The Singing Gobi Desert
The saxophone’s place in the music world is not at all what Adolphe Sax had in mind when he invented the instrument over 150 years ago. Ascendant in the world of jazz, relatively marginal in Sax’s intended field of classical music, and surprisingly adaptable to various forms of non-Western music, the saxophone family is a marvelous accident of musical history,’ WNYC’s John Schaefer writes in the liner notes for the PRISM Quartet’s new innova Recordings release, The Singing Gobi Desert. Partnering here with the ensemble Music from China, PRISM presents works by four Chinese-born American composers: Bright Sheng, Lei Liang, Fang Man, and Huang Ruo. The Singing Gobi Desert reveals that saxophones and Chinese instruments have a natural, if unexpected, affinity. From Bright Sheng’s title track to Fang Man’s ‘Dream of a Hundred Flowers’ this music is no simple fusion or mashup, but rather a deep integration of traditions, as reliant on the PRISM Quartet’s extended techniques – flutter-tonguing, multiphonics, breath blasts, and key clicks – as on the composers’ abilities to imagine new sound worlds. For nearly 30 years, PRISM has stood at the vanguard of new music ensembles, commissioning works across a broad spectrum of styles, and demonstrating the saxophone’s versatility. The Singing Gobi Desert embodies PRISM’s commitment to honoring the past and leading the way to the future through relentlessly creative collaboration.
Music From China, Featuring Compositions from Bright Sheng, Lei Liang, Fang Man, and Huang Ruo
Record Label / Catalogue Number:
March 25, 2014
“The saxophone’s place in the music world is not at all what Adolphe Sax had in mind when he invented the instrument over 150 years ago. Ascendant in the world of jazz, relatively marginal in Sax’s intended field of classical music, and surprisingly adaptable to various forms of non-Western music, the saxophone family is a marvelous accident of musical history,” WNYC’s John Schaefer writes in the liner notes for the PRISM Quartet’s new innova Recordings release, The Singing Gobi Desert.
Partnering here with the ensemble Music from China, PRISM presents works by four Chinese-born American composers: Bright Sheng, Lei Liang, Fang Man, and Huang Ruo. The Singing Gobi Desert reveals that saxophones and Chinese instruments have a natural, if unexpected, affinity. From Bright Sheng’s title track to Fang Man’s “Dream of a Hundred Flowers” this music is no simple fusion or mashup, but rather a deep integration of traditions, as reliant on the PRISM Quartet’s extended techniques — flutter-tonguing, multiphonics, breath blasts, and key clicks — as on the composers’ abilities to imagine new sound worlds.
For nearly 30 years, PRISM has stood at the vanguard of new music ensembles, commissioning works across a broad spectrum of styles, and demonstrating the saxophone’s versatility. The Singing Gobi Desert embodies PRISM’s commitment to honoring the past and leading the way to the future through relentlessly creative collaboration.
"In his extensive and highly readable liner notes for this disc, John Schaefer writes that this disc demonstrates that “saxophones and Chinese instruments have a natural, if unexpected, affinity.” That is an understatement, to say the least, as this remarkable program illustrates. Bright Sheng’s The Singing Gobi Desert (2012, erhu/zhonghu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, saxophone quartet, and percussion) begins with a noisy and extravagant gesture, reminiscent of Messiaen. After that gesture (which returns) a melody snakes through the ranges of the various instruments, in harmony and in unison. The bulk of the piece consists in explorations and expansions of the implications of the opening. The piece moves easily through Western and Chinese idioms without ever succumbing to what Steve Reich called “the old exoticism trip.” Bright Sheng’s piece explores the sonic space that both separates and unites the instruments in a way that is both brilliant and expressive. Messages of White (2011, saxophone quartet, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin and percussion), by Lei Liang, explores a very different landscape from Sheng’s Gobi Desert; a snowscape. This is a far more “abstract” landscape, with few overt references to the musical traditions that lie behind the instruments used. Glissandi on the erhu are combined with bowed percussion sounds to create a background in front of which the other instruments grow increasingly active, then less active towards the end of the piece, leaving the background as it was in the beginning. Fang Man’s Dream of a Hundred Flowers (2011, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, and saxophone quartet) finds each saxophone paired with one of the Chinese instruments in a study, really a celebration, of the melodic styles associated with Chinese opera, with some very jazzy harmonies popping up from time to time. Over the length of the pieces, the duos join with other duos and the two quartets explore different relationships, like characters in an opera. It is a shapely piece, expressive and lovely. The program ends with a searching performance of Huang Ruo’s The Three Tenses (2005, pipa and saxophone quartet). From a slow and spare beginning, the piece blossoms into hive of melodic activity, that reminds me at times of some of Luciano Berio’s melodic elaboration pieces (Voci, for example). It is very colorful and alive. The sound is outstanding on this valuable release. Highly recommended."
"The recently-released The Singing Gobi Desert showcases PRISM Quartet in collaboration with Music from China. Here they are also joined by guests conductor Nové Deypalan and sheng soloist Hu Jianbing. Don’t be fooled by the billing of Music from China as “Guest Ensemble” – this is a true musical partnership. It’s better to think of this recording as performed by a chamber ensemble comprised of saxophones and traditional Chinese instruments as opposed to a binary orchestra. The album is a follow-up to 2010′s Antiphony (my review here), PRISM’s first outing with Music from China. The Singing Gobi Desert is a natural successor to and evolution from Antiphony. The first album had somewhat of an “East Meets West” ethos, and was even billed as such to a certain degree – e.g., the album title itself. (Thankfully, it was tastefully executed and avoided Third Stream traps.) Here, however, this sophomore release displays a true “fusion” – in the best sense of the word – of styles and cultures. While Chinese and Western influences no doubt reign supreme here, the end result transcends both sources, resulting in a new stylistic language that speaks to all listeners of that catch-all category known as “contemporary music.” On the whole, Gobi features fewer but meatier works than its predecessor: four compositions ranging from 14 to 20 minutes each. They are, in album order: • Bright Sheng‘s The Singing Gobi Desert (2012) for erhu/zhonghu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, saxophone quartet, and percussion • Lei Liang‘s Messages of White (2011) for saxophone quartet, erhu, sheng, pipa, yangqin, and percussion • Fang Man‘s Dream of a Hundred Flowers (2011) for saxophone quartet and four Chinese instruments • Huang Ruo‘s The Three Tenses (2005) for pipa and saxophone quartet All four pieces have an orchestral quality that blend PRISM and Music from China into a unified whole that sounds much larger than the sum of its parts. One way in which this is achieved right off the bat is by the title track’s heavy use of the sheng, a mouth organ. That, coupled with myriad percussion as well as long, flowing melodies, gives the piece a thick, lush texture. Extended techniques abound here and throughout, but they are written and implemented tastefully and with purpose. Messages of White, on the other hand, employs a similar instrumentation but to strikingly different effect. Instead of lyrical passages, Liang’s emphasizes rhythm and harmony, focusing on stark, repetitive staccatos juxtaposed with subtle, often nebulous harmonies. Dream of a Hundred Flowers takes the listener back toward a vocal space, but one quite different than Gobi. Here, Fang Man guides the musicians to “imitate Peking opera speaking voices.” The drama unfolds in manners both cacophonous and whispered, with the coda taking on an almost electro-acoustic quality. (It’s no surprise that Man studied at IRCAM-Paris.) Rounding out the set is Ruo’s The Three Tenses. Even though it is for a pared-down ensemble, it again transcends “saxophone literature.” (Because of its minimal instrumentation, it perhaps helps that it’s last on the album and sonically buoyed by the first three pieces.) The pipa’s extensive presence and the multitude of extended techniques also lend an orchestral quality to this quintet composition – a tribute to the composer. Arguably the album’s greatest triumph is that the compositions take center stage, not simply the blending of instruments and styles. Antiphony was a valiant and substantive first step for such artistic exploration. The Singing Gobi Desert, however, opens up a wider and more comprehensive world of sonic and aesthetic possibilities, making this “novelty” instrumentation seem like anything but. I highly recommended this Album. "
"It's tempting to read greater significance into the fact that these two dramatically different Prism Quartet releases have been issued at the same time, a move that suggests the group's desire to call attention to the broad scope of the projects it tackles. Could any two releases be more different than one that couples the saxophone outfit with contemporary jazz musicians on the one hand and four Chinese classical composers on the other? That the results succeed as well as they do speaks to the talent and experience Timothy McAllister (soprano), Zachary Shemon (alto), Matthew Levy (tenor), and Taimur Sullivan (baritone) bring to the challenge. It's no exaggeration, by the way, to call the Prism Quartet one of the US's foremost chamber ensembles, given that the group has been active for nearly three decades, has commissioned over 150 pieces, and has issued more than sixty works on labels such as Albany, Innova, Koch, and Naxos. Music from China: The Singing Gob i Desert is naturally the more through-composed of the two releases. Recorded in early 2012 in Pennsylvania, the album features long-form works by Bright Sheng, Lei Liang, Fang Man, and Huang Ruo, all but one of whom were born in the 1970s. In arrangements that fully integrate the quartet's saxophones and traditional Chinese instruments, the album achieves a legitimate East-West fusion. The Prism Quartet is joined on the release by the Music From China ensemble (founded in 1984), which features the playing of Wang Guowei (erhu), Chen Yihan (pipa), Helen Yee (yangqin), Frank Cassara (percussion), and guest Hu Jianbing (sheng). On all four pieces, the merging of the saxophone with the sonorities of age-old Chinese instruments makes for an arresting and original sound; if on paper, the two might appear strange bedfellows, the results argue otherwise. It's important to emphasize that any presumed separation between East and West is further weakened by the fact that the composers involved grew up being influenced by both cultures and that all have strong Western ties: Sheng, for example, is a professor at the University of Michigan, while Liang and Man both hold positions at the University of California. Perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to them as Asian-American composers instead of Chinese. Sheng's “The Singing Gobi Desert” takes its inspiration from the sands of the titular desert where winds, during dry conditions, can cause sand particles to rub against each other and produce an eerie musical effect. A feast for the ears in terms of tone colour, Sheng's folk-styled exploration is marked by the contrasts between the saxes and pipa and erhu but also reveals similarities shared by the saxes and the sheng, a Chinese mouth organ. An episodic design characterizes the twenty-minute setting as it evolves through agitated passages—the saxes racing helter-skelter against a backdrop accented by percussive strikes, for instance—and others more dream-like, the spotlight shifting rapidly from one instrument to another and the musicians intertwining their lines within the ever-unfolding material. The generally frenetic level of activity subsides during the piece's closing section, however, which is rendered memorable by the erhu's humanlike cry and the stillness that sets in during the final moments. Like Sheng's composition, Liang's “Messages of White” evokes a landscape in musical form but in this case snow. Certainly the tonal character of the material, so unlike Sheng's, is icy, its surfaces hard. As Liang's piece develops, the activity level slowly increases and the arrangement grows complex; tinged with foreboding, an ominous theme emerges that's oddly suggestive of Bernard Herrmann in tone until the intensity dissipates, returning us to the icy harmonics and barren terrain of the opening moments. Initiated by an erhu solo somewhat reminiscent of “The Moon Mirrored in the Pool,” Fang Man's “Dream of a Hundred Flowers” pairs the saxes with the erhu, sheng, pipa, and yangqin—instruments traditionally used in Chinese opera—in such a way that the two groupings interact like Peking Opera voices. Intense and dramatic exchanges occur throughout, sometimes involving all instruments and sometimes two only, such as the one between the soprano sax and erhu that, like an especially heated argument, encompasses a range of emotions. At album's end, Huang Ruo scales back the instrumental resources for “The Three Tenses” in featuring pipa and saxophone quartet only. Though that limits the range of Chinese sonorities, it does afford Prism Quartet a greater role, which isn't unwelcome given that to some degree its presence is overshadowed in the other three pieces by the Chinese musicians. Ruo's piece, by comparison, feels more as if Yihan is the guest and the quartet the host, and it's also distinguished by a somewhat jazzier feel than the other three, at least until its closing third where a drone-like array of querulous sax figures appears alongside the pipa's insistent, bird-like pluck. In contrast to Music from China: The Singing Gob i Desert, People's Emergency Center presents the work of a single composer, namely the quartet's tenor saxist and guiding force Matthew Levy. Not too much should be made of that fact, however, as the four compositions on the Music from China recording achieve a homogeneity characteristic of one dedicated to the work of a single composer. If anything, Levy extends the compositional circle of the double-disc set by mixing a variety of genres and styles into the twelve pieces. That being said, the participation of esteemed jazz players, many of them multiple DownBeat Award winners and members of acclaimed ensembles—soprano saxophonist and one-time member of the Prism Quartet (1993–2001) Tim Ries, alto saxist Rudresh Mahanthappa, pianist Jason Moran, guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Jay Anderson, drummer Bill Stewart, percussionist François Zayas, and sitarist Richard Belcastro—ensures that the dominant character of the project will be jazz-flavoured. (It's important to note that not all eight guests appear on all nine of the pieces on which they're featured, with a given piece augmenting the quartet with anywhere from three to five of them.) It's telling that the opening sounds of the first piece, the three-part suite Under the Sun, aren't by the Prism Quartet but by Moran and Zayas, with the quartet here and elsewhere generous in the degree to which guests are granted the spotlight. In the opening part, the saxophonists assume a serpentine presence, with their Philip Glass-like patterns woven into the background fabric over which the solos appear. That Moran is the focal point of this setting is rendered even more clear when the second part, “Lonely Pairs,” gives itself over entirely to the pianist for a brooding rumination, before “Judgment” brings Belcastro into the fold for a six-minute exploration characterized first by introspection and then joyful exuberance. Been There, which takes its name from a documentary film Levy scored about the People's Emergency Center in his Philadelphia hometown, opens with a jazzy first movement that derives its Latin-funk kick from the splendid Anderson-Stewart rhythm section and features a scalding solo by Monder and a Shorteresque turn by Ries. Halfway through, “People's Emergency Center” takes an abrupt left turn and shifts into funk mode, with the baritone sax's honk acting as a pumping bass line. Movement two, “Gymnopedie,” obviously draws from Satie for inspiration in both title and mood, with Levy fashioning the piece as a heartfelt ballad scored for tenor sax, guitar, baritone sax, and drums. Though Serial Mood naturally invokes Schoenberg-ian serialism in its title, it less adheres to a strict twelvetone structure than an open-ended jazz feel due to the presence of Stewart, Anderson, and especially Monder, Mahanthappa, and Ries, who elevate the two-part setting with freewheeling solos. The second part especially, “Refraction,” embraces a jazz feel in its swinging groove and big band-styled arrangement, though mention must be made of the supple sax textures the quartet generates as a backing for Monder. It's hard not to think of Duke Ellington during the stirring ballad “Brown Eyes,” especially when Ries emotes so wistfully against a delicate backdrop provided by Stewart, Anderson, and Monder (Ries and Monder, as it turns out, performed the piece at Levy's wedding), and it's likewise difficult not to think of Sonny Rollins when the joyous calypso-styled swing of “Mr. Bobs and Lori Ann” arrives. To counterbalance the pieces featuring guests, People's Emergency Center includes three settings scored for the Prism Quartet alone, the first of which, “Lyric,” exudes somewhat of a mysterioso quality in its subtle handling of texture and exploration of harmonics and tuning. Composed in memory of Levy's mother, “Lyric” moves through a number of moods during its fifteen-minute journey, with the saxes at times suggesting the coiling movements undertaken by bassoon, oboe, clarinet, and sax within a neo-classical Stravinsky composition. Elsewhere, Levy's adventurous side gets a workout on what's essentially a tape collage, “Beneath,” the creation of which involved him gathering a library of sounds from each ensemble member and then assembling them into a chilly ambient-styled meditation. Levy was wise to position “Above” last, however, given that it's so much easier to warm up to an account of its lyrical and tender mood. Ultimately, if there's a criticism that might be levied against these high-quality recordings, it's that, as wonderful as they are, the Prism Quartet sometimes feels too much relegated to the background, as if they're the guests on the recording, though that is rectified on the Levy set to some degree by including pieces performed by the quartet alone. Such ego-less self-effacement is commendable, but a slight adjustment to the balance between the quartet and its collaborators wouldn't have been unwelcome."
""The adventurous Prism Saxophone Quartet presents, in this new Innova CD, four pieces by rather established contemporary Chinese composers (some of whom are U.S. residents)–Bright Sheng, Lei Liang, Fang Man and Huang Ruo– with the ensemble Music from China, who plays rigorously traditional instruments. One of the principle interests of their four works is the aspect of timbre, in the capacity to merge the sound of the saxophones with the sonority, sometimes surprising for Western listeners, of instruments like the pipa (similar to the mandolin) or of the sheng (that instead approaches an organ and accordion). Without esotericisms, however: this is not so much to evoke unusual worlds (although at times there is such an effect, and in each case it adds a flavor of pleasant escape), than to experiment with new, intriguing solutions. That is what happens also to the compositional point of view, whereby you switch tracks, or sections of tracks, in which the conversation unfolds in mellifluous, sinuous polyphony (or micropolyphony), and others with strong rhythmic impact, loads of folkloric and at times jazzy, even gestural/theatrical, accents. Always full of an unpredictability that testifies to the considerable imaginations of these four composers, masterfully backed up by the sensibility and mastery of the musicians involved.""