The Rhyme of Taigu

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            Art is inescapably rooted in the experience of the artist—nationality, ethnicity, life events, gender, and much more—all contribute to the unique and personal perspectives that we value in the artistic vision.  That has always been more or less true, even when we consider the importance of “universals” in art.  For all their timeless and broad visions, Stravinsky is rooted in his Russian birth, Bartók as a Hungarian, Mozart as an Austrian, Bernstein as an American, and so on.  Today, our times—especially since the encounter of Western Europe with “orientalism” during the nineteenth century—have engendered closer and more vital connections with musical tradition from the entire globe. 

            Perhaps, no more striking of this phenomenon is the musical cross-fertilization wrought by our country’s engagement with China, its culture, and its musicians who have come to us.  After the end of the “Cultural Revolution” and the subsequent loosening of its onerous restrictions, there has been a small migration of talented, imaginative, and highly successful composers to the US.  Many have chosen to study, live, and center their musical careers in New York City, often studying at Columbia University under the tutelage of the highly regarded Chinese-American composer and teacher, Chou Wen-Chung.  Zhou Long—along with his compatriots, Chen-Yi (his wife), Tan Dun, Bright Sheng, and others—is exemplary of their success in creating new and stimulating musical styles.

            Zhou’s childhood was immersed in Western musical traditions; he studied piano as a child, and after years of forced privations (he drove a tractor) during the Cultural Revolution, he was finally able to attend the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and took traditional Western courses in conducting, music theory, and composition.  Nevertheless, his previous years in various parts of China intensively collecting traditional Chinese folk songs was formative part of his development, and remains an important element of his work.  In addition to his compositional studies, early on in this country he led an ensemble that authentically performed traditional Chinese music.

            His talent for infusing both Chinese and Western elements into a personal style with subtlety and grace, without the usual clichés, is a defining attribute of his music.  He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for his opera, Madame White Snake, has collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma in the Silk Road Project, and is currently Distinguished Professor of Composition at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music.

            The Rhyme of Taigu is a vigorous, one-movement work in three sections that takes it name from the Chinese word (taigu) for the wonderful Japanese tradition of drumming on large drums, Taiko, or “fat drum.” The first section, Andante, starts tentatively, leading to short woodwind gestures and occasional brilliant outbursts from the strings and brass.  All the while the large Chinese drums, Dagu, hammer away in a steady, threatening cadence.  Eventually, all join in sustaining the rhythmic drive, strings pulsating frantically.  A brief, shrill interjection from the solo clarinet announces the middle section, Lento and Accelerando.  Free, recitative-like motives lead to a kaleidoscopic welter of shimmering, cascading textures from the woodwinds—the percussion always punctuating it all.  It gradually gains speed, driven by the brass, amid a sonic frenzy, and the third section, Presto, is upon us.  Jazzy syncopations burst from all sections of the orchestra as the rhythmic ostinato drives to an orgy of cacophony at the climax. Western—or Eastern?  It’s manifestly not clear, or even important.  But, it surely is in a musical world of its own.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2017 William E. Runyan