Sheng Silent Temple
Part of the advantage of being ‘the Chinese Bartók’, as the Shanghai-born composer Bright Sheng was dubbed some time ago, is that it gives musicians a clear frame of reference in approaching his music. Rather than creating his own musical vocabulary – like fellow Chinese emigré Tan Dun, for example – Sheng’s works are easily graspable by anyone with even a passing familiarity with mid-20th-century modernism.
In the hands of musicians like the Shanghai Quartet, who grasp both the Western and Chinese references, Sheng’s music reaches another level entirely. Right from the opening Four Movements for Piano Trio (1990), where the composer at the keyboard is flanked the quartet’s first violinist Weigang Li and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras, the music flows freely in structural as well as cultural proportion.
Like the late Lou Harrison, himself no stranger to mixing eastern and western influence, Sheng apparently subscribes to the notion that ‘all music is basically a song and a dance’. But rather than finding the intersections between divergent musical traditions (a specialty of Harrison’s), Sheng works out the differences from a distance.
Sheng’s discovery of folk culture came amidst the brutality of the Cultural Revolution, when the composer was shipped near the Tibetan border, and given the composer’s own comments on his pieces, that distance seems crucial for reasons personal as well as musical. The Third Quartet (1993) takes its point of departure from Sheng’s discovery of a highly rhythmic Tibetan folk dance coexisting with rhythmically free singing into a melancholic mixture. Similar contrasts in the Fourth Quartet (2000), however, take a darker turn, where similarly lyrical lines – this time inspired by Buddhist chant – are undercut by the rhythmical violence unleashed upon a forbidden temple and its inhabitants by the Red Guards.
Closer to its folk sources are Three Songs for Pipa and Violoncello, where the combination of Tzararas’s lyrical cello and Wu Man’s percussive pipa – bowed and plucked strings, respectively – bring Sheng’s ‘song and dances’ to musical life much more directly. A relatively lightweight piece, the Three Songs provides a much needed palette cleanser between the heavier courses of the Third and Fourth Quartets.