World Premier: Wu Fei’s Hello Gold Mountain at Ingram Hall

Soaked to the bone by the torrential rains that accompanied my walk to Vanderbilt’s Ingram Hall, I sank, rather damply, into my seat and began to scribble some notes on the topic of requiems in the now half disintegrated notebook that accompanied me to Chatterbird’s premier of Wu Fei‘s Hello Gold Mountain on Saturday, a piece the composer describes as “a requiem for the lost possibilities of the Jewish community in Shanghai”. Those notes I have since disregarded because too many words can, so easily, do a disservice to the truth and at this point in the experience they hang round my neck more like a millstone than a medal. And that is because Hello Gold Mountain is, at—and in—its heart, so simple.

I don’t mean simple in the sense that anyone off the street could play it. That is far from the truth. There’s an argument to be made that Hello Gold Mountain is as much a double concerto for oud and guzheng as it is a piece for chamber ensemble. Cadenza-like passages in multiple movements highlight the virtuoso touch and technique of oudist Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz and the composer herself at the guzheng. I mean “simple” in the sense that the truth behind the piece seems so basic, so fundamental, that it could be—perhaps should be—taken as a given.

For many years leading up to the Second World War, Shanghai was often one of the only ports open to Jewish refugees fleeing an increasingly troubled European continent. Those refugees, thousands of them, were all crammed into a small area in Shanghai which came to be known as the Shanghai Ghetto. The story is not familiar to many today, myself included, but it is the inspiration for Wu Fei’s most recent large-scale work. Of course, a requiem is, traditionally, a mass for the dead. The form may very from one tradition to another, sacred to secular, but the general purpose remains the same, whether dedicated to an individual, the victims of a tragedy, or humanity as a whole. But can one hold a requiem for that which never happened?

When thinking back on Hello Gold Mountain, it is hard for me not to draw comparisons to another “Jews in exile” piece of relatively recent memory, Osvaldo Golijov’s Grammy-nominated song cycle Ayre. But what I think is most interesting about that comparison is not what they have in common, but how they differ. Hello Gold Mountain does not dip heavily (or really at all) into the klezmer tradition the way Golijov did in Ayre (and just about everything else he was writing at the time). Perhaps those are just the quirks of the individuals who wrote them, maybe it’s the difference between a Jewish composer’s approach and a Chinese composer’s approach to the topic. But I’m inclined to believe there is more at play.

Hello Gold Mountain relies heavily on two instruments, the oud (a lute-like instrument with roots in the Middle East) and the guzheng (the Chinese take on the zither family, this one with 21 strings). (By now, I’m sure you’ve realized that the oud here represents the Jewish refugees and the guzheng their eventual destination in Shanghai.) Separately, in the hands of their respective players, the two featured instruments provide their share of memorable moments. Blumenkranz’s solo passages on the oud often approach the level of poetry, with just enough rhythmic flexibility to convey the fear and trepidation of a refugee bound for the unknown. One can feel the pull of gravity (or is that destiny?) in his runs. Wu’s playing is, as always, haunting, often with the weight of generations behind it. But where she truly sets herself apart is when she pushes the guzheng to its limits, attacking the strings in an aggressive, almost violent manner.

But where Hello Gold Mountain really hits its stride is not in the solo passages, remarkable though they may be. It is when the guzheng and the oud step back and melt into one another becoming, at times, nearly indiscernible from each other when I think the true depth of the piece is revealed. It is then, when the unique and beautiful characteristics of the individual instruments join together to create something new and exciting, that we get a glimpse of the elusive “possibilities” Wu refers to in her description of the piece. But those moments, like the Jewish refugee community of Shanghai, are fleeting. And it is their impermanence that we mourn here.

At one point, midway through the performance, it became evident that one of the strings on Blumencranz’s oud had been rendered somewhat out of tune. It was then that Wu appeared to hold a trill on her guzheng for quite some time while he worked to get back in tune and then, with a nod to the conductor, they were off again. It is perhaps a cheap metaphor, one performer supporting the piece while another regains his footing before continuing on together, but I’m going to run with it anyway.

With the war over and continuing political unrest in China, the Jewish community in Shanghai began to disperse. Some relocated to the newly formed Jewish state of Israel. Others continued on to San Francisco, known in Chinese as “Old Gold Mountain” to begin a new life in America. And even though it is now a much neglected story, the Shanghai Ghetto remains an important chapter in the Jewish wartime experience and warrants wider retelling. Hello Gold Mountain is an important step in the sharing of that story.

As the final movement of Hello Gold Mountain wound to a close, the house lights came up for a communal singing of a brief melody printed in the program. As the house lights dimmed once again and Chatterbird performed the final strains themselves, the stage lights changed to a golden hue. The color of “Old Gold Mountain”, to be sure, but also the color of sunrise and of the dawn of new possibilities.

In Defense of Pure Music

I’m sorry if you’ve read this already. I posted it on my other blog over the weekend, but I think it’s an important point to be made, so I wanted to post it in a more high-traffic area. You all know I love both pop and classical music. I frequently inflict both upon you. I hate to be told that one of my loves is more essential than or superior to the other, as a blogger from Rosebrook Classical suggested last week. Let’s be clear (though most of you already know this), I am not choosing a side here. I am choosing both sides and neither side.

I feel as if I owe you all an apology. I’ve spent the last two weeks transcribing an interview I conducted in London several months ago and haven’t had time to post any reviews. Once you’ve read it, though, I think you’ll forgive me. At 7,500 words, it is rather epic, which is precisely why I am not apologising for the recent lack of activity. No, my sin was committed over a year ago, when I was given an hour with Shara Worden—one of the brightest lights in American music—yet failed to pursue the most interesting topic broached in our time together: the idea of pure music.

Immediately following our meeting, I thought I had done quite well, especially for my first ever interview. Of course, that was a long time ago, before I had fallen in with ne’er-do-wells like Greg Sandow and Anne Midgette and become a card-carrying member of the alt-classical movement. Then again, at the time, I didn’t expect to read something like this:

We estimate (complete speculation based on no fact) that 75% of “pop” musicians (not necessarily the songwriters) don’t read music, and an even larger percentage (even including pop songwriters) have never studied music theory. We say this not to seem snobby, but to bring up the next point.

Pop music is written in less musically complex manners due to the inability of pop musicians/songwriters to create music in a studied way.

~ Rosebrook Classical blog

Likewise, I never expected to hear such absurdist speculation called “intelligent” by people I respect and who (I think) respect me. (Actually, “absurdist speculation” implies a degree of self-awareness in the author. In this case, it’s more like polemical condescension.)

[If you need to take a moment to let off some steam, punch a pillow, or swear a bit, I completely understand. Just try to keep in mind, they don’t intend to “seem snobby”. We will reconvene momentarily.]

Now, if you’ve been brave enough to read the offending post from the beginning, you may have picked up on the author’s “reason” for launching an unwarranted attack on feckless simpletons like Emilie Simon (Medieval Music, La Sorbonne; Electronic Music, IRCAM), Owen Pallett (Composition, University of Toronto), and Dave Longstreth (Yale). (Hint: It’s money.) And, I will grant that the initial question of the “discussion” is an interesting one. Why any form of music be granted non-profit status or given the benefit of government funding? Unfortunately, rather than exploring the issue, the author (I don’t know his name, but I think I heard someone say “David”, so I’ll be using masculine pronouns) resorts to repeated rehashings of his thesis: “I’m not saying classical music is better, but, seriously, we all know it is…”.

Of course, had he conducted more (or any) thorough research, he probably would have noticed the myriad examples of national governments that support classical AND pop music, including Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Canada, and the UK. However, it appears that, for the kids at Rosebrook Classical, talent is a zero sum game and only one genre can lay claim to it. How fortunate we are, then, that their presticogitateur-in-residence has had the wherewithal to explain the inherent ineptitude in my choice to write about under-appreciated pop bands rather than the 186 recordings of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor, K. 466 currently on the market.

It’s the creativity, don’t you see? Classical musicians have it. Pop musicians don’t, at least not in the high concentration classical musicians do. After all, as we learned earlier, “pop music is written in less musically complex manners due to the inability of pop musicians/songwriters to create music in a studied way”. He’s probably right, of course. I mean the Antarctic field recordings Emilie Simon sampled and modified for Marche de l’Empéreur were all naturally occurring, as were the plant and water sounds she used for Végétal (my pick for album of the decade). And that’s not creativity, that’s stealing! After all, “creativity must be learned and fostered as much as anything else”.

Wait. Creativity is learned? No one ever taught me that!

But didn’t Sir Ken Robinson once say “we are educating people out of their creative capacities….I believe this passionately, that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather we get educated out of it.”? (In case you’re wondering, yes, he did, in his legendary TED talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity”, which you can watch below or on the TED website). But seriously, who cares what a world-renowned expert on innovation and creativity thinks about creativity? After all, @RBClassical (the ultimate authority) knows quite well that assigning names and rules are the building blocks of creativity, not intuition. Surely you don’t require any further explanation, but indulge me for a moment.

I was speaking with a friend—a translator—this past week who was telling me about her first experiences in translating, a gloriously delicate art if ever there was one. She explained:

When I was doing my M. Phil, I joined a translation course…because I was already a translator…and I thought it would improve my skill. […] I found that [my colleagues] translated by dealing with words as things, …whereas I would come up with the apt word instinctively. […] The outcome of that course was that…I couldn’t translate for almost two years. It had made me…too self conscious to do anything.

Of course, I don’t mean to deride education. As many of you already know, I have an advanced music degree (which is apparently why I will never be accepted or appreciated by pop musicians) but there is a lot to be said for intuition—more, in fact, than can be said for rules and systematization. Intuition is the reason why, though we followed the same rules, J.S. Bach composed his magnificent Chaconne in D minor while all Bethel Schiefer and I could manage was Canticum graduum (read: absolute rubbish).

I am beginning to realise that if I actually try to address every one of my grievances, this post is going to run about 15,000 words, so I’ll leave things to Shara Worden, and a brief extract from the interview we did last year. You remember her from My Brightest Diamond. She’s one of those stultifying pop musicians who doesn’t think about anything, as evidenced by her comments about writing her most recent album, A Thousand Shark’s Teeth:

At the beginning of the writing process for Shark’s Teeth, I was listening to a lot of Boulez and so I was trying to write songs—more so trying not to be prescriptive of the songs, not dictating the form of the songs. Allowing the harmony to take it to a different place, or not having repeated choruses or kind of trying to find different ways of setting the text, so in a certain way the text was more important, the texts and the harmonies were the priorities. You can see that with songs like “Goodbye Forever” or “If I Were Queen”.

[…]

The thing I am interested in now is rhythm, and so I don’t know if there will be many strings appearing at all on the next record. I’ve been trying to define my harmonic language, so now I’m really excited about finding a rhythmical language.

If you haven’t yet, I suggest you read the interview. There’s a lot of that kind of thing in there. And afterward, if you’re still interested in what real pop musicians think about when writing music (rather than what defensive classical music bloggers think they’re not thinking about), read the Emilie Simon interview.

Division is the last thing I want from all of this. When I first pitched the idea for The Indie Handbook to Kristin, I did so with the expressed intent of addressing classical and pop music on equal terms, because there is no superior music. And the offending blogger gets one thing right: that “if the biggest reason for Arts subsidization is fostering creativity, then the advancement of the Arts themselves should be the most important creative endeavor to support as a society”. Unfortunately, the Arts are not advanced by defensive diatribes aimed at cementing one aesthetic preference firmly atop a pedestal. The higher you build your ivory tower, the further you’re carried from the Music of the Spheres.

Now, let the musicking begin.