The Ingenuity of Lei Liang's Delicate Musical Dramas

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One of the noble dreams that defined high modernism, among the musical avant-garde that flourished after the Second World War, was an "international style" that could transcend cultural signifiers in favor of pure forms. Noble but, in a sense, impossible, since the very consciousness that guides an artist to decide which received cultural values to reject is inevitably shaped by another set of received cultural values which he or she has simply taken for granted.

The remarkable Lei Liang, if his new disc is any indication, seems to take very little for granted. Emigrating to the US after a childhood in post–Cultural Revolution China, Lei Liang received his training from masters of high modernism, self-consciously marries features of the European avant-garde to his cultural heritage. Verge, for string orchestra, seems at first forbiddingly crystalline — here, a series of jagged profusions of percussive noise; there, cool, transparent prisms of sound — but gives in, ultimately, and slides comfortingly into a folkloric sense of melody.

But if Verge is exciting, Tremors of a Memory Chord, scored for piano and grand Chinese orchestra, is a revelation. The combination of high-modern textural effects and the slightly alien (to Western ears) sonorities of Chinese instruments is at times unearthly, like tape music from one of Stockhausen's especially extra-terrestrial moods, and at times positively uncanny, as if the Chinese musical tradition had been melted down and poured into surreal new shapes, while yet retaining familiar features of the original style.

The performances here are, without exception, stellar. But they'd have to be: Lei Liang's scores seem to demand one delicately constructed dramatic gesture after another. Stephen Drury's Callithumpian Consort scintillates in the brilliantly colored Aural Hypothesis for small ensemble, and Five Seasons stars Wu Man, rock star of the lute-like Chinese pipa, alongside the Shanghai Quartet. Passionately, but precisely, these interpreters make a powerful case for Lei Liang as a composer with the ears and the ingenuity to construct a boundless, and boundlessly thrilling, new music.

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