Five Faces of Joy
Performed by the Curtis Symphony Orchestra with Lio
The most recent member of the Joy series, Five Faces of Joy offers five comic ways of smiling: a playful one, a jolly one, a smile from a lover, a smile from a dancing Godzilla, and a sweet smile before a vision of Ondine swims away.
This one-movement piece calls for a string orchestra and a very handsome celesta player. Although it can be performed with or without a conductor, in this premiere recording, Kouk-man Lio was the Maestro-in-command as well as (trust me) a very handsome celesta player.
Several compositions during this creative period ended up with five movements, five elements, five variations, or five instruments. Friends nagged me to reveal my secret fascination with five. I really didn’t want to disappoint my friends. So I made this one up: “Uhh, according to ancient Chinese thoughts, there are five elements in the making of the world. They are metal, wood, water, fire and earth. I was synchronized with my culture heritage.…”
Wait, but I began this piece thinking about smiles, and it still puts a big smile on my face every time hear it. The truth is, five faces just slipped out, putting themselves in this order. Not one more, not one less. All I did was be a good secretary: I listened and I wrote them down.
Joy of Sextet
Performed by the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble
Performed with or without conductor, Joy of Sextet features an elegantly crystalline and transparent sound world achieved through its orchestration for an intimate ensemble: flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, and percussion. The first of the Joy series, this dancelike movement has put a big smile on the faces of many audiences.
Let me share the story of how this came to be.
2006. I was composing a piece for the Aspen Music Festival when I made a trip to China for the premiere of my song cycle I Died for Beauty at the Beijing Modern Music Festival. When I arrived, I noticed that the festival would also feature a group of minority musicians from Inner Mongolia. These players and their music were about to reshape my artistic inspiration forever.
Inner Mongolians live in an arid grassland on the Chinese border. Life there is brutally hard. So it astonished me to hear how joyful and filled with delight their music is. There is no sadness, no expression of suffering. It’s just people getting together and offering each other the pleasure of music.
It isn’t because they are in denial or that they don’t know how to compose a sad song. They make a conscious choice to offer their best, those rare but joyful moments whenever music is present. It’s an expression of strength, and it’s moving.
It was as if I was witnessing the birth of music-making and experiencing the core of music communication in its purist form. Compared to this profound performance, the new piece I had planned for Aspen didn’t stand a chance. I tossed it and began a new piece with the joyful spirit that my Inner Mongolian friends planted in my mind. Every time I proceeded to write, a big smile appeared on my face.