50 CHINESE FOLK SONGS
Move Records MD 3436
For a person of my age and with my specific musical experiencers, this latest CD of music by Julian Yu is particularly challenging. For one thing, my familiarity with Chinese folk music is minimal; like many, I can tell it when I hear it, and even identify quite a few instruments, thanks to Tai Dun’s pioneering work with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. But the chance to study Eastern music never arose in early1960s Melbourne (or Australia?); even former large presences on our national music scene pursued their Oriental interests overseas, like Meale at UCLA.
Adding to this burden of ignorance is a personal unwillingness to make general assertions, for fear of revealing a lack of cultural understanding that might equal anything heard at a Collingwood Football Club press conference. The only defence to be proposed is that I would have the same problem listening to 50 Romanian folk songs, even when they’ve been arranged by Bartok; or 50 Hebridean melodies as organized by Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser; or even 50 American hoedown hollers that have been funneled by Copland. Your attention wanders, the accompaniments assume an importance well beyond their competence, and seeking out any flaws in vocal delivery becomes an obsession.
Nevertheless, it behoves every musician to give attention to Yu’s collection which was written to suit the responsive powers of collaborator/pianist Ke Lin who also performed the composer’s 2017 Cutetudes CD. As well as the folk songs (which include three variants of the tune Jasmine and two of the Fengyang Flower Drum lyric), this disc also includes 15 Early Piano Pieces by Yu, all of them brief – the 40 seconds of Counterpoint sits alongside a Theme and Variations that lasts nearly 4 minutes.
This length business is of some concern with the folk songs. Most of them (43) don’t last for a minute; a few (17), not even half that. The longest treated here is an ancient song, Man Jiang Hong, which is given 2 minutes. So the repetition of verses and choruses is not an inevitability here; Yu can be quite content with giving his tune one airing and moving on straightaway. As for the accompaniments, these are sometimes based on scraps from Western classical works. For example, Yu has a soft spot for Bach’s Goldberg Variations: six of his settings use fragments from this massive compendium. There’s more Bach with one of the Two-Part Inventions, a couple of snaps from the Mass in B minor, a motif from The Musical Offering, and a kind of famous pieces amalgam supporting Willows are New. The E minor Symphony of Brahms rumbles under two songs; Pachelbel’s Canon in D can be discerned under the conjoined A Pair of Ducks and A Pair of Geese; a ground bass is lifted from Handel’s cantata Susanna; even the Dies irae supports the Jiangsu melody Weeping Seven-Seven. Finally, a melody from one of Western opera’s most pronounced efforts at chinoiserie, Puccini’s Turandot, can be found in the afore-mentioned Jasmine which the Italian master transformed into Act 1’s La sui monti dell’Est, and employed later in the action as well.
Some of these Western references are plain enough; as we have heard in previous pieces by Yu; other quotations are more difficult to ferret out. But the focus rests on a clear statement of the tunes and many of these are dispatched rapidly, one pentatonic lyric after another. It’s as though Yu sees no point in expanding a tune or giving it elaborations because, in doing so, you’re unfastening its integrity, like Tchaikovsky’s birch tree. When faced with a song that has some distinctiveness, Yu extends his treatment, as in Thunder a Thousand Miles Away. Immediately after, The Furry Gourd is played through once; not surprising, as its shape suggests melodies that proliferate in the British Isles.
Still, every so often comes an individual shard like The Little Cowherd where the melody and its setting are fetchingly melded into a piquant miniature that suggests something more earthy than the Ma Lin landscapes of many other tracks . Another melody, like Thirty-Mile Village, strikes me as unexceptional but Yu airs it twice with a fairly bland accompaniment. Still, he must hear something in its contour that escapes me – which could be the catch-cry of my experience with the CD in which, the more I listen, the less justified I feel in making generalizations about Yu’s content. Parts of it sound like under-powered impressionism; Flowing Stream has gently rippling suggestions in its accompanying figures. In other instances, the Western fusions intrude, like the Brahms E minor Symphony’s passacaglia theme announced baldly at the opening to A Rainy Day, retreating to the bass – but transmuted to a point where its contour vanishes.
Just when you think Yu has settled into a predictable setting pattern, he wakes you up with something like bitonality in A Little Bird or a perky Gallic insouciance for Snatching at Butterflies while Tea-Picking. Then, you come across only one or two chordal surprises in a Victorian-era setting of Man Jing Hong which has some shared characteristics with an Anglican hymn. Other tracks leave me baffled; the underpinning to Willows are New comprises motifs from some famous Bach pieces and, of course, I identified none of them except maybe a scrap from The Musical Offering‘s 6-line ricercar. Then there are settings that strike you as chameleonic, as is that for the concluding Song of the Yellow River Boatmen which seems intransigent in its counterpoint but aims for a ‘soft’ cadential point.
The CD concludes with 15 pieces of juvenilia, early piano pieces written when Yu was studying in Beijing and revised in 2005. The first four are short two-line works – inventions, a canon, an essay in counterpoint. In fact, you have to wait until the fifth piece, Day and Night, Thinking of You, before you hear a solid chord; this is a gentle lyric in memory of Zhou Enlai, the statesman for whom Yu had sympathy and affection, if this piece is any indication. The Dance is a two-part work where a Tibetan folk-style tune is given gentle handling before being transformed into a more lively creature. March Fair has a catchy tune given some intentionally rough harmonic bursts but it falls into the camp of genteel bucolicism, reminiscent of Mussorgsky’s Gopak.
Yu’s Theme and Variations take impetus from a melody by Wang Ming from the film Hai Xia, which may refer to a channel or strait but I can’t track it down as a proper noun. Nor can I discover anything about the composer who has the same name as a famous opponent of Mao ZeDong. The tune itself is a closed unit of four phrases and Yu’s ring of changes – with one fast exception – mirrors its calm nature. This work is the first of five variations sequences. A little further on come the Little Pine Tree Variations – three of them, I think, with an extended treatment of the theme’s second half and a feather-light recapitulation of the opening strophes to finish. Much the same pattern follows with the Mini Variations – five of them with three soft and two in spiky/staccato.
Variations on “The Blossoms of Friendship” gives us one of the raciest tracks of the whole 65. It’s based on a children’s song from the 1970s with only small traces of modal or pentatonic influences. Lin’s right hand fluency is well tested in this sequence that is unfailingly cheerful and brings to mind – for no apparent reason – a Sousa march. Last piece of all is the Variations on a Hebei Folk Song, left incomplete in Yu’s student years and eventually completed in 2005. Here also, there seem to be three variants of the tune with a wafer-thin reminiscence of the original at the end.
As for the other pieces, The Little Wooden Boat was originally a song, here in A-B-A shape where the central section transfers the tune to the left hand, the whole – like so much on this album – with one line per hand: no chords. Sonatina in D presents as a formally transparent study in sonata form, following the three-part division with competence and giving the executant piquant work across the instrument’s range; another piece with very few chords to interrupt its bi-linear polyphony. The Ping-Pong Match is a crisp study in interwoven and chasing patterns, a colourful demonstration of undemanding legerdemain.
At the end, these light examples of Yu learning his art are only mildly interesting, no matter how much delicacy Lin invests in them. You have to admire the composer’s youthful talent for melody-shaping and for the finesse of his piano writing. Yet there’s not much here that raises eyebrows for its originality or daring; a chromatic slide underneath a diatonic tune might please the composer but, in this conservative ambience, it passes almost unnoticed. In spite of my out-of-comfort-zone sense during the 50 folk song settings, I found a good deal more meat to savour in them, although Lin’s clarity of articulation delighted in each of this CD’s elements.