On Red Dog's Day, the 3rd day of the Chinese lunar new year festival, Ether Game celebrated with a show featuring music about the moon, and music inspired by Chinese culture.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) Estampes: Pagodes It was a serendipitous moment when Debussy attended the Universal Exposition at Paris in 1889. He had just turned his back on the musical conventions of his Paris Conservatory education, and the success of “debussyism” would not be for another ten years. His discovery of Javanese music through a presentation of the Gamelan ensemble at the exposition was a revelation for the composer, who was impressed by the gong music's complex polyphony and seemingly endless melodies, which Debussy described as an “infinite arabesque.” He would incorporate these Eastern-inspired ideas into many later works, especially into “Pagodas” the first movement of his piano suite “Estampes” (That's “prints” in French). The reference to visual art in the title is very appropriate, Debussy directed that this highly impressionistic piece be played with little rubato and “without nuance” focusing instead on creating washes of color and a sense of stillness found in Japanese prints and Chinese painting. Debussy makes use of four different Pentatonic scales in this piece, stacking them together to suggest the towering graceful eaves of a Chinese pagoda surrounded by a tranquil and serene temple garden.
Henry Mancini (1924-1994) Moon River Composer Henry Mancini studied briefly at Juilliard, and even took composition lessons from Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Krenek. However his main interest was jazz, and his career path led him to the world of cinema. In the 1950s, he worked for Universal Studios, where he wrote and arranged scores for a number of monster flicks, B movies, and routine comedies. His biggest success came in the 1960s, when he incorporated his knack for jazz and popular song into his film work, writing tunes like “The Day of Wine and Roses,” “Charade,” and of course, “Moon River” which was featured in the film adaptation of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “Moon River” won Mancini and lyricist Johnny Mercer the Oscar for Best Song in 1962.
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) Il mondo della luna: Overture Il Mondo della Luna was the first of Haydn’s operas to be staged following the institution of a regular opera season at Esterháza in 1776. That being said, it follows in the tradition of much earlier operas of being staged alongside royal celebrations such as birthdays and weddings. Although the exact date is not known, it was given in honor of the marriage of Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy's second son, Count Nikolaus and COuntess Maria Anna Wiessenwolf. In this comic opera, the false astrologer Ecclitico devises a plot to allow three pairs of lovers to marry by tricking an overprotective father with scenes of an idyllic life on the moon. All turns out well in the opera, and hopefully, so did the marriage of Count Nikolaus and Countess Maria Anna Wiessenwolf where this fanciful work was presented on August 3, 1777.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) The Seasons, Op. 37a: January - At the Fireside For over a decade now, the piano has been one of, if not the most, popular classical instrument in China. This can be directly traced to the pianist on the recording we just heard: Lang Lang, who became an international sensation in the late 90s and early 00s after coming to America from China to study at Curtis. Although hugely popular around the world and the originator of a trend for classical piano in China dubbed the Lang Lang Effect, Lang Lang’s stormy, overt playing was met with some distaste when he first went pro, described by some as immature bravado. However, his endurance and developing technique has since gained the respect of many of his critics, and he became the first Chinese pianist to perform with the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and in commercials for Rolex and Nike.
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) Pierrot Lunaire: I. Mondestrunken (Drunk with Moonlight) Shortly after Arnold Schoenberg arrived in Vienna in 1911, he met the actress Albertine Zehme who asked him for a piece where the music accompanied a spoken text. For the work, Schoenberg turned to texts by Albert Giraud about the moon-struck Pierrot. Zehme got more than she bargained for in her spoken part due to Schoenberg’s decision to employ the technique of Sprechstimme, a half-sung, half-spoken method of declamation. Sprechstimme had been used earlier by the composer Engelbert Humperdinck in his 1897 opera Königskinder. Schoenberg took this demanding technique to new levels in Pierrot Lunaire, and he, not Humperdinck, is the composer most associated with its use. The piece still shocks audiences as it did when it premiered, and is Schoenberg’s most frequently performed composition. Its importance in classical music history was codified when the term Pierrot ensemble was established, referencing the Pierrot Lunaire’s unique instrumentation: flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano.
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) Turandot: 'Nessun dorma' While collaborating on Puccini’s final opera Turandot, the composer and his librettists worked from an adaptation of the story by Romantic poet Friedrich Schiller. Although Schiller’s play and Puccini’s opera were deadly serious, the play had originally been a satirical farce by late 18th-century Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi, who based his play on a Twelfth century Persian epic calle "The Seven Beauties. “Turandot” is a Persian word meaning “the daughter of Turan” and was a common word used in Persian poetry to identify Central Asian princesses. That being said, Puccini chose instead to set his opera in China, having received a gift from the Italian ambassador to China during the opera’s composition of a music box that played several Chinese folk songs. These folk songs would eventually appear throughout the music of the opera, along with the Chinese national anthem. Puccini also had a set of thirteen gongs commissioned specifically for the music of the opera.
Chen Gang (b.1935) The Butterfly Lovers Chen Gang comes from a long list of composers who write Chinese music within the tradition of western art music. Learning composition and piano from his father in the 1950’s, Chen Gang has written mostly “absolute music” such as sonatas and concertos. However his later work follows more traditional Chinese titles and themes with a greater use of pentatonic scales and inspiration from Chinese opera and literature. His best known work, and perhaps the most famous piece of Chinese music written for western orchestra, is his Butterfly Lovers violin concerto. Written in collaboration with fellow composer and violinist He Zhanhao, the programmatic one-movement concerto is based on one of Chinese folklore’s most tragic romances. The work uses specific techniques developed by He Zhanhao to make the violin sound like the traditional Chinese two-string fiddle called the erhu, which is played on the knee.
Quigang Chen (b. 1951) Er Huang Though Qigang Chen studied music in Beijing, he moved to Paris in the early 1980’s and became the last student of Olivier Messiaen, who was later one of his staunchest supporters. Though Chen’s music is fundamentally linked to his cultural heritage, his harmony and delicate instrumentation are overtly French, drawing inspiration from Faure, Debussy, and his composition teacher. This work for solo piano and orchestra titled “Er Huang” was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and premiered in 2009. Its title references a style of Peking Opera, and the piece incorporates several melodies from that artform. These melodies signify Chen’s relationship to his past, and would be very nostalgic and familiar to those of his generation who grew up in Shanghai.
Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet Kangding Qingge Some of you might have recognized that flowing banjo style as the high precision picking of Bela Fleck, who, unusually, plays second banjo in the Sparrow Quartet. The leader of this old-time/Chinese folk song fusion group is banjoist Abigail Washburn, who married Fleck in 2009. Washburn formed the Sparrow quartet to further explore her relationship with Chinese folk music. She is fluent in mandarin, and spent many years in China, even initially planning to study law there. The Sparrow Quartet’s first tour and recording project was in China, where Washburn also taught folk music at Sichuan University. Alongside their collaborations with traditional Chinese music groups, they became standard bearers for cultural relations between the US and China, even performing at the 2008 Olympic opening ceremonies in Beijing.