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ClassicsOnline Home » HUANG, Ruo: Drama Theater Nos. 2-4 / String Quartet No. 1, "The 3 Tenses" (Future In REverse, Huang Ruo)
The release by Naxos of Huang Ruo’s Chamber Concertos Nos. 1–4 (8.559322) was hailed as ‘a bold debut’ (Gramophone) which ‘shows a major compositional voice emerging’ (The Juilliard Journal Online). This disc, also conducted by the composer, presents three of his Drama Theaters for various combinations of Eastern and Western instruments—including 18 beer bottles—the elusive subtitle of each strikingly suggesting a musical/cultural/philosophical idea. Similarly, The Three Tenses explores a paradoxically integrated notion of time, where past, present and future
create ‘a seamless entity called timelessness’. Huang Ruo won the 2008 International Composition Prize of the Luxembourg Society for Contemporary Music and has been cited by the New Yorker as ‘one of the most intriguing of the new crop of Asian-American composers.’
Huang Ruo (b. 1976)
Drama Theater Nos. 2–4 • String Quartet No. 1: The Three Tenses
Since 1998 I have been working on the Drama Theater Cycle and it is now completed, containing five Dramas with a total running time of approximately 75 minutes:
Drama I: Sound of Hand (1998)
For Solo Percussion with two Hands
Drama II: Shifting Shades (2008)
For Piano, Cello, Percussion, and 18 Beer Bottles
Drama III: Written on the Wind (2007)
For Pipa, Voice, and Kinetic Painting
Drama IV: To the Four Corners (2005)
For Flute, Clarinet, Violin, Viola, Percussion
Drama V: Curve of the Shadow (2005)
Double Concerto for Sheng & Zheng, with 12 Musicians
The entire cycle is written for a combined ensemble of both Western and Chinese instruments. Each Drama, written for various combinations of instruments, has its
own theatrical elements. Musicians not only play their instruments, but they are also asked to act, speak, chant, sing, and play additional percussive instruments. The Drama Theater Cycle, as in my previous Chamber Concerto Cycle, can be either played in its entirety, individually, or separately in any combination or order.
This recording includes three of the five Dramas. They are Drama II: Shifting Shades, Drama III: Written on the Wind, and Drama IV: To the Four Corners.
Drama II: Shifting Shades
Shifting Shades is written for piano, cello, percussion, and eighteen beer bottles. It consists of three movements with each having its own way of shifting sounds, colors, shapes, structures, and dramas. The three musicians are also dramatists, creating drama while performing.
The first movement is constructed on several rhythmic patterns, with each given certain defined or undefined pitches. Throughout the movement the rhythmic patterns
and the sounds interact at various paces. A hidden dimension therefore is created through all the interactions and shifting.
The second movement is a quasi-passacaglia that starts with the piano introducing the simple tune in the high register. It ends with the sounds of blowing beer bottles created by all three musicians that transform the passacaglia into a mysterious sonic world.
The third movement brings all forces together to create a journey through shifting and rotations: from vertical to horizontal, from sustained to pointillistic, from percussive to instrumental sounds, from order to chaos, from improvisational to radical, etc. One who chases is being chased …
Drama III: Written on the Wind
“What is written on the wind will be kept and carried away by the wind…”
Written on the Wind, the third drama in the cycle, exists in two versions: one is a multi-media drama for pipa, voice, and kinetic painting, while the other is for pipa and voice alone. The latter is presented in this recording. When pipa soloist Min Xiao-Fen invited me to write a new virtuosic piece for her, I immediately thought of composing an original work featuring two of her talents: pipa playing and singing. When I mentioned this idea to Xiao-Fen, she immediately requested me to write the words in Chinese. Although it would make perfect sense to do so as we both speak the same language, I however considered writing the words in a language that nobody could understand, as it is written on the wind. This inspiration comes from my experiences attending operas and vocal recitals, where the performers sing in languages that I don’t understand. Instead of reading the subtitles or program notes every second, I focus on the vocal line with the various fascinating syllables that are well integrated into the music.
Before I started working on this piece, I considered how the experience would change if there was a moving visual element along with the music. With this idea in mind, I invited British-Dutch painter Norman Perryman to create a kinetic painting that responds to the title. We worked closely together on this project so the music and images develop simultaneously. Sometimes they match up with each other and sometimes they don’t. The goal is to provide an artistic freedom and randomness so that the music, kinetic-painting, and live performance can each exist freely, but also respond to one another. Another interesting aspect of our collaboration is that the three of us never told the others what was written on the wind. For me, it is my own secret, which is buried in the music. Written on the Wind runs around thirteen minutes, and should be played without any pause.
Drama IV: To the Four Corners
“To reach out into the infinite, one should move in all directions in the finite.” (Goethe)
Inspired by the ancient Chinese Nuo Drama, To The Four Corners is written for five staged musicians, although it can also be done without staging. The Chinese character Nuo originally meant a patterned step to drive away evil. The purpose of Nuo was to drive away devils, disease and
evil influences, and to petition for blessings from the gods. Later on Nuo evolved into a type of dance and drama. During the Nuo Ritual, the performers will wear masks, which are the soul of Nuo Drama. Ancient Chinese people believe that the masks contain spirits and have religious implications. Folklore also says that upon the completion of the performance of a certain ceremony, a mask becomes a living god. The moment a mask is put on, the performer will not speak or act casually since putting on a mask means the spirit is in the person.
Echoing the spirit of the Nuo Drama, To The Four Corners is comprised of two scenes. Each scene is a vague and obscure mini drama. As the music is written in an open dramatic form, other theatrical elements can possibly be included with all five musicians acting alone or with separate actors, dancers, or multi-media visuals.
Scene I is scored for percussion, clarinet, and viola, although all three instruments never play together as a trio. Scene II, with the addition of the flute and violin, is written for all five instruments. With the exception of the percussionist who should be placed in the center of the stage, the other four musicians should be positioned at the four corners of the stage or around the performance space, depending on the location’s acoustic needs. During this Drama, instrumentalists at the four corners should rotate their positions. Towards the end of Scene II, all five musicians should gather together and walk slowly around the four corners to create a funeral ritual. To The Four Corners runs around 21 minutes and the scenes should be performed in succession.
String Quartet No. 1: The Three Tenses
In addition to the aforementioned three dramas from the Drama Theater Cycle, this recording concludes with String Quartet No. 1: The Three Tenses.
“Have you ever had the experience of living in a moment where the past, the present, and the future all exist, and yet, they are so integrated that the three periods are no longer differentiable from one another; instead, they create a seamless entity called timelessness?”
The concept of time we have is calculated by seconds. However, time has neither a beginning nor an end. The past is the present, and the present is the future, and the future will be another past of another present…The Three Tenses has three sections and is formatted in a continuous structure, where there is no pause between sections. Although this piece has a beginning and end, it only means to capture a moment in the circle of time, in which all three tenses interchange and transform.
The Three Tenses was originally written for brass instruments and commissioned by the American Brass Quintet. It was adapted for string quartet in 2007 as a personal project but it actually turned into a different and refreshing work that stands independently from the original. This is the reason that it is named String Quartet No. 1.
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