Zhou Long — Legends — Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Lan Shui, BIS

Zhou Long (b. 1952)

Poems from Tang for string quartet and orchestra (1995) with Shanghai Quartet
The Rhyme of Taigu for orchestra (2003)
Da Qu for percussion and orchestra (1990-91)
with Jonathan Fox, percussion
The Future of Fire for chorus and orchestra (2001/2003) with
The Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Singapore


Singapore Symphony Orchestra, orchestra
Lan Shui, conductor

by Derek Lim
If you’ve read any of my concert reviews about the Singapore Symphony Orchestra with Shui Lan lately, kindly put those views aside temporarily. This is simply a stunning disc of new and interesting music, and if you’re able to put aside your prejudices against new music (if you have any) for an hour — the duration of this disc, I think you’ll find much to enjoy.

Zhou Long (right), born 8 Jul 1953 in Beijing, emigrated to the United States of America in 1985 and is now a citizen of the country, but his Chinese roots inform every molecule of the music on this record, as of course, does his Western training. His music is firmly in the tonal vein, but with a twist to it, which together with the employment of elements of Chinese music, makes it quite refreshing.

Poems from Tang is a concerted work for string quartet and orchestra. Set in four movements, the quartet never really plays together a lot of the time in the way that one might expect. In Zhou uses them to create various effects. When they are used together, they are often used to imitate the guqin, an ancient Chinese seven-stringed zither once played by the scholars. It’s difficult to describe the sound of the guqin, but once heard it isn’t easily forgotten. Take it from me that the Shanghai quartet does a fine job of imitating the instrument when it is called for.

The titles of the four movements are derived from the poems on which they are based — I. Hut Among the Bamboo by Wang Wei, II.Old Fisherman by Liu Zongyuan, III. Hearing the Monk Xun Play the Qin by Li Bai and IV. Song of Eight Unruly Tipsy Poets by Du Fu.

The music is far removed from that of the Tang Dynasty. Fragments of music from the Tang Dynasty survive to this date, many without title. The Tang era was one of the most glorious in all of Chinese history, with all kinds of instruments brought in from all corners of the world — this was the period of greatest cultural exchange. In fact, many of China’s instruments now are descendants of the instruments brought over from that time. For example, the yangqin was derived from the Persian dulcimer, while the pipa is derived from a Persian lute.

The music that survives from that period is interesting in that it sometimes sounds nothing like Chinese music! In fact it sounds so fresh in terms of harmony that it sounds to modern years “avant garde“.

Zhou Long’s work Poems from Tang immediately thrusts the listener into his unique sound world. The insect-like sonorities of Bartok’s night music are present, both in the orchestra and the quartet, but a lot of it is simply atmospheric music. I wouldn’t be surprised if Zhou Long took the titles of the poems as starting points for his music rather than as a strict “symphonic poem” in the Straussian tradition, where every episode is featured musically.

The Poetry behind the Music
‘Hut Among the Bamboo’ by Wang Wei (701-761)
Sitting among bamboos alone,
I play my lute and croon carefree.
In the deep woods where I’m unknown,
Only the bright moon peeps at me.
‘Old Fisherman’ by Liu Zongyuan (773-819)

The old fisherman moors at night by western cliffs;
At dawn, draws water from the clear
Xiang, lights a fire with southern bamboo.
Mists melt in the morning sun, and the man is gone;
Only the song reverberates in the green of the hills
and waters.
Look back; the horizon seems to fall into the stream;
And clouds float aimlessly over the cliffs.

‘Hearing the Monk Xun Play the Qin’ by Li Bai

I seem to hear the moaning of pine trees as
if through ten thousand valleys.
My wayfaring heart is cleansed by the flowing stream;
Its soft cadence, lingering still,
Fuses into distant chiming of a frost-cold bell …

‘Song of Eight Unruly Tipsy Poets’ by Du Fu

Unrestrained, undisciplined, humorous and eloquent;
Riding on the horse, faltering steps in enjoyment;
Drawing on the paper, spattering ink as dancing dragon;
Howling toward the sky, citing poems, feeling indignant …

The second movement “Old Fisherman” has the quartet (especially the viola) imitate the zhonghu. The cello is made to imitate the guqin again, with its slides and harmonics. The violin imitates also the pipa being strummed. Interestingly, trombone and quartet are interposed to imitate the sanxian — a stroke of genius. It is really quite a lovely movement, and Zhou Long has a knack of being able to synthesize the Western and Eastern elements of his heritage quite successfully. The effect is one of inner peace and, to borrow a catch-all adjective used so widely nowadays, “Zen”.

The third movement “Hearing the Monk Xun Play the Qin” is equally pleasing in its clever use of sonorities. The opening makes use of bells and artificial harmonics on the violin. Here, we first encounter turbulence in his music, which quickly dissipates into the opening sonorities again — monastery bells are suggested, again giving a very still, meditative feel. Monk Xun’s playing must have caught the listener in a disturbed state of mind, because every time he hears him play his thoughts wander to violence and war.

The last movement “Song of Eight Unruly Tipsy Poets” is a rowdy burlesque.

“The movement is in the form of a scherzo. I have written a rhythmic motive for the quartet. The movement begins ad libitum, but as the poets drink more and more, the tempo increases first to andantino and then to allegro, fast and wild at its climax, the point at which the poets are completely uninhibited and ‘unruly.’ The movement ends with eight identical fortissimo chords, one for each poet. The chords are separated by eight measures of rest, during which we hear the faltering sounds of the quartet, representing these by now very drunken poets, who try harder and harder to recite until eventually, despite themselves, they collapse into silence.”

–Zhou Long

The movement suggests to me a little more than that, with some moments approaching violence. But the movement, and the work, ends in quietness — the quiet that comes in a drunken stupor, obviously!

The Rhyme of Taigu is a purely orchestral work that uses the percussion instruments heavily. In three movements, it nevertheless is basically one extended piece. It lasts about 12 minutes. Besides the usual instruments it also uses a large Chinese drum “dagu”. A motif accompanies the opening of the first movement which recurs again as the movement gets progressively agitated. Various techniques used only in the drum music of the East Asian countries, such as hitting the sides of the drums with the stick, so as to produce a short, sharp sound — basically wood on wood. The clarinet is employed quite heavily here as well and motivic development doesn’t play a large part here, but one doesn’t need any really, the music itself is quite engaging in itself. Zhou Long said about this piece that he attempts to reconstruct what might have been in the drum ceremonies of the Tang Dynasty that later evolved into the Japanese ceremonies of today. I think this would be quite a show piece, if one has the instruments to perform it.

Da Qu (grand piece) is a work in three movements again, for percussion and orchestra. The title Da Qu is derived from the form of music from the Tang dynasty. To me this is an interesting work, but possibly the weakest of the lot in this disc.

San Xu (Prose-Prelude) is the first movement. The instruments are introduced sequentially according to how they produce sound; first are sounds made from metal, followed by sounds made from stone, silk and bamboo. The percussion used in Da Qu are both pitched and unpitched, and involves the use of traditional Chinese gongs and cymbals as well as the usual menagerie of Western instruments — vibraphone, xylophone et al. To me it sounds rather like a free-form fantasia, playing about more with instrumental colour than with development. As with a lot of modern-day Chinese music, elements of opera play a part in the work.

The second movement Zhong Xu (Middle-Prelude) starts off with a rather gentle interplay of xylophone, vibraphone and vertical Chinese xylophone. The movement again plays about with interpositions of colour. Halfway through a motif with more movement occurs, but quickly dissipates, though the feeling of disquiet doesn’t quite go away. A more sinister sounding motif occurs later, disturbing the peace before segueing into the last movement, Po.

Po (Broaching) features the wooden percussion instruments — the wood block, commonly used in Chinese opera starts the proceedings, followed by the large Chinese drum, accompanied by a chattering of tuned gongs. This movement is probably the strongest of the three and the most concentrated. The use of Chinese instruments adds a distinctly exotic feel to the proceedings. Overall I find little that is in this work that hasn’t been explored by the more adventurous Chinese musicians in the 1980s, with both Western and Chinese orchestra. This work apparently exists in a version for Chinese orchestra as well, written by the composer himself. Jonathan Fox plays excellently in this work.

The final work in this collection, The Future of Fire for chorus and orchestra, commissioned by the Tokyo Philharmonic for its New Millennium Celebration concert series, was premired in October 2001. Interestingly enough, it derives its melodies from folk music from the Shaanxi region. The hugely popular original work “San Shi Li Pu” (“Thirty Miles Village”) for Chinese instrumental ensemble, is earthy and is full of a happiness that only the simple folk will understand. This arrangement adds an element of something rather more aboriginal, “tribal”, one might say. The orchestral parts have a heavy emphasis on the percussion — Chinese drums and gongs are used here, and the harmonies add something fresh to the old piece. My friends and I have fond memories of the work — it was one of the more interesting pieces I used to play when I was in the Chinese orchestra in my secondary school. The Philharmonia Chamber Choir sings well and is up to the demands of the music; the Singapore Symphony Orchestra is colourful and brilliant throughout this recording, and Lan Shui (picture) is sensitive to the requirements of both traditional and western aspects of the music.

A most satisfactory way to round off this very interesting collection of music by Zhou Long. I can’t wait for more from the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and Lan Shui. Perhaps some music next by Chen Yi, Zhou Long’s wife?

Biography of Zhou Long : http://composers21.com/compdocs/zhoulong.htm
Art of the States: Poems of Tang: http://www.artofthestates.org/cgi-bin/piece.pl?pid=196

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365: 12.12.1998 Chia Han-Leon

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