A New World of Sound: PRISM Saxophone Quartet and Music From China

In this first-of-its-kind collaboration, a saxophone quartet joins with traditional Chinese instruments such as erhu (fiddle), yangqin (hammered dulcimer), and pipa (lute) to perform new works written for them by Grammy Award-winners Zhou Long and Chen Yi, among others.. The New York Times praised the PRISM Quartet for its “sensitivity, technical assurance, and mellow sweet sound,” while the Kansas City Star raved that “Music From China is music from heaven.” This performance was recorded in concert in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium on March 1, 2009.


A New World of Sound: World Premieres of Music for Saxophone Quartet and Traditional Chinese Instruments

PRISM Quartet
Timothy McAllister, soprano saxophone
Zachary Shemon, alto saxophone
Matthew Levy, tenor saxophone
Taimur Sullivan, baritone saxophone

Music From China
Wang Guowei, erhu, zhonghu, and banhu
Li Liqun, yangqin
Sun Li, pipa and daruan
Frank Cassara, percussion

Ming-Hsiu Yen
Chinatown for Yangqin, Pipa, Percussion, and Saxophone Quartet (2008)*

Tan Dun
Tableau for Erhu and Yangqin (1984)

Chen Yi
Septet for Erhu, Pipa, Percussion, and Saxophone Quartet (2008)*

Wang Guowei
Songs for Huqin and Saxophone Quartet (2009)*

Lei Liang
Yuan for Saxophone Quartet (2008)**

Zhou Long
Antiphony for Erhu, Daruan, Percussion, and Saxophone Quartet (2008)*

*world premiere
**co-world premiere

The Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series was established in memory of Dr. Eugene Meyer III and Mary Adelaide Bradley Meyer. It is generously supported by Elizabeth E.Meyer, Melissa and E. Bradley Meyer, Victor and Takako Hauge, the New York Community Trust—The Island Fund, the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series Endowment, and numerous private donors.


Chinatown for Yangqin, Pipa, Percussion, and Saxophone Quartet
Ming-Hsiu Yen (b. 1980)

Chinatown was written for the PRISM Saxophone Quartet and Music From China. The inspiration came from my many visits to Chinatowns in the United States. The first movement, “Strangers,” describes a westerner walking into a Chinatown and feeling lost, surrounded by all kinds of signs and sounds in foreign languages. “Footprints,” a nostalgic movement, is a portrait of an old Chinese woman who has been living within the same few blocks for a half-century. Sitting at sunset, she remembers how she has survived these years in the States. “Festival” is a celebration of the encounter of different cultures, where the motifs in the previous movements combine.
—Ming-Hsiu Yen

Ming-Hsiu Yen, a doctoral candidate in composition at the University of Michigan, holds dual degrees in composition and piano performance from the University of Michigan and the Eastman School of Music. She has received prizes from the government-organized Literary and Artistic Creation Competition (Taiwan), the Second Sun River Composition Competition (China), and League of Composers/ISCM-USA Competition. Her compositions have been performed by the Minnesota Orchestra, YINQI Symphony Orchestra, and OSSIA New Music in such venues as Carnegie-Weill Hall, Hill Auditorium, Kitara Hall (Japan), and National Recital Hall (Taiwan) as well as at the Pacific, Aspen, and Brevard music festivals and the Midwest Symposium.

Tableau for Erhu and Yangqin
Tan Dun (b. 1957)

“Tableau” is Tan Dun’s early exploration of contemporary music style for traditional Chinese instruments. The two sections represent the composer’s imaginative interpretation of ancient Chinese civilization. A mysterious aura defines the prehistoric period while a vivid description of human activity, highlighted by the furious energy of the hunt and dance, marks the second section. Tan Dun has received numerous honors, including the Grawemeyer Award, Grammy Award, and Academy Award, and was named Musical America’s Composer of the Year. His compositions have been performed by musicians in leading orchestras, opera houses, and music festivals as well as on radio, film, and television. The recent premiere of “The First Emperor” by the Metropolitan Opera in December 2006 featured Placido Domingo in a title role Tan created for him. In 2008 Tan composed Internet Symphony no. 1, “Eroica,” which was commissioned by Google/YouTube as the focal point for the world’s first collaborative online orchestra. He has composed many works for film, and his score for Ang Lee’s film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” received the Oscar for best original score.

Septet for Erhu, Pipa, Percussion, and Saxophone Quartet
Chen Yi (b. 1953)
Commissioned with support from the New York State Council on the Arts

The figures carved and painted more than a thousand years ago in murals that decorate the Mogao Caves in the ancient city of Dunhuang provided the inspiration for this septet. The name Dunhuang originally meant “prospering” or “flourishing.” Lying at the western end of the Gansu Corridor in China, Dunhuang was an important site on the Silk Road and was vital in the exchange of ideas and goods between East and West in ancient times. The complex of Mogao Caves in Dunhuang was developed over eleven dynasties from the fourth to fourteenth centuries. The heyday of the art of Dunhuang, with its murals, sculptures, paintings, and scrolls, occurred during the brilliant Tang Dynasty (618–907), and today these still works convey the high spirit and strength of the people and their society. The two Chinese traditional instrumental parts, supported by a set of percussion instruments, and the sound of a saxophone quartet translate the artworks’ visual impressions of rolling dance gestures and flapping scarves. This mysterious, vivid, colorful, and energetic music causes listeners to dream of the ancient glory and to yearn for the future.
—Chen Yi

Chen Yi received the Charles Ives Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2001. She holds the Cravens/Millsap/Missouri Distinguished Professorship at the Conservatory of the University of Missouri-Kansas City and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2005. After she received bachelor and master degrees in music composition from the Central Conservatory in Beijing and a doctor of musical arts degree from Columbia University, Chen Yi served as composer-in-residence for the Women’s Philharmonic, the vocal ensemble Chanticleer, and the Aptos Creative Arts Center and was a member of the composition faculty at the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University. In 2006, the China Ministry of Education appointed her to a three-year position as Changjiang Scholar Visiting Professor at the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music.

Songs for Huqin and Saxophone Quartet
Wang Guowei (b. 1961)

While the two-stringed huqin is bowed and the saxophone is blown, these instruments of East and West both embody timbral qualities that enable them to capture the spirit of the human voice. The first movement, a pastorale fromf Inner Mongolia, uses zhonghu with the saxophone quartet. This medium-sized fiddle, with its deep rich sound, engages the saxophones in linear melodic progression with interchanging keys and modes. The second movement is derived from “Crescent Moon at Dawn,” a folk song from northeastern China. It recalls a peaceful moment before dawn when the crescent moon hangs in the sky. In the ensuing fast section, the music of northern China is evoked through the strident sound of the banhu (a fiddle with a wooden soundboard) and the saxophones’ imitation of the oboe-like suona.
—Wang Guowei

Wang Guowei studied at the Shanghai Conservatory and was concertmaster and soloist with the Shanghai Traditional Orchestra. As artistic director of Music From China since 1996 and as an active concert soloist, he has appeared with the Shanghai Quartet, Amelia Piano Trio, Four Nations Ensemble, Virginia Symphony, Post Classical Symphony, Ornette Coleman, Butch Morris, and Yo-Yo Ma. His recent works include “Sheng” (for solo erhu), “Tang Wind” (for pipa, zheng, ruan, and Western orchestra), “Lullaby” (for erhu, clarinet, and piano), and “Where the River Flows” (for huqin and saxophone quartet).

Yuan for Saxophone Quartet
Lei Liang (b. 1972)
Commissioned by World-Wide Concurrent Premieres and Commissioning Fund, Inc., and made possible with a grant from the Fromm Music Foundation. It was completed during a composer residency at La Mortella in Ischia, Italy, courtesy of Fondazione William Walton.

In Chinese, the syllable “yuan” encompasses a multitude of meanings, including the three words that inspired this composition: injustice, grievance or lamentation, and pledge or prayer. I began working on this piece while contemplating a tragic event that happened in Hunan province during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. A woman’s husband was tortured and killed by a local village official. Without the means to demand justice, she sought revenge by wailing like a ghost in the woods behind the official’s home every night, until—after months of this—both she and the official went insane. This modern story of injustice echoes a recurring theme throughout Chinese history and literature and touches on a universal experience. The Chinese playwright Guan Hanqing, who was active in the fourteenth century, tells a similar tragic story in his classic play “Injustice to Dou-E.” I interpret the play to unfold in three stages—injustice, lamentation, and prayer—with each linked by the rich meanings of the single syllable “yuan.” The principal materials of the opening and ending sections are based on an excerpt from “Injustice to Dou-E,” and more specifically on the intonations and melodic contours of the sound of this Chinese text. The fast running notes granularize the tonal gestures of the text while they maintain its overall melodic contours. A repeated four-note pattern often found in the lamento of baroque music appears in this piece in various disguises—sometimes in a slowly descending ostinato in the background, sometimes hidden among interwoven multiphonics. This tetrachord also functions as a building block for the fast passages. A folk song of the Yao minority people in Hunan province is quoted in the middle of the composition. Near the end, the players use detached mouthpieces to create mournful sounds, as if the tormented souls could only find comfort in the company of each another.
—Lei Liang

Lei Liang, a Chinese-born American composer, studied composition with Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Robert Cogan, Chaya Czernowin, and Mario Davidovsky, and he received bachelor and master degrees from the New England Conservatory of Music and a doctorate from Harvard University. His commissions and performances include collaborations with the New York Philharmonic, the Heidelberger Philharmonisches Orchester, the Fromm Music Foundation, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, and the Manhattan Sinfonietta as well as with percussionist Steven Schick, pianist Stephen Drury, and flutist Paula Robison. A junior fellow at the Society of Fellows of Harvard University, Lei Liang also taught in China at Shaanxi Normal University College of Arts in Xian, Wuhan Conservatory of Music, and Middlebury College. Since 2007, he has served as assistant professor of music at the University of California, San Diego.

Antiphony for Erhu, Daruan, Percussion, and Saxophone Quartet
Zhou Long (b. 1953)
Commissioned with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and as part of the national series of works from Meet the Composers Commissioning Music/USA program, which is made possible by generous support from the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Francis Goelet Trust, the Helen F. Whitaker Fund, Target, the William and Flora Hewett Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts, and Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

Antiphony utilizes a multifaceted and layered language forged from Western and Eastern musical traditions. I have divided the instruments into two groups—saxophone quartet and Chinese traditional instruments (erhu, daruan, various Chinese percussion instruments)—to construct dialogues between the groups and each of the instruments.

Antiphony is in one movement with three sections. The first section starts in an adagio tempo, with single-note repeated patterns, along with glissandi and quarter-tones, on various Chinese percussion instruments. The saxophone quartet soon follows on doubling the Chinese instruments. The repeated pattern continues through most of the first section, while dense rhythm and tempo form the first climax as the music moves towards the second section. There, the music reverts to adagio. Three variations of Yangguan, an ancient Chinese tune, are developed here, first featuring erhu, then the soprano saxophone. This is soon followed by a cadenza-like section, with the music of the erhu taking on the quality of a mountain song, with a mystical aura and improvisation evoking birds, horses, and nature in the background provided by both groups. The last section starts with dense rhythms and tension that gradually intensify to reach a climax and finale.
—Zhou Long

Zhou Long was appointed composer-in-residence at the China National Broadcasting Symphony following his graduation from the Central Conservatory in 1983. He received a doctor of musical arts degree in 1993 from Columbia University. He is a member of the composition faculty at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory. Zhou Long has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, the Mary Cary Trust, and the Aaron Copeland Fund for Music, and he has been awarded commissions from the Koussevitzky and the Fromm Music foundations, Meet the Composer, Chamber Music America, and ensembles around the world. He received the Academy Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2003. Currently he is working on a flute concerto for the California Pacific and Singapore symphonies and has begun his first opera, co-commissioned by Opera Boston and the Beijing Music Festival, to be premiered in 2010.


PRISM Quartet

Chosen by Musical America as “Outstanding Young Artists” and two-time winners of the Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, the PRISM Quartet has performed on Carnegie Hall’s Making Music Series, in Alice Tully Hall with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and throughout Latin America under the auspices of the United States Information Agency. PRISM has premiered more than a hundred works, including pieces by Steven Mackey, William Albright, Chen Yi, Lee Hyla, Greg Osby, Jennifer Higdon, Martin Bresnick, Bernard Rands, and Zhou Long. The quartet also maintains three annual Young Composer Commissioning Awards in Philadelphia, New York, and at the Walden School in New Hampshire, where it conducts regular residencies. In 1997 PRISM initiated its own concert series in Philadelphia and New York City, presenting new compositions created for their ensemble by both classical and jazz composers from around the world. PRISM can be heard on the soundtrack of the feature film Two Plus One by Emmy nominee Eugene Martin in a score by Matthew Levy and is featured in the theme music to the weekly PBS news magazine NOW.

Music From China

Music From China celebrates twenty-five years of performing Chinese classical and folk music as well as new music by living composers for audiences throughout the United States and abroad. The ensemble has made concert appearances at the Library of Congress, Boston Early Music Festival, New York’s 92nd Street Y, Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Avison Ensemble and BBC in England, and numerous colleges and universities. A proponent of new music, Music From China has produced eighteen seasons of the Premiere Works concert series, featuring commissioned and existing works by composers such as Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Dorothy Chang, Vivian Fung, Bun-Ching Lam, and James Mobberley. It has received a Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming in recognition of its contribution to music that mixes East and West.

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