Composer Yu-Hui Chang's Mind Like Water presents three ensemble works and one solo cello piece that all feature a dialogue between musical elements. Sometimes this dialogue unfolds between contrasting energies, such as the percolating rhythms of the opening movement of In Thin Air versus the dramatic gestures in its second movement. Other times the conversation is between smaller musical elements, like the cells in Germinate or the flowing, through composed unfolding of the title work. The recording features performances by the Lydian String Quartet, Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble, Composers Conference Ensemble, and cellist Rhonda Rider.
In Thin Air
|Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble, Gabriela Diaz, violin, Donald Berman, piano, Robert Schulz, percussion
|Composers Conference Ensemble, Barry J. Crawford, flute, Benjamin Fingland, bass clarinet, Adda Kridler, violin, Chris Gross, cello, Steven Beck, piano, Matthew Gold, percussion, Alex Lipowski, percussion, James Baker, conductor
|Mind Like Water
Mind Like Water
|Lydian String Quartet, Andrea Segar, violin, Judith Eissenberg, violin, Mark Berger, viola, Joshua Gordon, cello
|Rhonda Rider, cello
|II. expressive, yet somewhat distant
II. expressive, yet somewhat distant
Yu-Hui Chang allows the process of composition, in all of its uncertainties and ambiguities, into her works. The result is music that reflects the actual flow of her inspiration as much as a preconceived conception. The four works on Mind Like Water share this natural quality; despite highlighting complex compositional concepts and instrumental techniques, each piece develops in a disarmingly organic fashion, with seamless transitions and arching overall shapes.
In Thin Air opens with nervous driving motion, as plates played with thin wire establish a pulse grid that becomes interconnected with the violin and piano, interjecting pizzicati, accented chords, swells, and truncated figures. All the sounds are charged and catalyzed, expressions of stored up energy seeping out in controlled bursts. When the rhythms are expressed in unison, the passages take on the quality of speech, utterances with abstract meaning. The playful intensity of the first movement gives way to rhapsody in movement two, as pathos laden lines in the violin are supported by rich voicings and brilliant arpeggios in the piano and ominous rolls on non-pitched percussion. The final movement is anchored by an oscillating ostinato in the violin, as the piano plays glistening chordal phrases over evocative cymbal rolls. After the repeated figures become distributed throughout the ensemble and refracted, prism-like, we hear echoes of the expressive melancholy of the second movement returning as the work fades out into a whisper.
Germinate takes advantage of the diverse timbres available in its instrumentation of flute/piccolo, cello, violin, piano, clarinet, and percussion. As per the work’s title, small seeds of musical information are the genesis for expansion, evolving in dialogue with the material in other instruments. Initially, we hear short articulations that percolate around the “stereo field” of the ensemble; the durations and lengths of fragments steadily increase as central pitches are reasserted throughout the group. The disjunct rhythms coalesce into a fluid composite dance that smooths over the jagged corners of its component parts. As individual lines lengthen, the delicate cohesion of the ensemble begins to erode, and the work finds itself surveying the detritus of its own post-exuberance. From that stasis emerges a forceful section that careens towards a climactic reasserted unison pitch, before the music disintegrates once again into small cells.
The process of composing the title work, performed here by the Lydian String Quartet, was shaped by stream of consciousness style literary techniques as well as Buddhist concepts of meditation. Yu-Hui Chang’s goal was to release control over the musical materials that emerged in the process of composition, instead allowing them to be “fluid and free, ready to embrace all changes and possibilities.” Perhaps consequently, the piece is less pulse driven than the active music in Germinate and the outer movements of In Thin Air, instead establishing a sonic space in which gestures have their own temporal envelope to grow and recede, and lead into other ideas organically. Resonance seems to be a guiding presence in Mind Like Water, as luminous gestures and glittering voicings linger in the quartet throughout the first half of the piece. During a climactic section, the music becomes more vigorous and emphatic, with accented unison passages, punctuated pizzicati, taut swells, and interlocking figures.
The solo cello work Alter Ego is the most inward facing work in the collection, though Yu-Hui Chang nevertheless manages to explore dialogue, between the performer and their instrument. The three movements of the work explore different sides to that relationship and the ongoing challenge of finding balance within it. The opening movement, “affectionate,” projects a tinkering quality, as repeated fragments are subjected to permutation and mined for expressive content, not unlike the joyful repetition one finds in practicing one’s instrument. “expressive, yet somewhat distant” is lyrical and poignant, with longer elegiac lines that culminate in a mournful passage over a drone. “methodical” opens with dry, pointed accents and laser-like figures popping out from the texture as the cellist functions as both the soloist and their own rhythm section. Bracing, off-kilter phrases are repeated and varied with additive material, constructing a measured, mathematical argument in sound.
Whether Yu-Hui Chang is writing for a medium sized ensemble of diverse instruments, smaller forces, or a solo instrument, her work is always engaged in a dialogue. It is this quality that keeps the music breathing and dynamic, as ideas grow as in a conversation, not necessarily in predictable ways, but always in a through line of expressive meaning. In Thin Air plays out as a fervent conversation between three voices, Germinate an arc of development within a small ecosystem, Mind Like Water as a free flowing expression of internal dialogue, and Alter Ego as a negotiation between symbiotic partners. Throughout, Yu-Hui Chang’s music is finely tuned to the connective tissue between musical moments, integrating myriad elements into naturally unfolding textures instead of manufacturing textures out of pet concepts.
- Dan Lippel
Recorded at Slosberg Recital Hall, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA
In Thin Air
Recording Engineer: Frank Cunningham
Editor: Joel Gordon
Recording Engineer and Editor: James Praznik
Mind Like Water & Alter Ego
Recording Engineer and Editor: Joel Gordon
Mastering: Joel Gordon
Cover image: “black and white abstract painting”, by Olga Thelavart (Unsplash.com)
Photo credit (p3): Sharona Jacobs
Design: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com
Award-winning composer Yu-Hui Chang has written a wide range of music that compels and resonates with professional musicians and audiences alike. She strives to break through cultural and stylistic boundaries, and to take an inclusive view of musical diversity. This attitude is manifested in the multifaceted quality of her compositional output, and the stylistic fluidity in her writing.
A native of Taiwan, Yu-Hui began her intensive music training in piano, voice, and music theory at the age of six, and started seriously pursuing composition as a career at the age of fourteen. She came to the United States in 1994 to pursue her graduate degrees. Previously teaching at UC Davis between 1999-2006, Yu-Hui is now Victor and Gwendolyn Beinfield Professor of Music at Brandeis University.
Yu-Hui was awarded the Arts and Letters Award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2017, from which she also received the Charles Ives Fellowship in 2009. Other honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, the Aaron Copland Award, Yoshiro Irino Memorial Prize, and commissions from the Fromm Music Foundation, Koussevitzky Music Foundation, Barlow Endowment for Music Composition, the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation, and Meet The Composer (now New Music USA).
Performances of Yu-Hui’s compositions have taken places across continents in the Netherlands, Italy, UK, Germany, Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and throughout the U.S. to critical acclaim. She has collaborated with the Taiwan Philharmonic, Taipei Symphony Orchestra, Boston Modern Orchestra Project, San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra, KlangForum Heidelberg, NZTrio, Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, Volti, Ju Percussion Group, and many individual musicians including pianist Marilyn Nonken, soprano Tony Arnold, and clarinetist Charles Neidich.
As an exponent of contemporary music performance, Yu- Hui previously served as Co-Artistic Director of Empyrean Ensemble and Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble. Collectively she curated more than seventy concerts.
Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble is a leading presenter of classical music of the 20th and 21st centuries. The ensemble was founded in 1975 as part of New England Dinosaur Dance Theater, and has been independently incorporated since 1977. Under the artistic directorship of Hubert Ho, Dinosaur Annex is passionately dedicated to bringing cutting-edge music of living composers to a diverse public and maintaining an outlet for music that is otherwise unheard. The ensemble aims to foster appreciation of contemporary music through exposure to the work of living composers; and to promote understanding of contemporary music through educational events, composer commissions, multi-media collaborations, performances, and recordings.
Dinosaur Annex’s history reflects many decades of high-level music-making, and consistently rave reviews. Dinosaur Annex showcases a variety of composers and frequently invites guest conductors and soloists. The many composers promoted by Dinosaur Annex include John Harbison, Yu-Hui Chang, Elena Ruehr, Lee Hyla, Gunther Schuller, Keeril Makan, Tamar Diesendruck, Evan Ziporyn, Ezra Sims, Charles Shadle, Eve Beglarian, Scott Wheeler, and Lewis Spratlan. Dinosaur Annex is especially proud of its role in effecting a Pulitzer Prize for Spratlan’s previously unknown opera, Life Is A Dream.
Georgia native Gabriela Diaz began her musical training at the age of five, studying piano with her mother, and the next year, violin with her father. As a childhood cancer survivor, Gabriela is committed to sup- porting cancer research and treatment in her capacity as a musician. In 2004, Gabriela was a recipient of a grant from the Albert Schweitzer Foundation, an award that enabled Gabriela to create and direct the Boston Hope Ensemble. This program is now part of Winsor Music. A firm believer in the healing properties of music, Gabriela and her colleagues have performed in cancer units in Boston hospitals and presented benefit concerts for cancer research organizations in numerous venues throughout the United States.
A fierce champion of contemporary music, Gabriela has been fortunate to work closely with many significant composers on their own compositions, namely Pierre Boulez, Frederic Rzewski, Alvin Lucier, Unsuk Chin, Joan Tower, Roger Reynolds, Chaya Czernowin, Steve Reich, Tania León, Brian Ferneyhough, and Helmut Lachenmann. In 2012 Gabriela joined the violin faculty of Wellesley College. Gabriela is co-artistic director of the much beloved Boston-based chamber music and outreach organization Winsor Music. Please visit winsormusic.org for more information!
Gabriela’s recording of Lou Harrison’s Suite for Violin and American Gamelan was highlighted in the New York Times Article “5 Minutes That Will Make You Love Classical Music.” Critics have acclaimed Ga- briela as “a young violin master,” and “one of Boston’s most valuable players.” Lloyd Schwartz of the Boston Phoenix noted, “...Gabriela Diaz in a bewitching performance of Pierre Boulez’s 1991 Anthèmes. The come-hither meow of Diaz’s upward slides and her sustained pianis- simo fade-out were miracles of color, texture, and feeling.” Others have remarked on her “indefatigably expressive” playing, “polished technique,” and “vivid and elegant playing.” Gabriela can be heard on New World, Centaur, BMOPSound, Mode, Naxos, and Tzadik records. Gabriela plays on a Vuillaume violin generously on loan from Mark Ptashne and a viola made by her father, Manuel Diaz. Gabriela is proud to be a core member of the team that created Boston Hope Music, bringing music to patients and frontline medical workers during the pandemic. More info can be found at bostonhopemusic.orghttps://www.eurekaensemble.org/boston-hope-music
Pianist Donald Berman has been on the frontlines of new music scholarship, performance and recording for over 30 years. His CDs include The Unknown Ives Volumes 1 and 2, and The Uncovered Ruggles (New World), the 4-CD set Americans in Rome: Music by Fellows of the American Academy in Rome, The Piano Music of Martin Boykan, and Scott Wheeler: Tributes and Portraits (Bridge). Berman has also recorded The Light That Is Felt: Songs of Charles Ives with Susan Narucki, soprano, and concertos by Christopher Theofanidis (Summitt) and George Perle (BMOP Sound). He was a prizewinner of the Schubert International Competition in Dortmund, Germany. A Harvard Radcliffe Institute Fellow, Berman is currently President of The Charles Ives Society. He serves as Chair of Keyboard Studies at The Longy School of Music of Bard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Composers Conference Ensemble: Founded in 1945, The Composers Conference is a summer program that embraces collaborative music creation by musicians at the beginning of their careers, those that are well-established, and those for whom music is an important part of their lives. The oldest and most respected program of its kind, The Composers Conference was guided by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Mario Davidovsky for 50 years. In 2019, composer Kurt Rohde was appointed the new Artistic Director. As part of the conference’s programs, the Composers Conference Ensemble consists of the finest new music specialists, many of whom are members of highly regarded groups in the U.S.. The Ensemble performs and records music of the Composer Fellows and Guest Composers, whose music is featured along with contemporary classics and rarities from the standard repertoire in the summer concerts.
Benjamin Fingland interprets a diverse range of clarinet literature, with performances conveying “spiritedness and humor”, “unflagging precision and energy”, "eloquence and passion", "dazzling technique" (The New York Times) and playing described as “something magical” (The Boston Globe), “compellingly musical” (The New York Times) and “thoroughly lyrical…expert” (The Philadelphia Inquirer). A proponent of the music of our time, he works closely with living composers. In addition to being a founding member of the critically-acclaimed new music collective counter)induction, he plays with many leading contemporary performance ensembles: NOVUS NY, the International Contemporary Ensemble, the New York New Music Ensemble, the Network for New Music, the Argento Ensemble, the Locrian Chamber Players, and Sequitur. He is a member of the renowned Dorian Wind Quintet, which will soon celebrate 60 years of groundbreaking commissions and performances of wind chamber music. He has Bachelor and Master of Music degrees from the Juilliard School and is on the faculty of the Third Street Music School Settlement in New York City.http://benjaminfingland.com
Pianist Steven Beck continues to gather wide acclaim for his performances and recordings. Recent career highlights include performances of Beethoven’s variations and bagatelles at Bargemusic, a venue where he first performed a complete Beethoven sonata cycle. In addition, this season he performs with the Westchester Philharmonic and the Alabama Symphony.
An esteemed performer of new music, he has worked with Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez, Henri Dutilleux, Charles Wuorinen, George Crumb, George Perle, and Fred Lerdahl, and performed with ensembles such as Speculum Musicae and the New York New Music Ensemble. He is a core member of the Da Capo Chamber Players, the Knights, and the Talea Ensemble. He is also a member of Quattro Mani, a piano duo specializing in contemporary music.
Mr. Beck’s discography includes Peter Lieberson's third piano concerto (for Bridge Records) and a recording of Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto on Albany Records. He is on the faculty of the Sewanee Summer Music Festival.https://nyphil.org/about-us/artists/steven-beck
From its beginning in 1980, the Lydian String Quartet has been acclaimed by audiences and critics for embracing the full range of the string quartet repertory with curiosity, virtuosity, and dedication to the highest artistic ideals of music making. Performing with “a precision and involvement marking them as among the world’s best quartets” (Chicago Sun-Times), the LSQ’s interpretive mastery of standard and contemporary repertoire has resulted in prizes at international competitions in Canada, France, England, and in New York (Naumburg Award for Chamber Music). The LSQ has performed extensively throughout the United States at venues such as Jordan Hall in Boston; the Kennedy Center and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.; Lincoln Center, Miller Theater, and Weill Recital Hall in New York City; the Pacific Rim Festival at the University of California at Santa Cruz; and the Slee Beethoven Series at the University at Buffalo. Abroad, the Quartet has made appearances in France, England, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Russia, Armenia, and most recently in Taiwan. The LSQ’s long-term residency at Brandeis allows them to collaborate with each other and colleagues around the world, partially through their yearly concert series at the Slosberg Music Center. They host a biennial composition prize, and are on the faculty of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Violist and composer Mark Berger has toured throughout the United States and internationally as a member of the Lydian String Quartet. In addition to his work with the quartet, Berger frequently performs with many of Boston’s finest orchestras and chamber ensembles including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston Pops, Emmanuel Music, and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Worcester Chamber Music Society, and Music at Eden’s Edge. He has recently appeared as a guest artist with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, Boston Musica Viva, Chameleon Arts ensemble, and Radius Ensemble. Strongly devoted to the performance of new music, Berger has performed with many of Boston’s new music ensembles including Sound Icon, Dinosaur Annex, Ludovico Ensemble, and ALEA III. He has recorded solo and chamber works for Albany, Bridge and Innova records. An acclaimed composer, Berger’s works have been presented by many of the leading contemporary ensembles in the Boston area. His compositions have received awards and recognition from the League of Composers/ ISCM, ASCAP, and the Rapido! Composition Competition. Berger is Associate Professor of the Practice at Brandeis University.
The new monograph recording by Taiwan-born, Massachusetts-based composer Yu-Hui Chang contains three compositions for chamber ensemble and one for solo cello. What emerges from the recording is an impression of Chang as a composer of finely etched fragments and melodic discontinuities divided up among her ensembles’ different voices.
The three-movement In Thin Air for violin, piano, and percussion is a largely episodic piece underscored by the subdued thunder of low-pitched drum rolls. Rhythm is present here, but represented as much by breaks between the sounds setting it out as by the sounds themselves. Germinate, a single movement work for cello, piano, percussion, flute, and bass clarinet, is a quick-witted, intricately polyphonic composition in which the five voices mix and respond to each other in a way that seems to simulate a particularly coherent free improvisation. The title track is a composition in one movement for string quartet that falls roughly into two parts. In the first half Chang plays with contrasts of dynamics and timbre, while the second half is dominated by unison passages and a passing around of lines from instrument to instrument.
The highlight of the recording is the three-movement Alter Ego for solo cello, given a fine performance by Rhonda Rider. Each movement is named descriptively for a mood or a manner of acting. The first movement, titled “affectionate,” is played pizzicato and is notable for its short, sharp attacks and strummed chords. The second movement – “expressive, yet somewhat distant” – is quietly reserved, with a tinge of melancholy given an edge from passages played sul ponticello. The final movement, “methodical,” is just that. The idea of method is brought to life with a now explicit, now implicit, insistent pulse as well as in a set of asymmetrical, meticulously laid out and repeated motifs.
— Daniel Barbiero, 1.23.2024
Composer Yu-Hui Chang attempts to put her thought processes into sound on this beguiling portrait album of music written between 2012 and 2019. The Taiwanese native, who currently teaches at Brandeis, applies the inner conversations, conflicts, and back-and-forth that occurs inside the brain throughout the creative process. Those internal negotiations provide an ideal framework for the ways a composition can unfold, as the opening work In Thin Air, a three-movement gem for piano, violin, and percussion, moves between the hyper-kinetic section that scampers around in a collective upper register is followed by a section where things slow down considerably, with keening violin and percussion that toggles from irregular beats to faint smears produced by the precise rubbing of drum surfaces. In “Germinate,” performed by the Composers Conference Ensemble, a terse back-and-forth gestural exchange eventually stretches out, pointillistic interplay evolving into extended themes, fraught though they may be. In the title work, performed here by the Lydian String Quartet, Yu-Hui embraces frenetic uncertainty, meandering exploration, and brief crystallizations in a way that’s gripping rather than alienating. The composer never uses this template as a license to disregard structure, and I would have never picked up the connection if I hadn’t read about it, as these four works—rounded out by a visceral solo cello piece played by Rhonda Rider—are nothing if not rigorously constructed.
— Peter Margasak, 1.30.2024
The chamber works by Taiwanese composer Yu-Hui Chang (born 1970) on a New Focus Recordings CD use dialogue of a very different sort, in a musical idiom quite far removed from Chopin’s – showing how contemporary composers continue to have an interest in forms of contrast, within modern compositional styles. In Thin Air, for violin, piano and percussion, is mostly a percussion work – using the piano in its percussive guise rather than in Chopin’s lyrical and expressive one (which Chopin actually produced in his determination not to have the piano sound percussive). Still, there are emotive elements in the second and longest of the three movements of In Thin Air, contrasting expressiveness in the violin with more-pointed percussive material; while the finale produces a kind of sound cloud anchored by piano chords that are contrasted with the more-evanescent material from the other instruments. Germinate is a single movement for winds, strings, piano and percussion, in which the main contrasts are between very small snippets of tunes and fractured sounds at the work’s start and lengthier treatment of aural material as the piece progresses. Mind Like Water, another single-movement work, is for string quartet and, instead of distinctions among instruments, revolves largely around contrasts between sound of any type and silence: the instruments emerge briefly, subside quickly, return in differing guise, and so forth. The three-movement Alter Ego, being for solo cello, has no choice but to eschew instrumental disparity as a tool, so here the intended duality involves the performer and the instrument – as indicated in the movement titles, “Affectionate,” “Expressive, Yet Somewhat Distant,” and “Methodical.” The first of these is largely a series of fragments; the second is comparatively lyrical, but within a modern tonal landscape that remains mostly remote from warmth of feeling; and the third is strongly accented and underlined by ostinato passages. This is a (+++) CD that will appeal mostly to listeners who enjoy hearing some up-to-date ways in which contemporary composers continue to explore the notion of musical contrast within soundscapes that differ substantially from those that earlier creators explored.
— Mark Estren, 2.01.2024