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The Vancouver-based group has seriously eclectic, transcultural tastes. They are all masters of their respective plucked Chinese string instruments. Mei Han reflects on this process of cultural awareness: Gathering , their second album, exhibits influences of diverse musics discernable in the inclusion of instruments such as the tabla, djembe, dumbek and gong.
Multiethnic melodic layers are also in ample evidence. The latter range from the brittle high-trilled notes of the pipa to bass daruan tones. They each contributed scores, exploring this transcultural terrain, which were then skillfully articulated and extended by the musicians.
I was mightily impressed not only by the individual virtuosity of the musicians, but also by their tight ensemble and culturally inclusive repertoire. Until they grace a hall near you, this enjoyable record is the closest to a transnational musical Silk Road journey you can experience.
Andrew Timar Whole Note Magazine. Red Chamber is an all-female group specialized in Chinese musical instruments. The four musicians in Red Chamber are highly eclectic, open to wide-range of musical influences. On Gathering they deliver an outstanding set of original pieces and traditional compositions presented with exciting new arrangements. The musical influences on Gathering cross various boundaries. The opening piece sounds like a sort of Greek klezmer mix, while other times the ensemble digs deep into their Chinese roots as well as African and Celtic music.
Guests include Gord Grdina on oud; Liam MacDonald on jembe, riq, dumbek, daf, bass drum, rattles, qaraqib also known as karkabas ; Sunny Matharu on tabla; Randy Raine-Reusch on gongs, bells, shakers, saz; Michael Viens on 6-string and string guitars, bodhran. Red Chamber is an outstanding Chinese string music ensemble featuring four extremely talented musicians that certainly deserve more international attention.
Romero World Music Central. Both are rooted in tradition: Both are made up of instrumentalists who, individually, are of international repute. Both blend serious scholarship with the desire to please. And yet the Chieftains can get Mick Jagger to guest on their albums while Red Chamber scuffles on the college circuit.
Structurally and tonally, it bears some similarity to baroque music, Celtic music, and bluegrass: Arabic strings, Jewish melodies, and African rhythms all play a part, but what this lovely recording most resembles is an extended Silk Road journey anyone can enjoy at home. Their leader and zheng player, Mei Han, was a soloist in Beijing before emigrating and the other members are all graduates of Chinese conservatories. Such musicians are driving a new wave of Chinese music abroad, particularly as many of them appear keen to adapt their instruments to other influences and experiment.
One of the common threads of the several albums reviewed here of music with Chinese origins is their incorporation, to varying degrees and success, of external elements. And some of these do work. The zheng solo on Peng Baban is perhaps the best of the Chinese material. Zheng player Mei Han belongs to a rapidly expanding group of musicians raised in the tradition of Chinese classical music who have elected to explore the possibilities of free improvised music, among them pipa player Min Xiao-Fen a New York resident who has worked with John Zorn and Derek Bailey , and zheng player Xu Fengxia a Berlin resident who has recorded free improvisations with the bassists Joe Fonda and Peter Kowald.
The zheng is a long zither of twenty-one to twenty-five strings that resembles the Japanese koto. What makes this CD so distinctive and beautiful is the subtle gradations of difference and resemblance between an instrument essentially designed for playing non-harmonic music and one designed to facilitate playing chords.
Those gradations of pitch and overtone pattern, of exchange and concordance, create the poetry here - a symmetry that the two musicians even find in the echo of their nanes. Zheng master Mei Han gives none. The immediate results are a flash breeze of recognition between the distant string cousins, followed by their settlings into their more distinct voices jazz tinged piano, traditional zheng.
Mei Han has a comparable pedigree as a performer and a scholar of Chinese music. Thirteen short tracks are conceived say the players as music haikus. Their sequence, combined with their titles, cue both structural and poetic listening, a welcome compliment to improvised music. The title track is plumb center, in the divine number seven spot; before it are references to earth Terra Mova , to time and dance.
The titles after Ume all suggest departure from earthly things and airs, and float glimpses of their purplest blues from space, or mind, or both. The zheng is a long zither, dating from the first century B. Traditionally pentatonic, its modern incarnations have strings, thus a variety of possible scales tunings.
Still, even pitch-for-pitch dialogue with a modern chromatic piano evokes a meeting of the new and the old as much as one of contemporary kin sharing common ancestry.
Plimley flexes his bluesy-jazzy inflections, and Han stretches strings to bend her note, and we recall that the former gestures evoked in America to simulate the souls of the latter and its more archaic still singing voices. All that said, the real juice flows from the common ground both created and claimed here. The give-and-take is as masterful as the execution of ideas. While the improvisational approach and vocabulary is current and global, the influence of Asia on the piano, not least jazz piano, since Debussy and Ravel is recalled in every one of these tracks, as well as in the impressionistic lilt of the whole CD.
This combination of fleeting moment and network structure, of music and poetics, makes the listening a warm soak in a hot tub on a gentle rainy night in the great Northwest. The improvisations are so well crafted and balanced that it is as if each musician is instantaneously composing a part that fits perfectly with the other. This is true from the first track "Terra Mova" to the last track "Interval of the Avatar. The improvising in this track shifts back and forth between these styles.
At certain moments in the CD, the similarities in sound between the piano and the zheng are such that it is difficult to tell them apart.
These moments are countered by the bending of the zheng strings, which is done in such a way that the sound is often more like a blues guitar than a traditional Chinese instrument. Plimley maintains a reserved sound while Han dives into an uninhibited barrage of bending and vigorous strumming in "Echos of Bela", making you wish that the great banjo virtuoso would challenge his instrument in such a physical way. In "Blue Now", the melodic content is anything but blue.
Both players are bursting with energy. The slower, contemplative "Matter into Waves" explores a more western classical sound, though there are occasionally jazz elements such as descending chords in the piano echoed by the zheng.
The final track "Interval of the Avatar," continues in the classical vein with elements of jazz noticeable in the arpeggios played by either instrument. While this recording demonstrates a more pitch-oriented approach to improvising, the ideas are so unique and inventive that an exploration of timbre is not missed, and in this case could even be considered an attribute. All in all, UME is a beautiful collection of improvisations made by two excellent musicians --well worth having in your collection.
More often than not, there are collisions, near misses and misfires that are interesting as such, but should in no way be heard as a synthesis, the articulation of a median between the two traditions. If their traditions are steeped in improvisation to any discernable degree, the musicians have to negotiate their respective practices to arrive at this halfway point.
Musicians from traditions that do not include improvisation must dive in headfirst into the deep of spontaneous music making, sometimes proving themselves to be innately gifted improvisers. At their best, these cross-cultural exchanges reveal idiom not to be a limitation or a barrier, but a conduit to collaborative music.
Their fluid rapport keeps all options open, leaving the listener with the idea that the music can go anywhere at any moment.
Here come two surprises, the first really ugly, this one being that the Italian Postal dis Service had decided to make me fork out five euros, due to? For a review copy, which I had never asked for? So I'm lucky that not too many labels send me promos! The nice part of the story being that, upon opening the package, I immediately saw that one of the musicians involved was pianist Paul Plimley.
But who was the lady at his side, and what was that strange instrument she was shown playing? I think Plimley is a well-known pianist, thanks also to his collaborations such as the ones with bass players Barry Guy and Lisle Ellis, and to his work with the NOW Orchestra, the line-up of which he is a co-founder. This is the first time that I have had the pleasure to listen to Mei Han the booklet immediately told me what I needed to know about her CV and to the ancient and noble instrument called Zheng that she plays: Hans Reichel , or a harpsichord, or the right hand on a piano playing "stride".
Thirteen tracks in fifty minutes tell of a concentrated, careful breathing. The cover writes about "improvisations", and there is no reason to doubt this, even if sometimes the opening theme in Terra Mova, which would be appropriate accompanying the opening credits of a film noir; the incredibly precise closing moments of Emptied Diligence; some overlapping melodic phrases on Matter Into Waves it all sounds almost too incredible.
This is the type of improvisation that has deliberately chosen to work within a defined set of parameters, which in my opinion makes this album a lot more "entertaining" and destined to be played fairly often than it's usually the case with a lot of CDs of improvised music where quite often one thinks something like "I should have been there".
Ears that are wide open, interchangeable roles, the players showing a sympathetic approach that appears to testify of a long musical relationship. Quite often the tracks inhabit slow, meditative atmospheres, where sometimes the notes from the upper part of the keyboard reminded me of the meditative side of Muhal Richard Abrams, but there are also very fast moments.
Ume is an album, which possesses both depth and relatively speaking user-friendliness. It could work quite well as an "intelligent background", but it would be a pity to leave it in the background, right? She studied the instrument in her native China, and had a career there as a practising musician before moving to Canada, where she collaborates, with composer and Asian music specialist Randy Raine-Reusch.
It is on his label that her CD Outside the Wall has now been released. It is a showcase of her skills as a musician of both traditional and contemporary repertoire. Two of the compositions on the album can be traced back to ancient times, while others were written recently. Except for the last two pieces, in which the instrument is paired with a string quartet and electroacoustic sounds on tape respectively, the music on this album is for zheng solo. The selection and order of the pieces has been well thought out.
In the first half of the album two old Chinese compositions are separated by Minoru Miki's The Greening, written for twenty-string koto in , and are followed by Raine-Reusch's Outside the Wall.
Even though these pieces are stylistically quite different, there is still a strong sense of continuity from one to the next. The main difference between these four pieces seems to be in the way they approach tonality, the harmonic setting out of which the melodies grow.
Harmony, an implicit chordal structure, is far more apparent in the contemporary pieces than in the older ones. This gives the former a gravitational pull, a sense of anticipated direction, that is considerably weaker in the latter.
However rigid these may be in their formal structure, they sound as if they were painted or drawn on a sparser canvas. What they all have in common is a deep sensitivity for the sounds that capable hands can entice from a zheng.
That sound is by turns soothing, contemplative, vigorous, plaintive, and blatantly sweet and romantic. The glissandi, overtones, slight differences in timbre and the slow decay have been captured in full detail.
These aspects are also present in the final pieces of the CD, both of them a departure from what came before. The greatest surprise, in a way, is the first of these, for zheng and string quartet. I would think that it is much more difficult to bring these together in a meaningful way, than when building a scenery using electronics, in which timbres can easily be suited to that of the Chinese instrument, as in Bamboo, Silk and Stone.
The combination of the plucked and the bowed strings is often quite effective, especially when the quartet takes a step back to follow in glissandi and bent tones where the zheng leads it.