Gagaku—a Japanese classical music, developed as court music of the Kyoto Imperial Palace, and its near-current form—was established around the 10th century during the Heian period (794–1185). The prototype of gagaku was introduced into Japan with Buddhism from China. In 589, Japanese official diplomatic delegations were sent to China (during the Sui dynasty) to learn Chinese culture, including Chinese court music.
Keeyong Chong—“Ocean of Flowers Variation” for sheng solo
“Ocean of Flowers Variation” is a variation from my sheng solo “Jing Xin Hua Hai” (靜心。花海) (“With Peaceful Heart, You Will See the Ocean of Flowers”). This special version is for 37-reed traditional soprano sheng. I composed it especially for and dedicated it to my longtime music partner sheng maestro, Mr. Wu Wei. As the composition’s title suggests, I always believe that when your heart is calm and peaceful, you’ll see the ocean of flowers in your peaceful inner world no matter where you are. In this composition, I’d like to express the individual lines that are the central motif of this work; these lines flow across the sound canvas in rhythms and frequencies that create depths and swells on the sound world of this composition.
Keeyong Chong (b. 1971), one of Malaysia’s leading contemporary music composers, possesses one of the most exciting voices in music today. His work has been hailed as “imaginative and poetic” by conductor-composer Peter Eötvös and as “inventive and artistically pure” by composer Jonathan Harvey. The uniqueness of his music stems not only from a rich palette of sounds but from his experimentation with traditions, infusing his own Chinese and multicultural Malaysian heritage with his work.
Chong’s distinctive style has won him many awards and commissions. His list of prizes at various competitions is remarkable, including the Prix Marcel Hastir by the Belgium Royal Academy of Sciences, Letters, and Fine Arts (1999, 2003), the 4th International Andrzej Panufnik Competition for Young Composers in Poland (2002), the Grand Prix at the 2nd Seoul International Competition for Composers (2003), the Max-Reger-Tage International Composition Competition in Germany (2004), the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra International Composers’ Award (2004), the Lutosł awski Award (2006), the BMW Award in the International Isang Yun Music Prize in Korea (2007), the Giga-Hertz Award 2009 (Germany), and many others.
He has been awarded the composer-in-residence with Akademie der Künste (Germany), Herrenhaus Edenkoben (Germany), Asian Cultural Council (USA), Center Henri Pousseur (Belgium), SWR EXPERIMENTALSTUDIO (Germany), Civitella Ranieri Foundation Fellowship 2014 (USA/Italy), National Gugak Center Fellowship 2015 (Korea), IGNM-VS Forum Wallis 2017 (Switzerland), Spring Workshop 2017 (Hong Kong), and Villa Ruffieux 2022 (Switzerland)
He is the first Malaysian composer to receive the prestigious commission grant award by the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation (USA). To recognize Chong’s contributions to Southeast Asia’s contemporary music scene, Huddersfield University (UK) awarded him a full scholarship for a special PhD by publication, 2014 to 2016, under the guidance of Professor Liza Lim.
He is the creative director of Studio C. He was the artistic director of the 2009 Kuala Lumpur Contemporary Music Festival and SMCC Contemporary Music Festival “SoundBridge” from 2013 to 2021. IHe was visiting professor of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in 2016–17 and visiting professor of the Danish Royal Academy of Music in 2018.
Guoping Jia—“The Wind Sounds in the Sky” for sheng, cello, percussion
An intimate chamber work by Chinese composer Guoping Jia, this work was inspired by the Chinese poem “September,” which is about wildflowers on the steppes: “目击众神死亡的草原上野花一片/远在远方的风比远方更远/我的琴声呜咽/泪 水全无” (Wildflowers are blooming on the centuries-old prairie, furthest wind blows, my tweedle sounds dolorous). This piece shows the sheng player’s harmonic and multipart skills. The modern technique is continuously used while the cello is playing, and the beautiful melody in the tenor range is prominent. The sounds of these two instruments, each with a long history, are perfectly mingled. The composer tried to combine the imagery of Haizi’s poem “Jiu Yue” (“September”), poetry and music performance, text structure, and musical structure. As the soul of the music, the sheng shows the endless melody, near or far, which presents a vast, solitary space-time background. The cello sounds like wind, containing a lot of intense emotion under the calm lines. The percussion is like a wide grassland, or home of wanderers, to build an atmosphere for sheng and cello. In the beginning of this piece, intense sounds come out, gradually reach the emotional climax after some narrative telling, and end with peaceful echoes, like the mood of poetry: the gods went away and humans face the lonely sky, missing the gods days. This piece was premiered by Wu Wei at the Far Eastern Music Festival in Hanover, Germany, in June 2005.
Guoping Jia (b. 1963) is a professor of composition at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. He is also the director of the Institute of Musicology in Central Conservatory of Music / Key Research Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences at Universities of China. He was born in 1963 in China’s Shanxi Province. From 1975 to 1977, he studied jinhu (a Chinese traditional string instrument) in Lishi, Shanxi. In 1977, he began to play jinhu as a dominant player in the Jin Opera Troupe of Lishi. From 1980 to 1984, he studied Jin Opera music at the Jin Opera Academy of Shanxi. From 1984 to 1987, he was director of the Music Department at Culture House in lvliang, Shanxi. In 1987, he began to study composition, first with Qu Xiaosong then with Professor Xu Zhenmin in the composition department of the Central Conservatory of Music, Beijing. In 1991, he graduated in advance and began to teach composition at the conservatory. In 1994, he received a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst), which enabled him to study composition with Rolf Hempel and Helmut Lachenmann at the State University of Music and Performing Arts in Stuttgart, Germany. After graduation from Stuttgart with Künstliches Aufbaustudium in July 1998, he returned to China and received his composition doctorate under Wu Zuqiang in 2006 at the Central Conservatory of Music, Beijing.
Guoping Jia’s compositions range from chamber music, orchestral music, ballet music, and more. His works have been performed by the Arditti Quartet, the Toronto New Music Ensemble, the E-Mex Ensemble, the Deutsche Symphony Orchestra, the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, the Mannheim National Opera Orchestra, the China National Symphony Orchestra, the Mexico OFUNAM Orchestra, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, and others. He is also deeply committed to promoting the development of Chinese contemporary music.
Huang Ruo—“Wind Blows . . . ” for sheng and piano
Wind Blows . . . (for sheng and piano) presents not only an imaginative landscape but also a state of mind. A continuous drone, oscillating in the low register on the piano, is played only by the pianist’s left hand. The drone provides a wind-like sonority as the background. In the foreground, a cursive sheng line moves up and down throughout the entire range of the instrument.
Composer Huang Ruo (b. 1976) has been lauded by the New York Times for having “a distinctive style.” His vibrant and inventive musical voice draws equal inspiration from Chinese ancient and folk music; Western avant-garde; experimental, noise, natural, and processed sound; rock; and jazz to create a seamless, organic integration using a compositional technique he calls “Dimensionalism.” Huang Ruo’s diverse compositional works range from orchestral, chamber music, opera, theater, and dance to cross-genre, sound installation, architectural installation, multimedia, experimental improvisation, folk rock, and film. His music has been premiered and performed by the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic, National Polish Radio Orchestra, Santa Fe Opera, Washington National Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Asko/Schoenberg, Ensemble Modern, and London Sinfonietta and by conductors such as Wolfgang Sawallisch, Marin Alsop, Andrew Davis, Michael Tilson Thomas, and James Conlon. His opera An American Soldier (with libretto by David Henry Hwang) received its world premiere at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis in June 2018 and was named one of the best classical music events in 2018 by the New York Times. His installation opera Paradise Interrupted was premiered at the Spoleto Festival USA in 2015 and was performed at the Lincoln Center Festival in 2016. Another opera, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, was premiered at the Santa Fe Opera in 2014. His new opera, M. Butterfly, will receive its world premiere with the Santa Fe Opera this summer. His other upcoming new operas will be premiered and presented by the Washington National Opera, Royal Danish Opera, Prototype Festival, and Hong Kong New Vision Festival, among others. He served as the first composer-in-residence for Het Concertgebouw Amsterdam and was the visiting composer for the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra in Brazil. Huang Ruo was born in Hainan Island, China, in 1976—the year the Chinese Cultural Revolution ended. His father, who is also a composer, began teaching him composition and piano when he was six years old. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, when China was opening its gate to the Western world, he received both traditional and Western education at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. As a result of the dramatic cultural and economic changes in China following the Cultural Revolution, his education expanded from Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky, and Lutosławski to include the Beatles, rock and roll, heavy metal, and jazz. Huang Ruo was able to absorb all these newly allowed Western influences equally. After winning the Henry Mancini Award at the 1995 International Film and Music Festival in Switzerland, he moved to the United States to further his education. He earned a bachelor of music degree from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music as well as master of music and doctor of musical arts degrees in composition from the Juilliard School. Huang Ruo is a composition faculty member at the Mannes School of Music in New York and is the artistic director and conductor of Ensemble FIRE. He was selected as a Young Leader Fellow by the National Committee on United States-China Relations in 2006. Huang Ruo’s music is published by Ricordi. For more information about the composer and his music, please visit www.huangruo.com.
Fang Man—“Song of the Flaming Phoenix” for sheng and percussion (world premiere)
When I was three, my mother bought me a toy piano. I played it all the time, so she decided to buy me a real one. In the early 1980s in China, a piano was very expensive, but she was a strong and determined person. She bought a piano and arranged to have it shipped to my hometown, JiuJiang, over 1,000 kilometers away from where it was in Guangzhou. As I grew up, she accompanied me to piano competitions, music school auditions, and performances. No matter where, she was always there to support me. During the 20 months of working on “Song of the Flaming Phoenix ,” my mother’s health declined. The compositional process was slow and difficult; I would write a few measures, then make phone calls with doctors and family in China. No matter how sick she was, she would always smile when I told her about my work. On the night I was writing the final bars of Song of the Flaming Phoenix, my father called to tell me that my mother had passed away. It felt as if she held her last breath, waiting for me to finish this piece, as if she knew that I would be too sad to continue. The idea of Song of the Flaming Phoenix came from Esa-Pekka Salonen’s initial proposal to pair a piece of mine with Scriabin’s Prometheus. Song of the Flaming Phoenix was composed using inspiration of the octatonic sets from Lutosławski’s third and fourth symphonies, using the color schemes of Prometheus. Reflecting another great loss in my life, the very last conversation I had with my mentor Steven Stucky before he passed was about the tetrachords in Lutosławski’s music in relation to the octatonic set. The Fenghuang, known as the Phoenix, was considered the king of all birds in Chinese mythology [as recounted in Fantastic creatures of the Mountains and Seas text by Jiankun Sun, translated by Howard Goldblatt]:
“Of the five elements, its green head represented wood, its white neck metal, its red backfire, its black chest water, and its yellow feet earth. Its feathers were patterned to represent written characters: on its head a 德 for “virtue”; on each of its wings a 义 for “righteousness”; on its back a 礼 for “courtesy”; on its chest a 仁 for “benevolence”; and on its belly a 信 for “trust.” When the four virtues of benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, and trust were displayed on its body—and with its every auspicious appearance—the world was at peace.”
In the latter half of Song of the Flaming Phoenix, I translated the birdsongs heard in my backyard in South Carolina into other mythical birds: Yu (Carolina Chickadee), Changfu (Carolina Wren), Manman (Yellow-Rumped Warbler), Luan (Tufted Titmouse), Lingyao (Northern Cardinal and Summer Tanager), Qiyu (Red-Breasted Nuthatch and Northen Monkingbird), and Min (Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher). I imagine that the Fenghuang led her feathered friends from heaven to save humanity from the ongoing disasters.
The solo instrument sheng is the world’s oldest free-reed mouth organ. It is a representation of 凤凰 (fenghuang, or phoenix ), 和 (he, or harmony), and 笙 (sheng)-生 (life). I also noticed that the flag of the city of San Francisco depicts a rising phoenix, symbolic of the city’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires.
The piece is dedicated to Wu Wei (sheng virtuoso), Esa-Pekka Salonen, and the San Francisco Symphony, in the memory of my mother (1940–2022).
Hailed as “inventive and breathtaking” by the New York Times, Fang Man (b. 1977) is a Chinese-born American composer who often borrows materials and ideas from traditional Chinese operas, instrumental music, and folk music, blending them with Western techniques and forms. Her music has been performed by the San Francisco Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra New Music Group, both under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen; Camerata Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Basel; Sinfonietta; American Composers Orchestra; Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra; National Orchestre de Lorraine; Minnesota Orchestra; and Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra, among many others. In 2019–20, she was featured as the composer-in-residence with the Mannheimer Philharmoniker in Germany, and she has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Koussevitzky Foundation Commission, among many other recognitions. Fang studied with Steven Stucky and Roberto Sierra at Cornell University, where she earned a doctor of musical arts, and she also studied at IRCAM-Paris, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. She is currently an associate professor of composition at the University of South Carolina School of Music.