This recording grabbed my attention in wonderful ways from the very beginning and didn’t cease to amaze me until it ended. Huang Ruo (1976- ) is one of the most striking new voices this reviewer has heard in some time. This Chinese born American composer draws on his ancestral culture, modern culture and synthesizes it with contemporary compositional techniques in new and interesting ways. He provokes the same sort of excitement in this reviewer that first contact with the music of Bright Sheng and Ge Gan Ru did when they first came into earshot some years ago.
(Perhaps it is due to the rising star nature of this artist but there seems to be relatively little reliable info on him. His website is apparently not yet complete and even his Theodore Presser page fails to even give dates for his scores. I’m hoping these glitches get resolved soon because I think this is a composer who deserves serious attention.)
The very first track, Four Fragments (2006?) in the version for cello solo (apparently there is a version for violin solo but it is not clear which came first) is a powerful and virtuosic piece loaded with various pizzicati, glissandi and other effects that perhaps only a score could really tell you with certainty. What is interesting is the really organic nature of these effects, that is to say that they serve the composition and aren’t simply “golly gee what a virtuoso” type fireworks. The amazing Canadian Korean cellist Soo Bae handles this work beautifully and seemingly with relative ease. This is the second longest (by about ten seconds) of the pieces on this disc and the music, the performance snagged me immediately. What a powerful piece!
After that I was prepared for perhaps a let down, something more “ordinary”. But, no, the next track, the title track, Red Rain (200?) for piano played by the wonderful Emanuele Arciuli is another distinctive statement which seems to mine the riches of the composer’s native culture and place it anew in a contemporary and relevant modern context. At 10:50 it is a substantial piano work. Like the cello piece it seems to use some unconventional idioms for the instrument and by that I mean it sounds nothing like Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy or even Boulez or Stockhausen. It seems infused with an eastern musical flavor no doubt gained from techniques native to non-western traditions.
In another assault to any expectations I might have had the three movements of Shifting Shades have the pianist using a whistle such as your gym coach likely used with the pea inside to create a tremolo. Here the pianist whistles (and plays some sort of flute, maybe a recorder or shakuhachi? at one point; he also apparently plays directly on the piano strings at times) whilst playing the rapid tremolos and the drones that seem to characterize Huang’s keyboard writing. Stephen Buck is the hard working pianist here.
Buck comes back again for the Tree Without Wind for piano (this time played a bit more conventionally). This is the longest piece on the disc at 13:57 and rewards the listener’s attention. It seems to probe mythological depths and was suggested by a Chan Buddhist narrative by Hui Neng. Tremolos, clusters, drones and melodic fragments take on a symphonic grandeur at times. There is a wide range of dynamics and tempi as the pianist recounts in sounds the meaning of movement and silence.
Three Pieces for Piano gives names to the short movements. Prelude: Diffluent, Postlude: Left… and, Interlude: Points and Lines all contain the same techniques as the other piano pieces here (though without any additional instruments this time). These sound like they might be earlier works and perhaps studies investigating different techniques though they seem fully fleshed out and complete in themselves. The three movements are varied and the last one is apparently the composer’s only dalliance with twelve tone techniques and is by far the most conventional sounding work here though Huang’s distinctive fingerprint is present. Once again we hear Stephen Buck navigating the score.
In the last track we get to hear the composer himself at the piano with Arash Amini (a member of the American Modern Ensemble) on cello in Wind Blows… Like the previous tracks and as indicated in the fine notes by Stephen Buck this piece utilizes specialized effects to produce a unique sonic image. The piano part is referred to as a “drone” and it is indeed static at least in relation to the part for cello. Unlike the preceding pieces there seems to be less concern about evoking images and more concern for just the sound itself which is described aptly as “meditative”. In fact it is powerfully lyrical, even “Brahmsian” if I can be forgiven for that comparison.
The brief biography in the overall fascinating liner notes describe the composer as having been influenced by a wide variety of musical styles ranging from traditional Chinese folk musics to Chinese Opera, various western classical traditions including modernists such as Lutoslawski and various “pop” traditions as well. He studied at the Shanghai Conservatory and he appears to have achieved a fascinating synthesis in what seems to be his mature style. He is a composer, conductor and vocalist. His music is unique and beautiful as a Taoist painting but grounded in traditions that embrace perhaps the entire world as filtered through his creative mind. Bravo Innova for bringing this music to light in this fine and interesting CD.
Definitely keep and eye and ear out for this guy. He has many things to say and interesting ways to say them.