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.

Loops and Variations

lesley_flanigan_white2bFinally. I’m finally going to see Lesley Flanigan perform. I’m headed to Chicago next week to see her perform as part of the Loops and Variations series at Millennium Park on a bill that also includes champions of modern music eighth blackbird (did I ever tell you about the time I saw them play Philip Glass with Philip Glass?) and Wilco drummer (and Delta faucet virtuoso) Glenn Kotche.

It’s not really clear what the program will consist of, but I have to assume, where there’s eighth blackbird, there’s a world premiere. And that’s great. But for me, the real excitement lies in finally seeing Lesley Flanigan perform her feedback compositions live. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while: not a life long dream by any stretch, but certainly something I’ve been trying to arrange ever since I interviewed her a couple of years ago.

In case you weren’t with us then, here’s a link to the article and the interview. It’s still one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had with a musician. And, in case you need a refresher, here’s a video of a performance of my favorite track from her album Amplifications. Of course, if you’re in Chicago on the 28th, you should definitely come down Millennium Park at 6:30 and catch the FREE show. But Columbus folks will also have a chance to see Lesley in person come March 2014.

MusicNOW part 1

So, here we are, it’s June and festival season is in high gear. I’ve been to three and I’ve already got my sights set on Airwaves, trying to work out just how I can swing a week in Reykjavik come mid-October. One of my UK counterparts recently told me about a dream she’d had in which I had scored media passes to The Great Escape and was texting her updates as her jealously and disappointment mounted. This was pure fantasy, of course. (I only do that sort of thing to people who have treated me horribly in the past and I bear no such ill will towards her.) Moreover, and more importantly, come the weekend of The Great Escape, I was thousands of miles away at another, much smaller festival, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Now, I call MusicNOW a “small” festival. And in terms of seating capacity and the shear number of bands slated to perform, it is. But one look at the lineup curated this (and every) year by Bryce Dessner of The National, it’s a wonder that MusicNOW—this year including The National, Owen Pallett, Sharon Van Etten, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), and Megafaun among others—isn’t at the top of everyone’s list. My only regret being that I could only attend the opening night of the festival, but, in the immortal words of Frankie Valli: oh, what a night!

It looks straightforward enough on the surface. Three bands on the bill: Sounds of the South, Shara Worden, and yMusic. (I’m going to take them out of order, if it’s alright with you.) But it’s not so simple as that.

MusicNOW bills itself as a “festival of contemporary music” and is, in every sense, the embodiment of that ideal (opening night featured, almost exclusively, unrecorded music). It’s a festival about more than a string of bands taking the stage to play the hits. From the moment that yMusic took the stage, it was clear (as I’ve heard from so many people) that MusicNOW is a special festival. I first met yMusic (well, half of them, anyway) at String Theory Festival in Minneapolis in April. Now being a New York native, I had never seen them before, though I’d long heard tell of their impeccable performances. And it’s all true.

My first impression of yMusic was one of complete astonishment—like the shock of recovering the memory of something I never knew I’d forgotten. And with every subsequent performance (four in the last two months), I’ve come away thinking the same thing: that this is why I ever studied music in the first place. And MusicNOW was no different. From the opening moments of Judd Greenstein’s Clearing, Dawn, Dance (which you can download here) through the premiere of a new work by Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire) and their set with Shara Worden it is, as always, abundantly clear that yMusic are one of the brightest lights in whatever the hell we’ve decided to call the current state of music.

Now, a word about the Parry premiere: one of the main focal points of each MusicNOW festival is the commissioning of a new piece of music. Past contributors have included Tyondai Braxton (Battles) and Annie Clark (St. Vincent). This year, the honor fell to Richard Reed Parry (or, as he was introduced by Bryce Dessner, “my friend from a band that no one has ever heard of who recently won a Grammy”.) For the piece, half of yMusic, seated at the piano with stethoscopes bound tightly to them, played to the tempo of their respective heartbeats while their three counterparts played in what might be called “the traditional manner”. The resulting pseudo-aleatory—always out of step, never out of phase—produces a beautiful haunting effect and will likely serve as a useful metaphor about stylistic diversity in future posts. It’s musica humana in its truest form.

And while yMusic may have played, quite literally, to their hearts’ content, the evening’s headliner, Sounds of the South took their organic cues from another source entirely. The performance, commissioned by Duke Performances finds its origins in the field recordings of Alan Lomax, appropriately enough, from the collection entitled Sound of the South. Through a series of new arrangements, reinterpretations, and reimaginings, the members of Megafaun and Fight the Big Bull breathe new life into Lomax’s legendary field recordings at once removing them from their native context to a whole new setting (the concert hall) and redefining the sound of concert music. All while enlisting the help of some very special friends along the way.

If you had told me two months ago that I would spend an evening listening to Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Sharon Van Etten singing blues backed by full New Orleans style jazz band, I would have—well, you probably wouldn’t have told me that, so this is a useless metaphor, but the point is, I did. And it was incredible. With intricate (and occasionally cerebral) jam sessions the rule for the night and a constantly rotating cast of singers to keep things interesting, Sounds of the South also highlights the transcendent nature of the source material (and folk music in general) – more than just songs, they are a launching point for a flurry of ideas and ingenuity. And as midnight approached 90 minutes into the performance, the only conceivable downside was that it would eventually have to end.