Ge Gan-Ru Fall of Baghdad
Born in Shanghai in 1954 but a New Yorker since 1983, wherever Ge Gan-Ru goes the tag “China’s first avant-garde composer” is never far behind. But Ge’s String Quartet No 5, Fall of Baghdad (2007), speaks the lingua franca of post-war avant-garderie with only a slight Chinese accent; distinct from, for the sake of argument, Tan Dun who has remained more audibly welded to his Chinese roots, which is not meant as a criticism of either man – it’s more an observation.
Fall of Baghdad is Ge’s emotional response to the Iraq war and pays homage to George Crumb’s 1970 string quartet Black Angels, the godfather of American anti-war string quartets. Crumb’s sound world licensed Ge to reach inside the string quartet with freshly primed ears: like Crumb, Ge begins with yelps of anguish – produced by bowing with intense pressure behind the bridge – that hurt; like Crumb, Ge builds alienated string quartet techniques into a musical discourse that thrusts old-school string quartet charms towards more disturbing, modern-day realities.
The New York-based quartet ModernWorks don’t hold back on the physicality of attack required but this is a highly nuanced performance too: a deep melancholy pervades the genteel chorale that briefly ends an otherwise shell-shocked opening section and, in the second movement, microtones sound fully expressively formed, rather than like mere inflections. Elsewhere, Ge’s First Quartet (1983) finds him getting to grips with contemporary string quartet technique but the mature Angel Suite (1997) is a delicate study of ethereal quartet texturing, with an especially heartfelt “Prayer” movement.