestras] in the country for its support of music either new or so woefully neglected that it might as well be” by The New York Times, BMOP was the recipient of Musical America’s 2016 Ensemble of the Year award, the first symphony orchestra in the organization’s history to receive this distinction.

Founded by Artistic Director Gil Rose in 1996, BMOP has championed composers whose careers span nine decades. BMOP’s distinguished and adventurous track record includes premieres and recordings of monumental and provocative new works such as John Harbison’s ballet Ulysses, Louis Andriessen’s Trilogy of the Last Day, and Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers. A perennial winner of the ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, the orchestra has been featured at festivals including Opera Unlimited, the Ditson Festival of Contemporary Music with the ICA/Boston, Tanglewood, the Boston Cyberarts Festival, the Festival of New American Music (Sacramento, CA), Music on the Edge (Pittsburgh, PA), and the MATA Festival in New York.

BMOP/sound, BMOP’s independent record label, was created in 2008 and has garnered praise from the national and international press; it is the recipient of six Grammy Award nominations and its releases have appeared on the year-end “Best of” lists of The New York Times, The Boston Globe, National Public Radio, Time Out New York, American Record Guide, Downbeat Magazine, WBUR, NewMusicBox, and others.

Gil Rose

Gil Rose is a conductor helping to shape the future of classical music. His dynamic performances and many recordings have garnered international critical praise. In 1996, Mr. Rose founded the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), whose unique programming and distinguished performances have earned the orchestra fourteen ASCAP awards for adventurous programming as well as the John S. Edwards Award for Strongest Commitment to New American Music. Also one of the country’s most inventive and versatile opera conductors, Mr. Rose founded Odyssey Opera, a new company dedicated to exploring eclectic and overlooked operatic repertoire, in 2013. He led Opera Boston as its Music Director starting in 2003, and in 2010 was appointed the company's first Artistic Director. Mr. Rose serves as the executive producer of the BMOP/sound label, and has led the longstanding Monadnock Music Festival in historic Peterborough, NH, since 2012.

Ryan Muncy

Praised for "superb" performances by The New York Times as well as his ability to "show off the instrument's malleability and freakish extended range as well as its delicacy and refinement" by The Chicago Reader, Ryan Muncy is a saxophonist who performs, commissions, and presents new music. His work emphasizes collaborative relationships with composers and artists of his generation and aims to reimagine the way listeners experience the saxophone through contemporary music. He is a recipient of the Kranichstein Music Prize awarded at the 46th International Summer Courses for New Music Darmstadt, the Claire Rosen and Samuel Edes Foundation Prize for Emerging Artists, a Fulbright Fellowship in France, and has participated in the creation of more than 125 new works for the instrument. His debut solo album Hot was released by New Focus Recordings in 2013 to critical acclaim, praised as "one of the year's best albums" (Time Out New York). Muncy is the saxophonist of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), where he additionally serves as co-director of OpenICE, an outreach initiative which offers barrier-free experiences and free concerts around the world.

Daniel Lippel

Guitarist Dan Lippel, called a "modern guitar polymath (Guitar Review)" and an "exciting soloist" (NY Times) is active as a soloist, chamber musician, and recording artist. He has been the guitarist for the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) since 2005 and new music quartet Flexible Music since 2003. Recent performance highlights include recitals at Sinus Ton Festival (Germany), University of Texas at San Antonio, MOCA Cleveland, Center for New Music in San Francisco, and chamber performances at the Macau Music Festival (China), Sibelius Academy (Finland), Cologne's Acht Brücken Festival (Germany), and the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center. He has appeared as a guest with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and New York New Music Ensemble, among others, and recorded for Kairos, Bridge, Albany, Starkland, Centaur, and Fat Cat.

Momenta Quartet

Momenta: the plural of momentum – four individuals in motion towards a common goal. This is the idea behind the Momenta Quartet, whose eclectic vision encompasses contemporary music of all aesthetic backgrounds alongside great music from the recent and distant past. The New York City- based quartet has premiered over 100 works, collaborated with over 120 living composers and was praised by The New York Times for its “diligence, curiosity and excellence.” In the words of The New Yorker’s Alex Ross, “few American players assume Haydn’s idiom with such ease.”

Miranda Cuckson

Recently called “a fearless, visionary, and tremendously talented artist” (Sequenza21) and “a poetic soloist with a strong personality, yet unpretentious” (Die Presse, Vienna), Miranda Cuckson delights audiences with her playing of a great range of music and styles, from older eras to the newest creations. An internationally acclaimed soloist and collaborator, violinist and violist, she enjoys performing at venues large and small, from concert halls to casual spaces.

She has been a featured artist at the Berlin Philharmonie, Suntory Hall, Casa da Musica Porto, Teatro Colón, Cleveland Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, San Francisco’s Herbst Theater, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music, the 92nd St Y, National Sawdust, and the Ojai, Bard, Marlboro, Portland, Music Mountain, West Cork, Grafenegg, Wien Modern, Frequency, and LeGuessWho festivals. Miranda made her Carnegie Hall debut playing Piston’s Concerto No. 1 with the American Symphony Orchestra. She recently premiered Georg Friedrich Haas’ Violin Concerto No. 2 at the Vienna Musikverein and with orchestras in Japan, Portugal and Germany, and the Violin Concerto by Marcela Rodriguez with the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de México. Miranda is a member of interdisciplinary collective AMOC and director of non-profit Nunc. She has guest curated at National Sawdust and programmed concerts at the Contempo series in Chicago and Miller Theatre in New York, among others. Her numerous lauded albums include Világ, featuring the Bartok Sonata for Solo Violin with contemporary works; the Ligeti, Korngold, Ponce, and Piston concertos; music by 20th century American composers; Bartók/Schnittke/Lutoslawski sonatas; Melting the Darkness, an album of microtonal/electronic music; and Nono’s La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura, named a Recording of the Year by The New York Times. An alumna of The Juilliard School, where she earned her doctorate, she teaches at Mannes College/New School University.
26 Jul, 2022

Remembering Ryan Muncy

New Focus joins with the whole contemporary music community in mourning the passing of virtuoso saxophonist, wonderful colleague, and friend to many Ryan Muncy. Ryan was saxophonist and member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, where he also served as Director of Institional Giving. Previously, he was Artistic Director and saxophonist for Chicago based Ensemble Dal Niente. His work …

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25 Oct, 2021

New Focus releases on 2021 Grammy Ballot

Several New Focus releases are on the first round ballot for the 2021 Grammy awards. The relevant albums/tracks are all currently streamable on their New Focus album pages, please take a listen and if you are a voting member, please consider voting for these albums! Ryan Streber: Best Engineered Album, Classical for: Against Method, [counter)induction]; Mobili [Georgina Rossi and Sylvie Cheng]; …

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Bandcamp Daily: Best of 2020 Contemporary Classical

On this bracing new collection of pieces written between 2008 and 2017, Chinese-American composer Wang Lu powerfully translates disparate perceptions of time within a very diverse program. As she tells liner note author Lara Pellegrinelli, “We have no choice over what we remember—what comes back to us with precise detail. When I compose a piece, what comes out are those moments from my 38 years of life over which I’ve had little control.” Those memories are manifested in fascinating ways, whether sharply ringing bicycle bells, cartoon samples, or kitchen clatter in the powerhouse five-movement title pieces, or the way the phrasing of the Xi’an dialect informs the narrative-like phrases in “Siren Song.”

— Peter Margasak, 12.10.2020


San Francisco Classical Voice

The works of Chinese-American composer Wang Lu unfold like pop-up books. Each brief movement releases a whirligig of hues and textures — far more activity than seems physically possible to pack in. Yet for all its charming eccentricity and sense of play, her music isn’t merely a cardboard magic-trick to entertain. Highly evocative sonic images conceal secret compartments with deep personal significance.

An Atlas of Time (2013) is a suite of five character pieces that capture vivid memories from the composer’s life. All but the second open with a musical sample that acts as a Proustian trigger, setting off a web of responses from the 19-piece ensemble. Wang’s liner notes to this New Focus Recordings release offer a key to decoding her cryptic language of symbols.

In the first movement, “Internationale (1989),” fragments of the rousing Communist anthem alluded to in the title are constantly bombarded by flurries of percussion that stand in for the clang of construction outside the six-year-old Wang’s apartment in China. The parenthetical subtitle — the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre — adds a political subtext to this childhood reminiscence. Subversive punk-rock samples are pitted against the propaganda chorus in a staticky showdown, calling to mind the footage of demonstrators fearlessly defying government tanks.

Yet, this kind of interpretation of lived history is necessarily a retroactive one — it’s unlikely Wang, as a little girl, could have comprehended the events of 1989. The map implied by the cycle’s title is a composite one, with overlapping layers to show how the terrain has shifted as time passes. Wang’s collage of fractured tunes, sound effects, and “plunderphonic” recording snippets become potent representations of the layers of meaning that a memory accumulates as one matures.

The act of recollection is also reflected in her penchant for imitative counterpoint, distantly related to the compositional procedures of Renaissance polyphonists like Gesualdo (whose motet Peccantem me quotidie is quoted in the fourth movement). In the central “Piccolo Trumpets” movement, players stagger repetitions of the theme to a Chinese children’s radio program Wang listened to growing up. Each iteration of the three-note head-motif enters at a different pitch level with slight variations, as if Wang were trying to recall its contours.

As these successive statements compound in a chaotic stretto, they gradually morph into another sonic memory — this time the ubiquitous din of bicycles that were the main mode of urban transportation in the People’s Republic up until the 2000s. Under the direction of Gil Rose, members of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project nimbly coordinate an interlocking hocket of pointillistic squeaks, pings, honks, and clacks. Wang excels at such soundscapes — the apparent randomness is grounded in intricate rhythmic structures, paradoxically generating sonic verisimilitude through controlled artifice.

In capriccio passages like these, Wang displays a John Cagian love for pure noise and an inclination for musical mischief. Yet there’s another side to her style that is unexpectedly sparse, as demonstrated in the three chamber works that occupy the middle of this disc. In Ryan and Murphy (2017), the titular duo — saxophonist Ryan Muncy and electric guitarist Daniel Lippel — give the impression of a strung-out grunge duo jamming in their garage. Lippel’s hypnotic drones flare up in rippling figures that resemble descending surf-rock runs or flourishes on the Chinese guqin zither. Muncy, emitting raspy multiphonics and pitchless air notes, duplicates his partner’s improvisatory gestures with percussive key-clicking.

The duet’s strange mixture of unease and lethargy also characterizes Wang’s string quartet Double Trance (2016), intended as a meditation on two moments of spiritual epiphany the composer experienced in Italy. Members of the Momenta Quartet antiphonally exchange phrases of a plainsong melody that runs threadlike through the piece, a tribute to nuns Wang heard singing at Rome’s Santa Cecilia basilica. There’s a certain anxiety undermining the chantlike solos and rustling, angel’s-wing harmonics in the accompaniment. Achieving an ambiguous blend of lyricism with tense harmonic foreboding, the ensemble perfectly captures the spirit of the work’s second inspiration, an enigmatic fresco by Piero della Francesca that depicts a downward-gazing Madonna between parted curtains.

Although the solo-violin work Unbreathable Colors (2017) is a response to the choking smog Wang encountered on a recent visit to her homeland, American listeners subjected to smoky wildfires and suffocating medical masks will somewhat identify with the shortness of breath she conjures. Soloist Miranda Cuckson replicates the composer’s pained breathing, alternating between dry, wheezy double-stops and pizzicato droplets that land like acid rain or toxic particles. The violinist allows silences to linger, lending the piece an eerie feeling of claustrophobic isolation, as if her performance were enveloped by thick, muffling haze.

For the closing track, we return to Wang’s scherzo idiom, bookending the album’s more desolate inner numbers with lighter fare. Siren Song (2008) is an absolute treat, performed with conviviality by Gil and the BMOP. Homer’s femme-fatale mermaids have become a fairly common presence in new music — Ana Sokolović and Unsuk Chin both picked up these mythical subjects in recent works. Unlike her colleagues, who logically turn to the voice to suggest the irresistible call of these sea nymphs, Wang eschews singers entirely. Granted, her title is most likely a reference to ambulance and police sirens, which the players imitate as part of an introductory traffic jam.

But even in the absence of a soprano to embody the electronic siren’s Homeric namesake, Wang uncannily evokes the human voice in all its subtleties through instrumental means. The rhythms and tones of the Mandarin dialect spoken in her hometown of Xi’an are converted into microtonal instrumental lines. Especially convincing are the players’ parroting of a high-pitched giggle. This laughter — along with ambient sounds, Chinese folk tunes, and Gershwinesque jazz riffs — is part of a kaleidoscopic palette of recurring motives with which Wang paints a street scene of frenetic energy. She dubs it a “short dramatic opera,” and you indeed get a sense of a berserk little puppet show being enacted, with plenty of cartoonish Mickey Mousing to mime the invisible action.

I’d be eager to hear what new timbres Wang could coax from an actual human voice. Of the few vocal works she’s produced, none have been commercially released on recording. I was thrilled, then, to learn that the Chicago Opera Theater has tapped Wang for its Vanguard Emerging Opera Composer Program. Her pictorial compositional language and knack for vocality (even if it’s an instrument doing the “singing”) will no doubt transfer successfully to the full-length opera commission her fellowship entitles.

— Joe Cadagin, 12.20.2020


The WholeNote

Chinese-American composer Wang Lu’s works excite like a case of sudden-onset-fireworks display. Frenetic bombast prevails amid haunting breath-like interjections that induce enjoyable sonic nightmares of a welcome kind. This whirlwind of activity is ever-present throughout the composer’s latest release titled An Atlas of Time – a disc with recent orchestral and chamber compositions.

The title track, performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, is modernist excitement at its finest. Set in five character pieces, this is the gem of the disc and provides compelling landscapes and novel environments for the ear. Another exemplary selection of the release is the solo violin work Unbreathable Colours, performed by Miranda Cuckson. This piece is Wang’s artistic response to the unrelenting smog encountered on a recent visit to China – her native land. The hesitant, yet sharp, plucks and swells in this work truly provoke a suffocating listening experience – one that brilliantly paints a simultaneously eerie and beautiful musical haze.

Each piece on this release is an example of why Wang is one of the most original voices in contemporary classical composition, and each track unfolds with some of the most organic and strikingly enjoyable pacing in recent memory – I’ll be listening many more times!

— Adam Scime, 2.06.2021


I Care if You Listen

Two years have passed since the release of Wang Lu’s debut album Urban Inventory, making the release of her second album, An Atlas of Time (New Focus Recordings), a compelling expansion of her artistic range. Where Urban Inventory dealt with the everyday frenetic energy of the early 21st century—making the ephemeral substantive—An Atlas of Time is introspective and personal. Memories are her subject, specifically the evolving relevance they have to an artist approaching the end of their fourth decade. Yet listeners expecting sentimentality or nostalgic serenity will be disappointed. Wang Lu conceives of memory as disjointed, even arbitrary, noting: “It’s not only that we have no choice over what we remember—what comes back to us with precise detail. When I compose a piece, what comes out are those moments from my 38 years of life over which I’ve had little control. Instead, I have to try to embrace them.” The result is a collection of musical souvenirs, sonic fragments that flash and erupt, sometimes uncontrollably, into what might be best described as the composer’s aural un/conscious.

The title track of the album is Wang Lu’s most ambitious exploration of her past. Commissioned by Ensemble Modern and performed on the album by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (Gil Rose, conductor), the work combines recorded sound samples reminiscent of her Chinese childhood (bicycle bells in morning traffic and noisy neighbors) with allusions to 1980s Chinese rock music, and her young self playfully banging on the piano. These clips suddenly emerge from the chaotic timbres, interrupting the musical conscious by randomly panning back and forth across the listener’s speakers. Obviously, Wang Lu’s musical cartography is rarely linear.

Two years have passed since the release of Wang Lu’s debut album Urban Inventory, making the release of her second album, An Atlas of Time (New Focus Recordings), a compelling expansion of her artistic range. Where Urban Inventory dealt with the everyday frenetic energy of the early 21st century—making the ephemeral substantive—An Atlas of Time is introspective and personal. Memories are her subject, specifically the evolving relevance they have to an artist approaching the end of their fourth decade. Yet listeners expecting sentimentality or nostalgic serenity will be disappointed. Wang Lu conceives of memory as disjointed, even arbitrary, noting: “It’s not only that we have no choice over what we remember—what comes back to us with precise detail. When I compose a piece, what comes out are those moments from my 38 years of life over which I’ve had little control. Instead, I have to try to embrace them.” The result is a collection of musical souvenirs, sonic fragments that flash and erupt, sometimes uncontrollably, into what might be best described as the composer’s aural un/conscious.

The title track of the album is Wang Lu’s most ambitious exploration of her past. Commissioned by Ensemble Modern and performed on the album by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (Gil Rose, conductor), the work combines recorded sound samples reminiscent of her Chinese childhood (bicycle bells in morning traffic and noisy neighbors) with allusions to 1980s Chinese rock music, and her young self playfully banging on the piano. These clips suddenly emerge from the chaotic timbres, interrupting the musical conscious by randomly panning back and forth across the listener’s speakers. Obviously, Wang Lu’s musical cartography is rarely linear.

Wang Lu closes the album with Siren Song, an operatic tale about her hometown (Xi’an). The story of an old eunuch who buys a young wife and declares that she will be buried with him when he dies is another loose connection to the theme of memory. But like Ryan and Dan, the instinct to draw such connections testifies to a foundational logic. Perhaps Wang Lu is amending the terms that defined the initial tracks. Rather than submitting to the uncontrollable nature of memory, she recognizes an almost liberatory creative agency that the fragmentary offers her as she confidently stitches together sounds that play dual roles. The chaotic and brash orchestration and harsh glissandos mimic the dialect of her hometown, but are the monolog of her eunuch. The snippets of folk melodies similarly evoke both the emulated traditional form as well as the childhood alluded to in earlier tracks.

An Atlas of Time is the culmination of many decades of Wang Lu’s musical lifetime. She has always been inspired by traditional Chinese music interpreted through a modernist lens, but in this album, she approaches her work with more introspection. And while, as Wang Lu notes, there is no perfect cartography or even classification system that would neatly sort these flashes of musical memory, the listener is glad to join her on her journey and future explorations.

— Jennifer Jolley, 12.16.2020



Normally a composer's work is personalized when the creator's distinctive sensibility is applied to long-standing classical forms, the four-movement symphony an obvious example. Wang Lu upends that approach when formal structures are adopted in service to her idiosyncratic vision, the result music that's first and foremost a personal presentation, what the text accompanying the release rightfully calls “a cartography of her own lived experience.” Lu's status as a foreign-born composer living in the United States is also likely a factor: one guesses that being part of multiple traditions enables her to create with a greater sense of freedom. It also makes for work of enhanced richness when she draws on the traditions of her native country as well as those of her adopted one. As a title, then, An Atlas of Time is well-chosen in accentuating both the geographical span of her vision and the rich cultural and biographical histories that inform it.

Her second collection for New Focus is panoramic, not only stylistically but in terms of presentation. Two orchestra performances bookend solo, duo, and quartet pieces, the forty-seven-minute set providing an informative overview of her predilections. No moment better illustrates her personalized style than the titular work's middle movement, “Piccolo Trumpets: A Children's Broadcast,” when it opens with the sound of a child singing a melody from the opening credits to a children's show. The move is wholly characteristic of Lu, though the work in toto exemplifies much the same quality as its five action-packed parts play out. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project delivers a riveting performance, which will surprise no one acquainted with its stellar BMOP/sound releases.

Lu makes few concessions to the listener in this challenging fifteen-minute work. Timbres associated with Chinese music collide with Western instrumentation in the first movement, “Internationale (1989 Edition)”; animated by clangorous percussion sonorities, the opening part is head-spinning and even at times disorienting. As jarring is “Molten Cathedral,” which overlays a bass pedal point with a nightmarish phantasmagoria of strings, horns, and woodwinds. Whereas “Piccolo Trumpets: A Children's Broadcast” captures Lu's playful side in its restless explorations, “Caravaggio's Descent” slows things to a crawl, such near-stasis providing a fitting basis for the murkiness of the scene to work itself out. Horn fanfares overlap during the finale “Tombeau,” the bluster and forays into dissonance consistent with the dizzying character of the work.

However much through-composed Lu's material is, a piece such as Ryan and Dan plays like an unscripted dialogue between its two inspired participants, saxophonist Ryan Muncy and guitarist Dan Lippel. The application of microtonal detuning to the guitar creates a sense of destabilization in the music's atmospheric drift, which Muncy amplifies in the key clicks and trills of his own playing. In contrast to the ultra-compression that characterizes the title work's movements, Ryan and Dan unfurls unhurriedly with the luxury of space allowing each gesture to be thoughtfully considered. Performed by Miranda Cuckson, Unbreathable Colors (the title alludes to the air pollution situation in China) advances as methodically, with the violinist executing pizzicato arpeggios and bowed harmonics with the greatest delicacy.

For Double Trance (performed by the Momenta Quartet), Lu drew for inspiration from a fresco image showing two angels alongside a pregnant Madonna that in turn triggered another memory having to do with nuns singing in a Trastevere church. She wove their monophonic melody into the nine-minute setting, though never so explicitly it can be easily extracted out of the ethereal mix in which it's embedded. Instead, it emerges as a nebulous, ghost-like apparition that floats through a hushed, ever-morphing array of string-generated glissandi and harmonics.

At album's end, The Boston Modern Orchestra Project returns for Siren Song, which returns the album to the exuberant expressivity of the opening piece and again merges Chinese and Western timbres into a boisterous fireball. As mentioned, Lu's music will challenge the listener with an appetite for soothing classical sounds; there's nothing insincere or inauthentic about her creations, however, which consistently distill her bold compositional sensibility into arresting, multi-hued form.

— Ron Schepper, 12.30.2020


Gapplegate Classical Modern Music Review

We go through our lives right now, as in any other time, of course, except right now at times for many of us is a kind of limbo brought on by COVID. It has accentuated even more the importance of the virtual and in terms of New Music that means CDs and digital media, naturally. It allows me to keep on, by means of the new albums I am sent in the mail. And then of course with these blogsites I can write reviews while sheltering in place.

Today I write about a recent album, a collection of the music of Wang Lu, whose music I've covered in several anthologies (type her name in the search box above for those). This is my first brush with her music in depth, with an album entitled An Atlas of Time (New Focus Recordings FCR 277).

It is a very interesting assortment of Ms. Lu's compositions, two orchestral and three chamber pieces. The music is highly engaging, in a sort of High Modernist mode with an emphasis on extended techniques and heightened sonority.

Ms. Lu hails from China and has been uniquely situated to stand between musical influences East and West.

The title orchestral work An Atlas of Time is the centerpiece of the program here, as beautifully performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project conducted by Gil Rose. Five movements give us an imaginative, and not necessarily a linear trip though something not as a map per se but more as a dreamscape. As the promo sheet puts it, her music here and in general is "less about a fusion of styles as it is about tapping into a cartography of her own personal memory and experiences." The music involves a series of found objects often enough, her own musical Proustian madeleines, richly evocative markers of having been in a certain time and place, and then another time and place.

What matters in the end is the living inside the music as a personal event, which as supercharged with personal experiences is never indifferent or coldly abstracted, but engaged and as original as a signature, a series of streams of collided memories that exist together in strikingly extended aural terms.

So the five movements of An Atlas of Time juxtaposes the experiential contrasts of the anthem of the Internationale, a children's radio show theme, bells of many sizes and experiences, Gesualdo, the fulfillment of a gestural and storytelling role much deeper than mere nostalgia. It is a fascinating work that bears up under scrutiny. Similarly the concluding Siren Song (for a small chamber orchestra of ten musicians) holds forth by musically extending a transliteration of an ancient dialect of the town of Xi'an, Lu's home region of China.

The three chamber works are of their own special interest, whether it is the Ryan and Dan work for the sax of Ryan Muncy and the electric guitar of Dan Lippel, the string quartet Double Trance and the vivid coloration of Unbreathable Colors for the solo violin of Miranda Cuckson. Everything bears a marked stamp of personal reference and inspiration.

Put it all together and you hear some uniquely wonderful Wang Lu, undoubtedly on the basis of this program one of the most important and accomplished composers working today. Strongly recommended.

— Grego Edwards, 1.03.2021


Take Effect

Wang Lu returns with her 2nd album on the New Focus Label, and like everything the label does, it’s a very unclassifiable journey of chamber, orchestral and classical ideas where each track hosts unbound creativity from different musicians.

The title track starts the listen and unfolds with 5 movements of frantic keys, bursts of vocals, and haunting moments of orchestral mystery that seems like they could soundtrack a horror movie, and Ryan And Dan follows with a minimal approach where Ryan Muncy’s saxophone and Daniel Lippel’s electric guitar work strategically alongside one another as they manipulate space and texture with plenty of reverb.

Further on, Double Trance brings in the Momenta Quartet as a trio of violins and cello work together for a moody and stirring delivery of tranquil melodies and dynamic chord progressions, while Unbreathable Colors makes great use of Miranda Cuckson’s violin skills as both plucked and bowed techniques are executed.

Siren’s Song exits the listen, and showcases the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, who also started the album, and it results in an artistic and abstract finish of highly atypical melodies that rumble, distort and scatter with unpredictable beauty and adventure.

A native of China, Lu brings a wealth of experience and talent to these introspective and autobiographical pieces that are full of wonder, awe and so much intrigue.

— Tom Haugen, 1.28.2021



After 2018's stunning Urban Inventory, I knew to expect even greater things from this composer and this album exceeds those imaginings in every way. The title piece is a five-movement spectacular, incorporating orchestrations that Bartok would envy alongside electronics and prerecorded material for collage-like effects that will have your head spinning in the best way. It's astonishing in its concision and power and the performance by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project with Gil Rose conducting is unlikely to be equalled - but that doesn't mean I don't think others should try, and often, in concert halls across the globe. The album also includes Ryan And Dan, a duet for saxophone (Ryan Muncy) and guitar (Dan Lippel) that manages to combine post-punk, free jazz, art rock, and modernism in a mesmerizing seven minutes, Double Trance for string quartet, played by Momenta Quartet and showing mastery of the medium, Unbreathable Colors, a sparkling and off-kilter piece for solo violin (Miranda Cuckson), and Siren Song, which puts more of her orchestral artistry on display. Fearless, fun, fascinating - and emotionally compelling - the world of Wang Lu is one of my favorite destinations. Plot a course ASAP.

— Jeremy Shatan, 11.29.2020


Vital Weekly

In 2018 we reviewed her album Urban Inventory (New Focus Recordings). This album presented five compositions written by her between 2008 and 2016. Also her new album consists of five compositions. Opening title work An Atlas of Time is a work in five parts, commissioned by Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern and performed here by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Also the closing composition ‘Siren Song’ is performed by the same ensemble. In between we find three works for smaller line ups: Ryan and Dan, performed by Ryan and Dan, Ryan Muncy (saxophones) and Daniel Lippel (electric guitar); Double Trance performed Momenta Quartet; Unbreathable Colors, a solo violin piece performed Miranda Cuckson.

Wang Lu comes from a musical family in family in China. She grew up with Chinese opera on the one hand and western classical music on the other hand. From early on she is at home in two very different musical worlds. This became a motive in her work as a composer after she settled in the US, teaching at Brown University. This is illustrated by this new collection of her latest compositions. Although we hear aspects of western as well Chinese music, fusing or blending them into one homogenous world is not what she aims for. Nor integrating elements into one dominant language. Instead she found her own way and style of composing intriguing hybrid compositions that are sometimes a bit collage-like. Absorbing different cultural influences that lead to multi-sided and compositions.

An Atlas of Time for example bursts from ideas. For this composition Wang Lu takes inspiration from particular musical moments that are carved in her memory and shaped her perception of time. Unbreathable Colors is an evocation of the intense smog in – not only – Chinese cities. Inhabitants are exposed to it continuously. The work plays with silence, pizzicato technique and gliding movements for solo violin performed by Miranda Cuckson. Double Trance for string quartet is a meditation on a spiritual experience of Wang in Rome visiting the Santa Cecilia Basilica in Rome. The closing work Siren Song is a very dramatic and vibrant work inspired on Chinese opera. Richly coloured and very engaging. For sure Wang Lu is a very interesting and inventive composer offering new and engaging perspectives embodied in very vivid and colourful works.

— Dolf Mulder, 1.04.2021


MusicWeb International

An Atlas of Time launches itself with a cacophonous din of sampled sounds mixed with desiccated instrumental effects and thickly clustered orchestral noise, all of which verges on the overwhelming but is relieved, if violently, by abrupt changes of volume, density, and tempo. Booklet notes, from both Wang herself and Lara Pellegrinelli, offer an insight into what lies behind this mind-blowing assault on the sense of hearing. Pellegrinelli observes that “scenes abruptly shift, collide, and dissolve”, while Wang, looking back over her 38 years of life, recalls certain “musical moments” which struck her. These include “the resonances of childhood memories in China, 1980s rock with its anti-authoritarian message, ear-popping bicycle bells in morning traffic, the next-door incessant chatter and kitchen noise of neighbours, my six-year-old self banging on the piano, construction workers drilling through concrete…fragments of memory and sensation that I hope to pass along through my music”. The unstated and unanswered question is, why would anyone do this? We all experience horrendous noise coming at us from every direction in our daily lives, yet do we feel it is something not only to preserve and celebrate but actually share with others? I remain unconvinced. Impressive though this performance is by 19 players (and tape) from the Boston Modern Orchestral Project, I find little here that does anything more than mimic these sounds in a way that even that great pioneer of what was then labelled musique concrète, Edgard Varèse, would probably have regarded as primitive and pointless.

I am fully aware that a goodly proportion of those who read reviews in MusicWeb International have musical tastes which tend to the conservative, while others look for a challenge. Selling An Atlas of Time to either group is an uphill struggle, and one which I feel is ultimately pointless, since the former are never going to like this kind of chaotic mishmash of sounds while other have been through it all before and are looking for music which reflects something more akin to the stylistic attitudes of the 21st century than the 20th. An Atlas of Time dates from 2013.

Reviewing an earlier disc of Wang Lu’s music (review) I described it as “taking its cue from what she sees around her”. While An Atlas of Time is not only based entirely on memories of sounds, but also uses electronics and computer technology to recreate them, other works on the disc are more immediate responses to everyday experiences, and confine themselves to conventional instrumental means. Ryan and Dan, named after the two dedicatees of this piece who perform it here on electric guitar and saxophone, is an intriguing foray into the unusual sound world of these two instruments which endeavours to create, in Wang’s words, “a faint melodic trace that resembles the ancient Chinese seven-string guqin, and the tranquillity one experiences while plying it”.

Even more effective in reflecting time and place, is Double Trance, scored for string quartet. It evokes a trip Wang made to Rome when she walked into a 5th century church where nuns were singing their evening service. Like Ryan and Dan, it is a work full of calm, peacefulness, and tranquillity, and effectively recreates the idea of a “spiritual trance” with its moments of almost ecstatic joy. Taking its cue from a very different environment, Unbreathable Colors was prompted by the “heavy smog that engulfs the city, silently swallowing and making invisible the outlines of buildings and landmarks”. It is a terrific tour-de-force for solo violin, and is played with mesmerising intensity by its dedicatee, Miranda Cuckson. I am not sure that Wang’s description of the work’s non-musical stimulus would sell it even to the most adventurous listeners, but Cuckson’s superlative playing of a very complex score makes this a musical experience all should seek out.

Siren Song can be thought of as a short dramatic opera”. Wang was born in the Chinese city of Xi’an, and “a dry, panicking, yet seductive old male voice” she recalls from her youth there, seems to have been the stimulus for this action-packed, multi-faceted piece. Hints of China, in the instrumental timbres and musical language, abound, as do dramatic gestures (such as the cackling laughter of an audience), and while the piece is, in many ways, as overwhelmingly abundant with dramatic, abrupt shifts of direction and texture as An Atlas of Time, it has a coherence and distinctive originality which makes this an intriguing listen for all except the most hardened conservatives.

— Marc Rochester, 6.23.2021



A native Chinese friend recently told me that in a nation of 1.3 billion people, there are only about 100 family names; thus, the numerous Wangs in the Fanfare Archive are very likely not related to each other or to Lu Wang (to give the Western order of the name of this composer who is identified as Wang Lu throughout the present CD). She was born in China around 1982 (no birth year is given, but the program notes refer to her 38 years of life), studied at the Beijing Conservatory, and then emigrated to the U.S. and received a doctorate from Columbia University. Her music has attracted wide attention—she has received the Berlin Prize, commissions from the Fromm and Koussevitzky Foundations, and many others—and she is currently the David S. Josephson Assistant Professor of Music at Brown University. With all this acclaim, I was expecting to like her music, and I did.

The explosion of sounds that greeted my ears in the opening An Atlas of Time was nevertheless unexpected, sounding like some sort of frenetic fracas in the street market of Hong Kong that my wife and I visited back in 2009. It is difficult to tell throughout much of this work how many of the sounds heard are acoustically—as opposed to electronically—produced (the work is scored for 19 musicians and tape), but I guarantee you’ve never heard anything like this sonic phantasmagoria. There are quite obviously microtones employed in the work as well. The remarkable Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project ensemble do a stellar job of making this mélange of sounds cohere. The six movements’ titles seem irrelevant to me (e.g., the first is “Internationale,” but there is nothing in it that resembles that tune or any other), but such an observation hardly rises even to the level of a quibble.

Ryan and Dan was written for (no surprise) saxophonist Ryan Muncy and electric guitarist Daniel Lippel. Obviously, two instruments cannot make as great a concatenation of sounds as 19 plus tape can, so the effect is quite different from that of the opening work. One thing that remains constant, however, is Wang’s skill in making acoustic instruments sound electronic. This she achieves partly through microtonal tuning of the guitar, use of special effects in the saxophone (I assume through embouchure positioning and breathing), and so on. The piece has a laid-back atmosphere that somehow reminds me of many works I’ve heard based on Japanese haikus. It’s all very cleverly put together, and once again causes me to declare I’ve never heard anything quite like it.

In a sense, Double Trance for string quartet may be the most conservative work here, as it builds on the traditions developed in the avant-garde decade of the 1960s. While Wang has her own approach and style, it’s difficult to imagine this work having been written without the foundation laid by Bartók (in his use of glissando), Ligeti, Lutosławski, and Penderecki in their respective string quartets. The single-movement nine-minute work conjures up some of the most haunting aspects of these and other composers from their eras. The composer states that the work was inspired by the singing of nuns that she heard on a visit to Rome, and even “preserved in some form in the piece.” I was able to hear none of the nuns, so she’s disguised their contribution well, but no matter—the work makes a powerful effect, in part due to the impressive reading of it by the Momenta Quartet.

Unbreathable Colors for solo violin continues the style of the preceding work, but not its atmosphere, which is effected by an alternation between upward pizzicato gestures across the four strings of the instrument and passages on harmonics and/or sul ponticello (on the bridge) playing. Miranda Cuckson does a breathtaking job in bringing the work to light. The composer’s title refers to the often unbreathable air that exists in cities across her native China, and the color-coded warning levels that refer to varying degrees of danger for those who are bold enough to breathe it. (The same Chinese friend referred to above, witnessing a bright blue sky here in Bloomington, IN, told me she had never seen the sky that color back in Shanghai.)

According to Wang, Siren Song, scored for an instrumental ensemble approximately the size of the opening work minus the tape, can be considered a sort of opera, given that it recalls for her a dry and panicking yet seductive old male voice telling stories in the ancient Xi’an dialect. The story in her mind as she was composing the work involved an old eunuch who buys a young wife with an eye towards burying her with him when he’s gone. I hear some humor and sarcasm in the music with its seemingly unrelated gestures and musical ideas thrown together in haphazard yet convincing fashion.

As much as I enjoyed it, I shall be cautious in recommending this CD. While some of my colleagues at Fanfare (Robert Carl comes to mind) I think would like this disc very much, others (who will remain unnamed) would consider it a sonic hell. Thus, I will recommend it enthusiastically to readers who are especially taken with Penderecki (in his most radical mode), Stockhausen, Xenakis, Earle Brown, and other similarly inclined composers, even though this music doesn’t sound much like any of theirs.

— David DeBoor Canfield, 5.28.2021

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