For a composer with imagination and a sharp ear for synchronicities and contrasts, personal roots can be very fertile ground as a launching pad for startlingly fresh new music. Chinese-born American composer Lei Liang (b. 1972) serves as an excellent example, certainly as heard on his new recording of Chamber and Orchestral Music [Verge, Tremors of a Memory Chord] (Naxos 8.572839).
In point of fact the first two compositions on the disk, Verge for 18 solo strings (2009) and Aural Hypothesis for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and vibraphone (2010), are very fine late high modernist works, sonorously strong and vivid in the use of typical western chamber instrumentation. Other than a kind of spatially declamatory tendency there would be little on the strictly musical front to declaim "Chinese roots" unless you were already looking for them.
The last two works are another matter. Five Seasons (2010) was scored for the traditional Chinese stringed instrument called the pipa, plus string quartet. And you most certainly hear in the pipa part a Chinese classical element. Interestingly though, since traditional Chinese music can have an intensely sonorous focus, the common ground between the quartet and the pipa is moving yet somehow logical. It's music that manages to be quite modern in impact, yet makes ample room for the rhythmic and intervalic idiom of the traditional pipa.
Tremors of a Memory Chord (2011) goes even further, in scoring the music for piano and grand Chinese orchestra. In this case in is the piano part that bridges the East-West gap most fully, in ways that make perfect sense. Then again the Chinese orchestra is called upon to engage in sonorous abstractions that both partake of tradition yet are abstract and avant garde in overall syntax and trajectory. In use of space and sound, calm and agitation, solo and tutti, the two traditions are not nearly as far apart as one might think, at least in Liang's singular musical vision. And the whole thing is quite exciting to hear as well.
It is all very convincing to me. The music itself, the performances and the sound staging all make for a compelling program. Anyone with a sense of musical adventure should respond to this recording. It gives a mini-portrait of Lei Liang's striking music and I hope serves as the beginning of many such appearances to the music loving public.