PRISM Quartet

Antiphony

In Antiphony, music and musicians from China and the United States coalesce in one of the most unexpected collaborations the global village has yet produced. Music from China – a New York-based, world-class ensemble of adventurous virtuosos on traditional Chinese instruments (think Erhu, Pipa, bendy strings and fighting percussion) – encounters its sonic antithesis: the pure, brassy, reedy, oh-so-Western saxophone. In the hands of the daring PRISM Quartet, though, the musical conversations are anything but stilted first dates. The agenda for this musical summit is set by six first-rank composers of Chinese origin, familiar with both their own millennium-old ensemble tradition and Adolphe Sax’s 19th-century invention, born in the industrialized West. Among them are three members of the celebrated “class of ’78” – Tan Dun, Chen Yi, and Zhou Long – composers who emerged from the wilderness of the Cultural Revolution to forge new a musical language, integrating Chinese and Western traditions in deeply personal ways. Antiphony also features new works by Wang Guowei, Lei Liang, and Ming-Hsiu Yen.

Guest Artists:
Music From China

Record Label / Catalogue Number:
innova/767

Release Date:
March 30, 2010

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Since the Renaissance, ‘antiphony’ normally refers to performers separated in space, tossing musical phrases back and forth to dramatic effect. Rarely does it connote a gap between distant continents and musical languages. In this new recording, music and musicians from China, New York and Philly coalesce in one of the most unexpected collaborations the global village has yet produced.

In Antiphony, Music from China – a New York-based, world-class ensemble of adventurous virtuosos on traditional Chinese instruments (think Erhu, Pipa, bendy strings and fighting percussion) – encounters its sonic antithesis: the pure, brassy, reedy, oh-so-Western saxophone. Not just one, but four of them. In the hands of the daring New-York-and-Philly-based PRISM Quartet, though, the musical conversations are anything but stilted first dates.

The agenda for this musical summit is set by six first-rank composers of Chinese origin, familiar with both their own millennium-old ensemble tradition and Adolphe Sax’s 19th-century invention, born in the industrialized West. Among them are three members of the celebrated “class of ’78” – Tan Dun, Chen Yi, and Zhou Long – composers who emerged from the wilderness of the Cultural Revolution to forge new a musical language, integrating Chinese and Western traditions in deeply personal ways.

Combining ancient and modern themes, Academy-Award winner Tan Dun’s work takes a duet for bowed and struck string instruments (Erhu and Yanqin) in a totally new direction. Chen Yi’s Septet reflects the dancing, flowing exuberance of the ancient murals in the Mogao Caves. Zhou Long’s dense and intricate piece features percussion as the driving force carrying the ensembles along to compelling climaxes. Wang Guowei is known as a star performer on the bowed fiddles; his work unites the string and sax timbres through their shared ability to mimic vocal nuances and rhetoric. Lei Liang’s piece is inspired by the true story of a woman who wailed like a ghost each night in order to raise awareness of injustice during the Cultural Revolution. Finally Ming-Hsiu Yen reminds us that Chinatown USA is where all these traditions meet and share a good time.

We come away from Antiphony amazed at the world’s vast history and ability to absorb such a range of flavors to the satisfaction of the heart, brain and belly.

Reviews

  • "Music from China is a musical organization, founded in 1984, whose mission is to promote both traditional and new music and whose reach has become international. Led by Susan Cheng, Wang Guowei (who has taught at Wesleyan University) and Zhou Long, the chamber ensemble has premiered over 100 works by Chinese composers, many of which were either commissioned or competition prizewinners. This stunning CD opens with Wang Guowei's 2-movement "Songs for Huqin and Saxophone Quartet" - the first part, "Pastorale", blends the open feeling of Aaron Copland's best works with the softness of a Mongolian folk melody (supplied by the composer on zhonghu, a Chinese fiddle. Part 2, "Crescent Moon at Dawn" is derived from a Chinese folk tune with Guowei on banhu (another style of Chinese fiddle). The plaintive melody moves among the saxophones and, at other times, they serve as a chorus supporting the melody lines. The closing section of the tune hops along like a Far Eastern hoedown. The title track, composed by Zhou Long, is a series of small dialogues, first between the Chinese instruments and percussion - many stretches of silence separate the melody lines. The saxophone quartet enters 1/3rd of the way through the piece, serving as a bridge between the first and second sections. Guowei's haunting erhu (a 2-stringed fiddle) enters into a conversation with the saxophones, the lovely soprano tones bending above the string tones. The rousing closing section features a pounding martial beat underneath the whirling and whinnying reeds and strings. All but one of the pieces are recent compositions. The exception, "Shuang Que", is a 1984 work by Tan Dun (who is, perhaps, best known, for his Oscar winning score for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") and does not feature the saxophones. Performed by Guowei on erhu and Li Liqun on yanggin (Chinese hammered dulcimer), the piece starts very quietly and, through a series of repeated melodic phrases, builds to a powerful finish. Most impressive is how the sound of the saxophones blend into these pieces. The music allows them space and they often carry the melody - in fact, Lei Liang's "Yuan" features only the saxophones and the piece has echoes of the work of American composers Roscoe Mitchell and the late Julius Hemphill. "Antiphony" (a musical term meaning " responsive singing or chanting") shows the power of cultural collaborations, not so much "East meets West" but really modern music that blends old instruments and melodies with current ideas of harmony."

    - Richard B. Kamins, Step Tempest

  • "This album is “newish” for me as I got it a few month ago, however I wanted to shift away from jazz for this post, and I was recently able to give this album the careful listen it deserves. In case you’re unfamiliar, PRISM is arguably the premiere classical saxophone quartet in North America. The ensemble has not only championed new music for saxophone quartet (largely outside of France), but it has done much to promote the saxophone within the classical community. Antiphony (2010), the latest release, features PRISM in collaboration with Music From China, a quartet focusing on both traditional and contemporary Chinese music. This (at times) double quartet features mostly new music blending Eastern and Western styles. From the liner notes: “Representing profound contrasts of timbre and culture, this ‘odd couple’ of traditional Chinese instruments and saxophones bridges remarkable distances of space and time. The instruments of Music From China…have been played for a millennium or more. The saxophone, in contrast, bears a French patent dating from the Industrial Revolution.” -Alyssa Timlin, p. 5 (While I don’t/won’t make a habit of quoting liner notes, it’s appropriate in this instance.) Overall, the two ensembles gel nicely within each composition. There are only a few instances, for me, in which I’m caught off guard a bit. All but two of the compositions feature a mixed ensemble. (Lang’s Yuan features saxophone quartet only, and Dun’s Shuang Que for Erhu and Yangqin features only members of Music From China.) The multi-movement works which bookend the album – Songs for Huqin and Saxophone Quartet and Chinatown, respectively – are the most accessible, helping to ease the listener (especially the layperson) into and out of the more abstract selections. Songs is one of this album’s many highlights, as its ethereal, almost filmic first movement, “Pastorale,” serves as a wonderful introduction to the album’s materials and overall concept. PRISM and MFC are introduced separately, but quickly combine into a single lyrical soundscape. Yuan, however, is arguably the collection’s most abstract composition. (I attended one of the first public performances of this work by PRISM and experiencing the work in context with the rest of the pieces, it made much more sense to me.) Many extended techniques are featured throughout – this should be of particular interest for saxophonists – such as multiphonics, slap-tonguing, and playing the mouthpiece alone. Without going into great detail about each composition individually (that’s not the purpose of these entries, but rather a “quick review), suffice it to say that there’s much variety in this album, featuring many different avenues of the general “East meets West” motif. What I like most about Antiphony is that the music is organic and genuine, as opposed to the forced “third stream-esque” nonsense that is often the result combining disparate styles (a serious pet peeve of mine). In fact, the successful blending of both instrumentation and styles make one wonder if the album’s title is a misnomer. This would make a great investment for any serious classical saxophonist, or anyone interested in new/contemporary music."

    - Michael Teager, MTHeaded Blog

  • "During the past two years the Prism Quartet has issued five CDs. If the ensemble were a string quartet, you might call that a busy recording schedule, but not unnatural; there’s so much string-quartet literature to cover that they’d have to keep up a pretty pace if they hope to make much of a dent in it. But Prism is not a string quartet. It’s a saxophone quartet, and now you may be thinking—admit it—that perhaps you’re not quite up to listening to five CDs of saxophone-quartet music. Maybe not even one. And then you hear a track—almost any track—from Antiphony, one of the two CDs the ensemble has just issued in celebration of its 25th anniversary, and you are instantly persuaded to re-examine your assumptions. The group was formed in 1984 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where its members played their first concert not in a concert hall but rather in a restaurant. They were paid for their artistry in omelets, and this triumph egged them on to greater things. In part, their path involved the standard saxophone quartet repertoire, which goes back to the mid-19th century. The Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax patented the family of instruments bearing his name in 1846, and by 1857 his colleague Jean-Baptiste Singelée, a friend since their conservatory years together in Brussels, produced what is taken to be the first-ever work for a quartet of the instruments. Nonetheless, the literature remained small until the 1920s, when a seminal quartet headed by the French saxophonist Marcel Mule started making a case for the medium; soon the group’s commissioning efforts gave rise to saxophone quartets by composers of note, including Gabriel Pierné and Florent Schmitt. I remember hearing the Prism Quartet play some of the classics in their early years, and they did so adeptly. The group’s tone was forthright but well blended (not blowzy like the earlier French saxophone quartets), their voices carefully tuned, their facility agile. But within only a few years HighFidelity Elegant and impressive offerings from the Prism Quartet, Music from China, Piffaro, and Canada’s Les Jacobins by James M. Keller Mighty Winds 44 may/june 2010 they were straining at the limitations of their repertoire, and they harnessed electronics to lead them down a new path. Before the ’80s were over, they were wowing audiences by playing some of their selections on MIDI instruments, which enabled them to link their music-making in real time to the possibilities offered by emerging computer technology—very heady stuff at the time. They also saw that commissioning new works was going to be an important part of their future. The triple foundation of technical excellence, esthetic experimentation, and active commissioning has supported the group ever since, even as it has evolved through considerable personnel changes. Here they are, 25 years later, with only one founding member (Matthew Levy) still in place, occupying a niche of distinction in the world of chamber music. During its quarter-century, the ensemble has commissioned and premiered more than 120 new works. One of the inevitable results of such an intense commissioning program is that the works generated vary considerably, not only in style but also in quality. The group’s penultimate release, titled Breath Beneath (on the New Dynamic label), comprises Prism-commissioned pieces by six composers, and although the tracks provide sporadic delights and quite a few moments of interest, I can’t say that a single one of these works struck me as destined for the ages. Any of them might provide an enjoyable ten minutes in a concert program, but a recording, by its very nature, invites repeated listening. I did not find that my appreciation of this disc grew through repeated listening. Very different was my reaction to the group’s CD Antiphony (on the Innova label), which followed Breath Beneath by only two months. Again we have six pieces. I liked them all, and five of them I can’t get out of my head. The CD is a collaboration between Prism and another, very different quartet: a foursome drawn from Music from China, a New York-based group that plays on Chinese instruments and performs both traditional and contemporary works. Here the musicians double on various instruments, together employing an instrumentarium of erhu, zhonghu, banhu, yangqin, pipa, and daruan— bowed, hammered, or plucked string instruments all—in addition to percussion. Like Prism, Music from China was founded in 1984, and it is also committed to eliciting new repertoire, even if its record of 36 commissions falls short of Prism’s 120. Five of the works on this CD were co-commissioned by the two ensembles, both of which have received Chamber Music America/ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming. A saxophone quartet and an ensemble of Chinese traditional instruments (mostly strings) might be taken to stand 180 degrees from one another esthetically and culturally; and the friction engendered by that contrast adds quite a lot of drama to this CD. Then again, both groups are accustomed to shattering listeners’ expectations, and as one travels through this recording the bridge separating the ensembles’ musical worlds shortens practically to the point of disappearance. In fact, the two ensembles play together in only four of the six pieces on the CD: an early composition by Tan Dun (Shuang Que) is a duet for just erhu and yangqin (and, though pleasant, it made no enduring impact on my Western ears), while a work titled Yuan, by Lei Liang, uses only the saxophone quartet. The latter is a 15-minute tour de force in which the saxophones sometimes scurry with such precision of articulation and intonation that you can scarcely believe that their sounds are not computer-generated. (This is not a style of saxophone-quartet playing that Marcel Mule would have recognized.) Lei Liang, a product of New England Conservatory and Harvard, explains that his piece was inspired by three diverse meanings of the Chinese syllable yuan: injustice, lamentation, and prayer. All three overlap in a Hunan folk tale involving retribution for a lapse in the legal system, and the intonations and vocal contours of that story’s text are reflected in the saxophones’ melodies: a dense example of profound cross-culturalism. The disc opens with two beautiful movements by Wang Guowei (artistic director of Music from China since 1996), scored for huqin and the saxophone quartet: a pensive Pastorale inspired by music of Inner Mongolia, and Crescent Moon at Dawn, a vivacious folk song from northeastern China that oddly intersects with Jazz Era connotations from the saxophones. This association is suggested even more by the closing set on the CD, a triptych of movements by Ming-Hsiu Yen titled Chinatown, different takes on the sensations derived, as she explains, from visits to “Chinatowns in the United States.” Like Wang Guowei in Crescent Moon at Dawn, Ming-Hsiu Yen (currently pursuing her doctorate at the University of Michigan) can lead us to the verge of the xenophobic exoticizing that was practically de rigueur through the early 20th century and even beyond. At a few moments the snazzy saxophones threaten to spill over into “Chinatown, My Chinatown” or “Chong He Come from Hong Kong” or some other Tin Pan Alley confection of their inherently racist ilk. But Ming-Hsiu Yen doesn’t actually cross that boundary, touching the reference boundary, touching the reference to racism only lightly and then backing off—if, indeed, the reference was even intended and was not merely supplied by the listener. At the heart of this recital stand two major pieces by the new-music power couple Zhou Long and Chen Yi. From the latter comes a remarkable Septet for Erhu, Percussion, and Saxophone Quartet, a work that (as Chen Yi explains) is to some degree depictive of ancient murals in the Mogao Caves and “the high spirit and strong power” of the long-gone world that gave rise to them. Although this is obviously an entirely “composed” piece (and one composed with terrific flair), it is everywhere infused with a folkish spirit, often a vivacious one. Still, the piece that takes pride of place in this line-up is Zhou Long’s Antiphony, a perfect title track for a CD that grapples with the sonic confrontation— truly the “antiphony”—of Chinese and Western music. Antiphony a big-boned piece, running beyond 17 minutes, and it pursues an unhurried investigation of this confrontation as played out between and among subsections of the ensemble, sometimes with very reduced textures, saving the entire group for moments of special impact. Not a moment in this composition is less than beautiful or less than interesting, and although it’s a serious piece, it’s far from pretentious; a section towards the end is even an amusing little symphony of animal sounds, from birds in the firmament to hogs in the barnyard. The composer’s sense of dramatic pacing is superb, and his orchestration is nothing short of astonishing. This last characteristic would not count for much if the performances were lacking, but these musicians go far beyond the expectations any listener might reasonably propose. I would like to think that Zhou Long’s piece will become a chamber music classic. Of course, its instrumentation may make that difficult, or at it least it would if we assume that concert chamber music will continue to be centered on time-honored Western assemblages like string quartets and piano trios. But that may well change as the geographic center of “European-style classical music” moves increasingly toward the continent of Asia, which is clearly what it is doing. The day may not be far off when instrumental combinations such as those heard on this remarkable CD don’t strike many listeners as terribly unusual. When that time comes, this CD in general and Zhou’s piece in particular may be held up as pioneering achievements of the highest order..."

    - CMA

  • ""Apart from the fact that both were founded 25 years ago, you wouldn’t think that the Prism Quartet (a saxophone quartet) and Music From China (a New York-based ensemble of traditional Chinese instruments) would have much common ground. Their collaborative CD, Antiphony, proves otherwise. The groups teamed up to commission works from five Chinese or Chinese-American composers, and the results are stunning. If mention of a saxophone quartet evokes memories of cheesy foursomes with careening vibratos, you haven’t been keeping up with Prism, whose purely modulated tones are so meticulously blended that they can seem computer generated, as in the tonal shadings in “Yuan for Saxophone Quartet,” by the emerging notable Lei Liang. Works by Wang Guowei and Tan Dun (an early piece of his from 1984) build mostly on Chinese folk style, while a fascinating and very smart suite by Ming-Hsiu Yen, titled “Chinatown,” alludes to the hypersensitive edge where racist overtones once informed Tin Pan Alley’s evocations of Chinese culture. Major works come from Chen Yi and Zhou Long, a married couple who are among the most consistently admirable composers working in the United States today. Zhou’s is the beautiful title track, and both its forces (erhu, daruan, percussion, and saxophone quartet) and its musical ideas exemplify the new reality of musical worlds that used to seem infinitely distant but today are merging into a unified future. It may stake a place as a masterpiece.""

    - James M. Keller, Pasatiempo April 16, 2010

  • ""In a Chinese folk tale dating back to the Cultural Revolution, a woman ululates like a restless specter in the woods near the home of the official responsible for her husband’s death. Both descend into madness. In his “Yuan for Saxophone Quartet,” Chinese-born American composer Lei Liang chillingly embodies the ghost with unearthly-sounding saxophones, seemingly blowing just behind a dark canopy of trees. Although traditional Chinese instruments are left out of the mix, the piece is a highlight of Antiphony, a collabo between Philly-based saxophone foursome PRISM and NYC-based Music From China. Liang (MFC’s music director) opts to highlight PRISM’s fleecy, pure harmonies. Elsewhere on this juxtaposition of East and West, traditions only occasionally synthesize, and more often converse. Call-and-response mimicry between saxophones and huqin (a family of bowed, often two-stringed Chinese violins) demonstrates the instruments’ compatibility on Wang Guowei’s opening “Songs for Huqin and Saxophone Quartet.” The far more sprightly second movement eclipses a sedate first with a flash of Wang’s fingers over the banhu, interjected with kinetic retorts from the woodwinds. Zhou Long’s sprawling “Antiphony for Erhu, Daruan, Percussion and Saxophone Quartet” resembles an opera score with no singer, as an erhu improvises lifelike birdcalls prior to a harried cadenza. Ming-Hsiu Yen’s “Chinatown” is perhaps the best exemplar of this project: a musical image of a curious Westerner, lost in the alleyways of the titular, alien neighborhood but never far from home.""

    - Doyle Armbrust, Time Out Chicago: Opera & Classical, March 31, 2010

  • "" The Prism Quartet’s new release, Antiphony (Innova, innova 767), is a release of music for saxophone and traditional Chinese instruments (described in the notes as an instrumental odd couple), written for the group by some of classical music’s leading Chinese composers. Half of the names are familiar – Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Tan Dun – but the music on this album is a surprise. If you thought a saxophone quartet would never be able to sound at home with the twangy rusticity of the Huqin, vocal qualities of the Ehru, or the brilliant sound of the Yangqin, think again. This is an album you’ll want to hear more than once — I did.""

    - The Gathering Note: Recording Round Up April 11, 2010

  • ""...The quartet’s latest CD, Antiphony, is a collaboration with New Music from China. It includes works by Wang Guowei, Zhou Long, Lei Lang, Chen Yi, Tan Dun, Ming-Hsiu Yen. Thus far I’m really enjoying the title work, by Zhou Long. In addition to the saxophones, it features Erhu, Daruan, and percussion in a piece that explores folk resonances and microtones in a finely sculpted modernist-tinged amalgam. Yen’s Chinatown lands on the other side of ‘town,’ stylistically speaking, but is equally fetching. Zesty minimal ostinati are juxtaposed against Sun Li’s vibrant pipa playing. It’s a postmodern audio travelogue that indeed captures its eponymous neighborhood’s energy and diversity. I’m still seeking out scores for the Tan Dun and Chen Yi works; more once I’ve had time to digest them.""

    - Christian Carey, Sequenza 21, Jan. 31, 2010