The musical cultures of the East and West seem to have nothing in common, yet many attempts to bind the two together have bred many different innovative and unique works of art. Another such project – Jin Yin (golden tone) – has been given life by US-based musicians of Chinese descent and five living Chinese composers. Here one can find world premiere recordings of works by Yao Chen, Vivian Fung and Lu Pei, as well as new arrangements of pieces from Zhou Long and Chen Yi.
Founded in 2011, Civitas Ensemble is known to be among Chicago’s finest, continuously pursuing a community-outreach program. The moving spirit of the group’s newest CD, Jin Yin, is Chinese violinist Yuan-Qing Yu – one of the ensemble’s founders. The other Civitas Ensemble musicians collaborating on this recording are Kenneth Olsen, Chicago Symphony Orchestra assistant principal cello; J Lawrie Bloom, CSO bass clarinet; and Winston Choi, head of the piano department at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts. Guest artists here are CSO flutist Emma Gerstein, CSO principal percussion Cynthia Yeh and award-winning pipa master Yihan Chen.
This musical crossover between eastern and western musical cultures presents ways, unique to every composer, of bringing different parts of their identity to the music. The performers, due to their personal experiences dancing to both American and Chinese music, are expressive and precise in the delivery of the CD. Civitas Ensemble takes on the cultural and traditional implications of such a recording and provides an imaginative and exceptionally intense performance. The individuality of each composition’s cultural identity is felt throughout, unifying traditional elements in an inovative way. It all results in a rewardingly unfamiliar, yet enjoyable sound.
Each piece has far-reaching philosophical underpinnings, explained by the composers themselves. Sometimes these feel difficult to spot when listening and having the first aural impression of both western and Chinese musical elements combined together.
The first and longest composition is Zhou Long’s Five Elements for flute/piccolo, clarinet, percussion, pipa, violin, and violoncello. Different energies in the piece present five kinds of matter – metal, wood, water, fire and earth – as well as stages of transformation and seasonal change. Each element is presented in turn, using sonic gestures, percussive allusions, the pervasive sound of the pipa, etc. Instrumental solos for Cynthia Yeh on percussion, Emma Gerstein on flute and piccolo and Yihan Cheng on pipa are featured.
Night Thoughts by Chen Yi, originally composed for flute, cello and piano in 2004, was arranged specially for Civitas Ensemble last year, changing flute into violin. Violinist Yuan-Qing Yu, cellist Kenneth Olsen and pianist Winston Choi, each using their own voice, evoke a nocturnal, serene atmosphere, moving and interacting with each other in cluster groups. The composer draws inspiration from a Chinese poem by Li Bai and brought its shimmering loneliness and ethereal nostalgia into music. The piece is dedicated to Ms Heather Hitchen, President of Meet the Composer, for her support for composers.
Lu Pei’s vigorous Scenes through Window (2007) was born while listening to rap music in the car. Thus the composer found his link between Chinese and American cultures by combining rap repetition and Chinese folk music elements. Even though some of the musical elements seem to embody American popular music, they are brought from dance and play of ethnic minority groups of southern China. While traditional Chinese instruments in this composition are embodied by flute and clarinet, the piece is somewhat more acceptable to western listeners. Also the composition is full of vigorous and speedy dance elements, from which the most essential is a complicated, propulsive and ever-alternating rhythmic line. Instinctive and restless, Choi’s piano is occasionally given a certain mellowness by the more calm and lyrical clarinet of Lawrie Bloom. The most impressive part of the performance is its strong sense of direction and purpose.
The final two works are by a younger generation of Chinese composers, both currently in their forties – Vivian Fung and Yao Chen. Vivian Fung’s virtuosic piece for violin and piano, Bird Song (2012), is dedicated to violinist Kirsten Lee and pianist Conor Hanick, showcasing their virtuosity. The composer remembers how she attended a recital and was blown away by their playing. This technically challenging composition is distinguished by complex runs, rhythmic passages, a rhapsodic nature and its improvisational elements. Birdcalls and other imitative sounds are noted in the opening and closing passages. They are picturesquely evoked with fluttering figures played both by violin and piano and are followed by more challenging episodes. The piece blends and contrasts the two instruments. But both Yu and Choi bring their best, truly striking performances.
The last piece is Emanations of Tara (2014) by Yao Chen, who wrote the seven-movement work after returning to his native China, following a period of study and teaching in the USA. Yao’s musical language melts both Chinese and American cultures. The rhythm and harmony are based on western culture and the Chinese sonority is largely based on the prominence of the pipa. Therefore the composition is scored for pipa, violin, cello, clarinet and piano, with the addition of bass clarinet and two prayer bowls played by the members of the ensemble. Tara is a highly respected figure in Tibetan Buddhism, and the work, written exclusively for Civitas Ensemble, is suitably spiritual, expressing the internal search for transcendence, going from the eternal cycle of life towards spiritual awakening. The music is very rich and flexible, allowing the exploration of sonority and imagining numerous interpretations and varied means of sound production.
The celebration of togetherness of these two different cultural traditions sparks the question: which culture is the host and which one is the guest on this CD? One can feel a different distribution between the elements of Eastern and Western music in different pieces. If one composition uses western harmonies, it brings eastern rhythms or instrumentation. If another uses melodies based on eastern modes, it uses western classical instruments, such as violin or violoncello.
As someone raised in the western traditions of music, I was nervous about whether I would be able to listen to and understand this album. Fortunately the sound felt tasteful and the works can probably be understood by people, living surrounded by both cultures. Maybe in these times of globalization of culture, listeners are more used to elements of music that create allusions to foreign cultures. Therefore there is so much to cherish in Jin Yin and its melding of the musical dynamics due to the brilliance of the composers and instrumentalists involved.