The Ying Quartet, whose are members are siblings, offers an important and tasty selection of short pieces for string quartet written by composers of Chinese heritage residing in the United State.* Some names are more familiar to the classical and cinematic audience: Zhou Long, Chen Yi, Bright Sheng, Ge Gan-ru, Vivian Fung, Lei Liang, Chou Wen-chung, and Tan Dun. The first work by Long (2011 Pulizer Prize winner for his opera) is a remarkable imitation of the ancient ch'in [qin] zither favored by scholars and forerunner of the larger zheng. Lyrical and slow at times and punctuated by percussive pizzicato, it reaches back centuries with Chinese melody and harmonic and slide techniques but is otherwise contemporary in spirit. Yi, who is married to Long, is a violinist as well as composer. Her composition thus sings. It is impressionistic of dance and folk festivals, rather jolly and sentimental, energetic and fluid. Sheng, who usually composes strikingly modern, often jagged abstract works, here presents his take on an abandoned mountain Buddhist temple he visited. The Yings selected sections II and IV of the quartet, the first again suggestive of the ch'in and of ancient times with its staccato, the second a melancholic, nostalgic lament developing into an anguish and angry cry. Gan-ru likens his piece to one-stroke cursive calligraphy that commences with the touching of brush on paper, the determined rapid and intensive flowing, and the final lifting of the brush in gentleness. The controlled accident of line and space is the visual aesthetic and that applies here sonically. There is no hint of traditional melody; it is thoroughly avant-garde. Fung, who has been inspired by Indonesian gamelan is her other compositions, here also emphasizes the staccato, plucked structure so characteristic of Southeast Asia but also of the Chinese pipa and zithers. China is an ancient empire incorporating many ethnic lands, including, in its northwest, part of the Mongolian steppe. Liang captures some of the Mongolian folk elements in his study, suggestions of long-form chants, morin khuur fiddle, harmonic throat singing, dances, and shamanic ritual. Wen-chung is the old man of the group. He was a teacher of some of the others, himself studying under Nicholas Slonimsky and Edgard Varèse. Once again the ch'in is invoked as source, with its plucking techniques and percussive staccato, but the Western string quartet tradition is also in play in the second movement with its slow, sad, shimmering bowing. Three sections of Dun's Colors for String Quartet close the album. His cinematographic or operatic pieces are full of energy and color. This album is quite an education and for those of us versed in both classical and world musics, the exploratory fusion is especially enjoyable. The Yings are to be praised for this splendid work. Their performance is certainly equal to the task.
[*The liner notes refer to Chinese-Americans; for clarity this term includes those born in or immigrated to America becoming a citizen, and indeed all the composers here, except for Vivian Fung who was born in Canada, were born in China. This distinction is relevant because those comparatively recent immigrants are somewhat more steeped in traditional Chinese musical idioms and sensitivity.]