Experience the unique musical voice of Chinese-born composer Ge Gan-ru, who expands the language of chamber music in provocative and challenging ways. His compositions emphasize novel playing techniques, unorthodox forms, Chinese tone qualities, and melodic ideas that range from the lyrical and charming to the searing and tragic. On this podcast, hear four of his works performed by the Shanghai Quartet with pianist Kathryn Woodard, the ModernWorks ensemble, and pianist Margaret Leng Tan on toy instruments in a work based on a twelfth-century Chinese poem. These performances were recorded in 2006 and 2007 at the Meyer Auditorium of the Freer Gallery of Art as part of the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series.
Weigang Li, violin
Yi-wen Jiang, violin
Honggang Li, viola
Nicholas Tzavaras, cello
Kathryn Woodard, piano
Margaret Leng Tan, voice and toy instruments
Madeleine Shapiro, director
Airi Yoshioka, violin
Mayuki Fukuhara, violin
Veronica Salas, viola
Madeleine Shapiro, cello
|Four Studies of Peking Opera for string quartet and piano (2003/2006)
Performed by the Shanghai Quartet with Kathryn Woodard, piano, at the Freer Gallery of Art, December 7, 2007
|Fu—String Quartet no. 1 (1983)
Performed by ModernWorks at the Freer Gallery of Art, November 29, 2007
|Angel Suite—String Quartet no. 4 (1998)
Performed by ModernWorks at the Freer Gallery of Art, November 29, 2007
|Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
Performed by Margaret Leng Tan in its world premiere at the Freer Gallery of Art, November 29, 2007
|Fall of Baghdad—String Quartet no. 5 (2007)
Performed by ModernWorks in its world premiere at the Freer Gallery of Art, November 29, 2007
ModernWorks recorded Ge Gan-ru’s quartets nos. 1, 4, and 5 for the Naxos label, which released a CD of the music in 2009 titled Ge Gan-Ru: Fall of Baghdad.
Four Studies of Peking Opera for string quartet and piano
Ge Gan-ru (born 1954)
Ge Gan-ru, often called China’s first avant-garde composer, studied violin and composition at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where he also taught composition. In 1983 he was awarded a fellowship to attend Columbia University, where he studied with Chou Wen-chung and Mario Davidovsky, but he was in such financial straits that he delivered Chinese takeout food to make ends meet. Now he lives in New Jersey, and his music has been recognized for its strong quality of expressionism and its fusion of Eastern and Western musical aesthetics. In addition to writing concert music, Ge Gan-ru has composed music for theater and dance, as well as for documentaries and feature films. The New York Philharmonic, American Composers Orchestra, BBC Orchestra, Tokyo Philharmonic, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Hong Kong Philharmonic, the Kronos Quartet, and many other ensembles have performed his works.
He writes, “While in Western music, composers are deeply concerned with the relationships between pitches, in Chinese music what is important is the particular pitch and its microtonal and timbral character. I try to combine contemporary Western compositional techniques with my Chinese feeling and experience along with Chinese musical characteristics inherited from thousands of years ago so as to set up a universal music world expressing natural and primitive beauty.”
During China’s Cultural Revolution, Ge Gan-ru first adopted avant-garde composing techniques, and he was rewarded for his efforts by having to farm potatoes. He continued his musical activities in secret, composing by candlelight in the middle of the night. In 1982 he wrote a controversial piece called Yi Feng for solo cello, using unorthodox techniques to produce timbres that sound like different Chinese percussive instruments.
Ge Gan-ru composed Four Studies of Peking Opera in 2003 with revisions made in 2006. The piece, commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Council, premiered at the Other Minds Festival and is dedicated to Charles Amirkhanian. Without the elaborate costumes, make-up, and acrobatics that are features of this performing art, Ge Gan-ru has taken the characteristic musical elements and reinterpreted them for Western instruments, namely, string quartet and piano. Using glissandi, microtonal inflections, snapping pizzicati, prepared piano with bolts and rubber, and other extended techniques, the performers produce a full spectrum of sounds that create the drama of a stage production.
The four movements explore various aspects typical of Peking Opera performance. The first movement, “Prologue,” calls for percussive sounds and rhythmic patterns that are typical of the accompanimental gestures for opera performers. In the second movement, the instruments trade off mimicking operatic aria singing, starting with the viola and culminating in a climactic passage on the piano. The third movement explores the narrative styles in Peking Opera that are equally important to aria singing in conveying drama. The fourth and final movement offers an interpretation of music for clowns, a typical feature of Peking Opera. This movement, in particular, calls for unique extended techniques on the piano. When asked of his approach to creating sounds for this piece, Ge Gan-ru replied, “I want to offer a new perspective on this traditional art form.”
—Susan Halpern and Kathryn Woodard
Notes below by Ge Gan-ru, with Kathryn Woodard, unless otherwise indicated.
Fu—String Quartet no. 1 (1983)
I started composing this piece in the spring of 1983, just a few months before I came to study in the United States. It was not completed until the end of that year, as I spent the first several months in this country dealing with cultural shock and the harsh financial situation I suddenly found myself in. My first priority was not music but food and a roof. “Fu” in Chinese refers to descriptive prose interspersed with verse. In this piece, I tried to express some of the most basic aesthetic feelings typical of Chinese classical poetry and calligraphy, such as subtlety, free form, and mastery strokes. In terms of its musical language, Fu is one of my landmark works, along with Yi Feng. They are the first of their kind in China, exploring individualism and the essence of Chinese music characteristics while avoiding sentimental melodies then prevalent in China.
Fu had its world premiere at Miller Theater of Columbia University in 1984. Since then, it has been performed by many string quartets around the world.
Angel Suite String Quartet no. 4 (1998)
Of all my works, this piece is the closest to the Western classical music tradition, and it offers a contrast to my other music. My aim was to write a piece that would prove I can do something in a traditional way, similar to what Prokofiev did in his Classical Symphony. The motives of the four movements are derived from my score “Lost Angel,” which choreographer Patricia Nanon commissioned for violin, viola, and cello. The title comes from my interest in Christianity. For many years, the religion was forbidden in China, but I have been interested in the subject, although I am not a Christian myself. In this work, I try to express my curiosity in, and observation of, various aspects of Christianity.
The titles of the movements refer to the subjects that I wanted to represent musically. For instance, in the first movement, the harmonic glissando represents a cherub; the second movement focuses on dance rhythm, which comes from the persistent bass notes on cello. The beginning motif on violin gradually develops into a full dance. In the prayer movement, I use contrasting consonant and dissonant chords to draw out feelings of purity and sincerity in praying. In the middle section, I also use the beginning few notes from Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” For the last movement I chose to write a march, as I always imagine an angel is young and vibrant.
The Miami String Quartet performed the premiere of Angel Suite at a Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society concert on April 5, 2001.
Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
by Lu You (1155 CE)
Translation by Margaret Leng Tan and Vivian Wan-he Ge ©2006
Hong su shou,
Huang teng jiu,
Man cheng chun se
Gong qiang liu.
Dong feng e,
Huan qing bo.
Yi huai chou xu
Ji nian li suo.
Cuo, Cuo, Cuo!
Her hand rosy, tender,
Pours the yellow t’eng wine,
Spring hues adorn the city,
Willows embrace garden walls.
The East Wind malevolent,
Conjugal bliss evanescent.
A heart sorrow-laden,
Cruel years steeped in loneliness asunder.
Oh, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
Chun ru jiu,
Ren kong shou,
Lei hen hong yi
Jiao xiao tou.
Tao hua luo,
Xian chi ge.
Shan meng sui zai,
Jin shu nan tuo.
Mo, Mo, Mo!
Spring as in days of yore,
So wan and wasted is she,
Rivulets of tears
Drench her pink kerchief.
Peach blossoms falling,
Stillness pervades pond and pavilion.
Vows immutable as mountains,
Yet how futile a lovelorn epistle.
Ah, Woe, Woe, Woe!
Translation by Margaret Leng Tan and Vivian Wan-he Ge ©2006
When I first met Ge Gan-ru in 1985 and heard his Yi Feng, I immediately asked him to write for me. The result was Gu Yue (Ancient Music), inspired by traditional Chinese instruments, and an unusual piano concerto, Wu (Rising to the Heights). Two decades later Ge has come up with yet another one-of-a-kind gem: Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!—a Peking opera-inspired melodrama for my voice, self-accompanied by a toy orchestra. Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! is a poem of sorrow and anguish by the illustrious Song-dynasty poet Lu You (1125–1210). He wrote it after divorcing Tang Wan, his wife and cousin, on the decree of his tyrannical mother. (The “malevolent East Wind” in the first stanza is but a caustic metaphor for the hateful matriarch!) The girl wasted away from a broken heart, while Lu You composed poems of loss and abiding love into his autumnal years.
Over the past decade I have explored the potential of the toy piano as a “real” instrument, which also led me to experiment with other toy instruments. From my toy arsenal Ge chose the toy piano, a toy table-harp (which he could treat as a toy qin, or zither), toy glockenspiel, and a percussion battery consisting of two claves, three cup gongs, one beaded gourd-rattle, a pitched plastic hammer, and a Japanese toy taiko drum. The hammer, plastic flute, and a paper accordion endowed with a two-note compass each cost one dollar in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Electronic frog and cricket boxes, along with a water warbler, completed the ensemble.
Given the limitations and idiosyncrasies of my untrained voice, Gan-ru allowed me free rein to experiment. In offering my personal take on the Chinese operatic tradition, I do not claim authenticity, but I have tried to capture something of the nasal timbre and melismatic flights of fancy so characteristic of the female style as well as the peculiar guttural texture of the declamatory male voice.
—Margaret Leng Tan, excerpted from notes for the CD Lost Style (NA134), courtesy of New Albion Records ©2006.
Fall of Baghdad—String Quartet no. 5 (2007)
For a long time, I have been fascinated by George Crumb’s Black Angel for String Quartet (1970), which was a response to the Vietnam War. Besides its political and historical importance, I personally think its originality and unique sonority are still unsurpassed today and probably will remain so for a long time. Now, with the current war in Iraq, it looks as if history is repeating itself. I, like many other people in the world, cannot escape the impact of it. I gradually formed the idea to compose a string quartet that could, on the one hand, pay tribute to Crumb and, on the other hand, record my musical thoughts provoked by the current war. In terms of musical structure, I purposely modeled this work after Black Angel, which is composed in thirteen short sections that make up three movements. In the first movement, I tried to produce the musical image of war’s horror. In contrast, the second movement is pleasant and upbeat. The last movement expresses the grievous feelings caused by the war. Regarding musical style or language, this piece allows me to employ all possible contemporary techniques for achieving musical effects, such as playing behind the bridge to produce the screaming sound; using glissandi and distorted sounds to create the “hellish” effects; playing col legno (striking the strings with the bow) both in front of and behind the bridge for the Pharaoh’s Drum; and using extreme high notes on low strings for “moaning” sounds.
This concert recording was made during the work’s world premiere.
Ge Gan-ru, one of the most original composers of his generation, was born in Shanghai in 1954 and studied violin when he was very young. When all schools were closed in the late 1960s due to the Cultural Revolution, he spent most of his time practicing at home on a muted violin with the windows closed and sealed. Sent to a labor camp at age seventeen to receive “re-education,” he unexpectedly became the pupil of one of China’s best violin teachers. After a year of planting rice in the fields, Ge was summoned to play violin in an ensemble that entertained fellow workers with revolutionary music. Despite his lack of formal training in music theory, Ge showed great interest in arranging music.
When the Shanghai Conservatory of Music reopened, Ge was admitted as a violin student at the age of twenty. He later transferred to the composition department, where his principal teacher was Chen Gang. After graduating in 1981, Ge was appointed assistant professor of composition there. This was in spite of his growing reputation as a composer of contemporary and avant-garde pieces that placed him directly at odds with the government’s prevailing ideology.
Ge’s work eventually came to the attention of Chou Wen-chung, then a vice-dean at Columbia University and a pioneer in creating new music for Western instruments but with a Chinese sensibility. Ge has lived in the New York area since obtaining a doctoral degree in composition from Columbia in 1983.
His major works include Tao (1987), commissioned by the Kronos Quartet; Wu (1986), commissioned by the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble and later performed by the New York Philharmonic and the Hong Kong Philharmonic orchestras with Margaret Leng Tan, piano; Ji (1991), commissioned by conductor Tsung Yeh and the Florida Symphony Orchestra; Chinese Rhapsody (1992), commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra and recorded by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in 2005, conducted by nine-time Grammy nominee José Serebrier; and Four Studies of Peking Opera for string quartet and piano (2003, rev. 2006), commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Council and performed at the Freer Gallery by the Shanghai Quartet and Kathryn Woodard in 2006.
The Shanghai Quartet, one of the world’s foremost chamber ensembles, has performed together for the past thirty-five years. The quartet’s elegant style, impressive technique, and emotional breadth allow the group to move seamlessly between masterpieces of Western music, traditional Chinese folk music, and cutting-edge contemporary works. Initially formed at the Shanghai Conservatory in 1983, the group’s members moved to the United States to complete their studies and have remained here. The quartet maintains a robust touring schedule at leading chamber-music series throughout North America, Europe, and Asia.
Highlights of the Shanghai Quartet’s 2019–20 season include performances at Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Freer Gallery of Art, and the Festival Pablo Casals in France, in addition to Beethoven cycles for the Brevard Music Center, the Beethoven Festival in Poland, and throughout China. Among other recent highlights are performances at Wigmore Hall, the Budapest Spring Festival, and Suntory Hall, as well as collaborations with the NCPA and Shanghai Symphony orchestras. Among innumerable collaborations with eminent artists, the Shanghai Quartet has performed with the Tokyo, Juilliard, and Guarneri quartets; cellists
Yo-Yo Ma and Lynn Harrell; pianists Menahem Pressler, Peter Serkin, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Yuja Wang; pipa virtuoso Wu Man; and the vocal ensemble Chanticleer. The group appears regularly at many of North America’s most prominent chamber-music festivals, including annual performances for Maverick Concerts, the Brevard Music Center, and Music Mountain.
The Shanghai Quartet has a long history of championing new music, with a special interest in works that juxtapose the traditions of Eastern and Western music. It has commissioned works from an encyclopedic list of the most important composers of our time, including William Bolcom, Sebastian Currier, David Del Tredici, Tan Dun, Vivian Fung, Lowell Lieberman, Zhou Long, Marc Neikrug, Krzysztof Penderecki, Bright Sheng, Chen Yi, and Du Yun. They have
a particularly close relationship with Krzysztof Penderecki; they premiered his third quartet—Leaves from an Unwritten Diary—at the composer’s 75th birthday concert and repeated it again at both his 80th and 85th birthday celebrations. Forthcoming and recent commissions include new works from Judith Weir, Tan Dun, and Wang Lei, in addition to a new work from Penderecki.
The Shanghai Quartet has an extensive discography of more than thirty recordings, ranging from the Schumann and Dvořak piano quintets with Rudolf Buchbinder to Zhou Long’s Poems from Tang for string quartet and orchestra with the Singapore Symphony. The Quartet has also recorded a collection of Chinese folk songs called Chinasong, featuring music arranged
by Yi-Wen Jiang reflecting on his childhood memories of the Cultural Revolution in China. It has recorded the complete Beethoven string quartets and is currently recording the complete Bartók quartets.
A diverse array of media projects run the gamut from a cameo appearance playing Bartók’s String Quartet no. 4 in Woody Allen’s film Melinda and Melinda to PBS television’s Great Performances series. Violinist Weigang Li appeared in the documentary From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, and the family of cellist Nicholas Tzavaras was the subject of the film Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep. The Shanghai Quartet is the subject of the recent full-length documentary film Behind the Strings.
The Shanghai Quartet performs on four exceptional instruments by Stradivari, Guarneri, Goffriller, and Guadagnini that were generously loaned through the Beare’s International Violin Society to honor the quartet’s thirty-fifth anniversary. Serving as Quartet-in-Residence at the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University since 2002, the Shanghai Quartet will also join the Tianjin (China) Juilliard School in fall 2020 as resident faculty members. The Quartet also is the Ensemble-in-Residence with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and visiting guest professors of the Shanghai Conservatory and the Central Conservatory in Beijing. They are proudly sponsored by ThomastikInfeld Strings and BAM Cases.
Kathryn Woodard, piano
Pianist Kathryn Woodard specializes in innovative programs that explore influences and connections across cultures. Recent engagements as soloist and chamber musician include performances at the Xinghai Conservatory in Guangzhou, China; the New Orleans Museum of Art; the Crow Collection of Asian Art in Dallas; and on the Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert Series in Chicago. An advocate for new music, Woodard has performed several premieres, including works by Paul Hogan, Paula Matthusen, Huang Ruo, Alan Sentman, and Aziza Sadikova. In her role as a music scholar, she has served as a consultant for Turkish music with the Silk Road Project, founded by Yo-Yo Ma, and she has traveled to Central Asia to perform American music and research music from the region. Woodard holds a Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, an undergraduate degree from the Hochschule für Musik in Munich, Germany, and is currently assistant professor of music and performance studies at Texas A&M University.
Margaret Leng Tan
Margaret Leng Tan has long been a major force within the American avant-garde as a highly visible, talented, and visionary pianist whose work sidesteps perceived artificial boundaries within the usual concert experience and creates a new level of communication with listeners. Embracing aspects of theater, choreography, performance, and even props (such as the teapot she “plays” in Alvin Lucier’s Nothing is Real), Tan has brought to the avant-garde a measure of good old-fashioned showmanship tempered with a disciplinary rigor inherited from her mentor, John Cage. This has won Tan acceptance far beyond the norm for performers of avant-garde music, as she is regularly featured at international festivals, records often for adventurous labels such as Mode and New Albion, and has appeared on American public television, at Lincoln Center, and at Carnegie Hall.
Born in Singapore, Tan was the first woman to earn a doctorate from Juilliard, but youthful restlessness and a desire to explore the crosscurrents between Asian music and that of the West led her to John Cage. This sparked an active collaboration between Cage and Tan that lasted from 1981 to his death in 1992, during which Tan gained recognition as one of the pre-eminent interpreters of Cage’s music, partly through her New Albion recordings, Daughters of the Lonesome Isle and The Perilous Night/Four Walls. She has subsequently recorded Works for Piano 4 and Works for Piano 7 for Mode Records’ Complete John Cage Edition. After Cage’s death, she was chosen as the featured performer in a tribute to his memory at the 45th Venice Biennale.
Tan takes a lively interest in the musical potential of unconventional and unlikely instruments, and in 1997 her groundbreaking CD, The Art of the Toy Piano on Point Music/Universal Classics, elevated the lowly toy piano to the status of a “real” instrument. Tan is certainly the world’s first professional toy piano virtuoso. Since then, her curiosity has extended to other toy instruments as well, substantiating her credo, “Poor tools require better skills” (Marcel Duchamp). Her recent toy instrumental album, She Herself Alone: The Art of the Toy Piano 2 (Mode), was called “one of this year’s finest treasures of new music” (Downtown Music Gallery).
Tan favors music that confronts and defies the established boundaries of the piano and her toy instruments. She has collaborated with like-minded composers to create works for her, such as Somei Satoh, Tan Dun, Michael Nyman, Julia Wolfe, Toby Twining, and Ge Gan-ru; she is also a favorite of composer George Crumb. Tan’s authority on matters of Cage has evolved from that of an expert interpreter to responsible scholar protecting the textual integrity of his work; Tan edited the fourth volume of Cage’s piano music for C. F. Peters and in 2006 gave the premiere of his newly discovered 1944 work Chess Pieces, which she also edited for publication. Tan’s Mode DVD of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes includes a video in which she examines the original, 1940s-era preparation materials for the work. Photogenic and comfortable with the camera, Tan is the subject of a feature documentary by filmmaker Evans Chan, Sorceress of the New Piano: The Artistry of Margaret Leng Tan, which has been screened at international film festivals including Vancouver, Melbourne, and AFI/Discovery Channel’s SILVERDOCS, where it was nominated for Best Music Documentary.
Adapted from notes by David N. Lewis (Uncle Dave Lewis) from All Music Guide (www.allmusic.com) at https://www.margaretlengtan.com/
Called “a dynamic new music ensemble” by the New York Times, ModernWorks was formed in 1997 by cellist and concert producer Madeleine Shapiro. Though the core is a string quartet, the ensemble also performs repertoire in numerous other combinations, such as string duos and trios, as well as works with accordion, percussion, voice, and multiple cellos. ModernWorks gives an annual New York concert series and has presented over thirty New York or United States premieres of works by both young, emerging composers and an international roster of established composers. Active in the commissioning of new works, ModernWorks is proud to have been the recipient of two commissioning grants from Meet the Composer USA to commission new works by American composers. The ensemble has appeared in such diverse New York venues as the Knitting Factory and the Museum of Arts & Design, has held a residency at New York University, and has been a regular at the Sonic Boom Festival. In addition to its NY series, ModernWorks tours both nationally and internationally.
Madeleine Shapiro, cello, performs extensively as a solo recitalist throughout the United States, Europe, and Latin America and has had numerous solo works written for her. Awards include two Encore Awards from the American Composers Forum, a Barrow Award, and as director of the New Music Consort, First Prize in Adventurous Programming/ASCAP-Chamber Music America award. She directs the Contemporary Music Ensemble at the Manner College of Music. Madeleine’s solo CD Electricity: Works for Cello and Electronics can be found on Albany Records.
Airi Yoshioka, violin, has concertized throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, and Canada as a soloist, recitalist, and chamber musician. She is the founding member of the Damocles Trio and the Modigliani Quartet and has performed and recorded with the members of the Emerson, Brentano, and Arditti Quartets. An enthusiastic performer of new music, she is a principal member of Continuum, ModernWorks, Son Sonora, Azure, Ensemble Pi, and RUCKUS ensembles. She has recorded for New World, Claves, Mode, Albany, and Pony Canyon records.
Mayuki Fukuhara, violin, was a student of Ivan Galamian, Jaime Laredo, and Felix Galimir at the Curtis Institute and Manner College of Music. He is presently the concertmaster of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and a member of the St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble. He performs regularly with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the NY Collegium, and is concertmaster of the Vermont Symphony. He has been a participant at the Marlboro and Caramoor festivals and performs at the Saito Kinen Festival in Japan.
Veronica Salas, viola, has premiered and recorded contemporary works for viola and harpsichord with the Queens Chamber Band as well as chamber music with the Elysium Ensemble and Bennington Chamber Music Conference. Salas is a member of the Pierrot Consort, Bronx Arts, and Canta Libre Chamber Ensembles. She performs with members of the Emerson and Orion Quartets as faculty of the CW Post Chamber Festival. Salas received her DMA from Juilliard and is on the faculty of New York University and Long Island University.
—ModernWorks bios adapted from Naxos Records (https://www.naxos.com/), accessed 12/9/2021
This podcast was coordinated by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts. Audio recording and editing by SuMo Productions. Web design by Gio Camozzi. Copyediting by Nancy Eickel and Ian Fry. Special thanks to the artists for granting permission to share their performance at the Freer Gallery. This performance was presented as part of the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series, which was established in memory of Dr. Eugene Meyer III and Mary Adelaide Bradley Meyer and generously supported by Elizabeth E. Meyer, E. Bradley Meyer, the New York Community Trust—The Island Fund, the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series Endowment, and numerous generous supporters.