Intercultural composition is no longer a novelty. It has become a familiar, even commonplace, phenomenon. With this recording, Shih-Hui Chen (b. 1962) breathes fresh air into this important genre. In more ways than one, her transcultural work has blurred the lines between individual cultures and represents our rich musical horizon today.
Her earlier work is characterized by intense modernist sonorities, polyphonic layers, yearning angular melodies, and firm control of orchestral timbre and structure. It is the profound balance between her earlier modernist sensibility, with its rigorous control of polyphonic layers and structural design on the one hand, and her search for the inner self with materials distinctly different from Western tradition, that marks her accomplishment as a 21st-century composer.
In the five works collected here, Chen broadens her reach into several branches of vernacular music—Nanguan music and Taiwanese opera—and the Chinese zither of traditional literati. Two use traditional Chinese instruments as soloists with a Western orchestra, one is written for both solo Chinese instrument and Chinese orchestra, and the two remaining works are scored for Western orchestra. Yet it is the source of inspiration that really sets them apart. The earliest work, Concerto for Pipa and Chamber Orchestra (2002), is abstract in conception, with prominent pipa gestures that infuse the composition with distinctive sonorities and melodic tropes. This is followed by three works, each of which uses a melodic source from traditional Chinese genres. Fantasia on the Theme of Guanglingsan for Zheng and Chinese Orchestra (2014) is based on a well-known masterwork, which is full of drama and contrast. It shares certain sonic similarities with the pipa concerto. As a pair they differ significantly from the two following works, centered around Taiwanese Nanguan music. Fantasia on the Theme of Plum Blossoms for String Orchestra (2012) uses as its basis a famous tune from the Nanguan repertoire, while A Plea to Lady Chang’e for Nanguan Pipa and Chamber Orchestra (2013) is essentially a setting of a traditional Nanguan song in the modernist sonic fabric. Finally, Silvergrass, for Cello and Chamber Orchestra (2016) represents a step further in that direction, not only tracing the sonic aspect of another indigenous music genre—Taiwanese opera—but also delving deeply into the words, sensibility, and poetic expression of one of the island’s literary legends, author Huang Chunming, who is known for his plain, richly colloquial voice.