A Dazzling Chinese Singer’s Riveting Song Cycle
, July 16, 2017
Many composers from the West have been fascinated by Asian music and culture. Few, though, have immersed themselves in Asian styles and culture as deeply as Robert Zollitsch. Born in Munich in 1966, he attended a conservatory in Berlin, and then, with a scholarship to study Chinese music, went to Shanghai in 1993. That proved a turning point.
He became expert in Chinese, Mongolian and Tibetan music, eventually settled in Beijing, where he is known as Lao Luo, and is now regarded as a major figure in Chinese contemporary music. He also married Gong Linna, a virtuosic Chinese vocalist. One of the songs they created together, “Tan Te,” which she performed at a Chinese New Year concert in 2010, became a sensation online.
Some years ago, on a chance encounter, Mr. Zollitsch and Ms. Gong met three musical soul mates, the founding composers of Bang on a Can: Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe, who were on tour with their group in China. Their discussions resulted in the four composers’ collaborating on “Cloud River Mountain,” a 70-minute cycle of 11 songs, each written by one of the composers, with all four combining in an instrumental interlude. It was written for the virtuosic Ms. Gong and the Bang on a Can All-Stars ensemble, who performed this compellingly eclectic work on Friday night at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater of John Jay College as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.
The lyrics, mostly in Mandarin but also English, are a collection of folk tales, myths and poems about gods and the spiritual realm, mostly by the poet Qu Yuan. “Cloud River Mountain” combines Chinese folk, pop and contemporary music idioms with Bang on a Can’s trademark elements of minimalism and other postmodern and avant-garde styles. Though some songs course with intensity and break into frenetic passages, the music over all has a contemplative quality. Melodic lines are often long-lined and ruminative.
The texts are rich with poignant stories of spiritual wanderings and everyday life. Several songs pose philosophical questions expressed with charming specificity: “What manner of things are the darkness and light?”; “How many miles is the voyage of a soul?”; “Whose compass measured out the ninefold heavens?”
I was eager to hear how the composers would mingle music with these captivating words. Alas, when the performance started, the house went almost dark and there were no projected titles to follow. Even the few songs in English were hard to make out, given Ms. Gong’s Chinese accent and the often drawn-out setting of the words, with prolonged tones and melismas.
Although it was frustrating not to know what Ms. Gong was singing about in the moment, I was continually riveted by her performance. Using a hand-held microphone in the manner of pop artists, she sang with art-music power and sheen, drawing from various vocal styles. At times she had the slightly nasal, almost pinched, yet engrossing sound of traditional Chinese vocalists. When a passage called for it, she sang with shimmering tone and melting phrasing. She has drawn understandable comparisons to Björk. With her charismatic presence, Ms. Gong held the stage like a singing shaman, which was the idea.
In some of the songs, like the opening “Darkness and Light,” pulsing riffs, kinetic percussion, a wailing clarinet and the alluringly reedy sound of the sheng (a traditional Chinese instrument played here by Nie Yunlei) provided a kinetic backdrop to Ms. Gong’s wide-ranging melodies. I was most moved by the more reflective songs, like “The Lord in the Clouds,” with its rippling piano figurations and ritualistic rhythmic grooves, over which Ms. Gong sang aching melodic lines, and the dreamy “Girl With Mountain.”
Hearing this style-mingling song cycle live was rewarding. But a new CD recording of excerpts from the cycle (plus “Tan Te”), with Ms. Gong and the All-Stars (on the Cantaloupe Music label), with texts and translations provided, will allow full appreciation of how these four composers framed the lyrics with music.
As an encore, Ms. Gong and the players performed “Tan Te.” In this breathless song, the vocal line is nonstop, with dizzying bursts of curt sounds and syllables. It struck me as less like Chinese rap than a Chinese art/pop equivalent of Italian operatic patter. Ms. Gong dispatched it with impressive command.
Original Article Here