A new day at Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden begins. The morning’s multi-hued sky reflected in a koi filled pond is accompanied by the sounds of birdsong and the gentle trickling of a waterfall hidden in a bamboo alcove. This walled-in botanical oasis of Chinese native flora, art, architecture, and calm — one of the most authentic Suzhou-style gardens outside China — was the destination last October of a cadre of University of Oregon graduate students beginning a year-long music composition project.
Organized by Eugene’s student-managed TaiHei Ensemble, the “One Day in a Chinese Garden” project immersed ten invited composers from the Oregon Composers Forum in a day of Chinese art and culture. The highlight was a 45-minute docent-led walking tour of the garden that ended at the teahouse, where composers heard a program of traditional Chinese music performed on authentic instruments by members of the Portland Wisdom Art Academy.
After a full day of sensory exposure to a multitude of cultural experiences, the participants composed, based upon their garden visit and further individual research into Chinese culture and music, a 5-8 minute piece for TaiHei Ensemble, known for exploring and enacting international dialogs across the Pacific Rim through music. On Tuesday, TaiHei performs the music in the first of three 2019 concerts. Like the image of the sky in the garden’s reflecting pool, their compositions reflect aspects of the garden’s physical attributes as well as the ideas it signifies and other notions gleaned from their experience in the garden.
Garden Soundscape Perspectives
Five of the composers recently shared with ArtsWatch the unique experience they had in the garden tour and the music it inspired.
Composer Sarah Jordan found the Tea House a special place to sit and enjoy her White Rose tea while reflecting upon the Lan Su garden outside. In her three-movement composition Sisters in the Garden, Lotus and Peony (imagined sisters named after flowers in the gardens that represent purity) are represented by clarinet and viola, respectively, while flutes express the sounds heard in the garden (birds, wind, walking, etc.). Through their imaginary musical experiences there, listeners will hear, Jordan suggests, her very own personal aural and emotional response to the garden setting.
A Chinese calligraphy demonstration the group witnessed inspired Justin Graff’s music. “Nothing in calligraphy is perfectly straight or even,” Graff told ArtsWatch, “but it still achieves a beautiful flow and balance.” He’s tried to incorporate this aesthetic in his new composition, using a variety of uneven rhythmic structures that complement what he calls a modern baroque, meaning he draws heavily from the gestures of Bach and exhibits a clear tonality.
“When I hear the music, I imagine the brushstrokes materializing in three-dimensional space, gracefully curling and floating together in a kind of dance, which is why the piece is titled A Dance of Brush and Black,” Graff explains. (Read Justin’s Graff’s A Pärt Pilgrimage; a personal chance encounter with the great Estonian composer)
Portlander Victor Zheng has often visited the Lan Su garden. With strong ties to family in China, Zheng finds “the garden represents a juxtaposition between two cultures.” Accordingly, his Polarity for violin and viola focuses on that duality and the tight-knit relationship between Chinese and American cultures. “I hope that the relationship between the instruments and the pace and energy in the work can express and convey the dynamicism and ever-evolving nature of this fusion,” he told ArtsWatch.
Michael Fleming’s Breathing Water, Hollowed Stone, for flute, clarinet, viola, and cello, reflects his attentive listening experience to the serene sounds of the garden’s waterfalls, flowing fountains and the fascinating patterns of the eccentric water-eroded limestone Taihu Rocks. This varied soundscape of water and stone, set among beautiful flora and exquisite flowers, seemed to transport him “to another place and another mindset,” he says. He adds that gardens throughout the world, such as Lan Su, “illustrate the beautiful aspects of culture and connect the human spirit to nature.”
TaiHei co-director Tao Li was impressed by the architectural design and function of the roof tiles on the many structures inside the garden, which were designed with a specific shape that can amplify the acoustic beauty of falling rain. She has responded to this aesthetic in her piece 与雨语 Converse with rain for cello and flute, by exploring the high and low register of these two instruments, combined with timbre and playing techniques, to suggest the rhythmic rain patterns as might heard at Lan Su.
The Lan Su Garden visit has provided the opportunity for these and other composers in the project (funded in part by an innovation grant from the UO School of Music and Dance) to advance the TaiHei Ensemble’s mission of bridging cultures through music. As Victor Zheng noted, the setting of a traditional Chinese garden amid a background of a major American city, provided for him an apt metaphor for his own bi-cultural heritage. The TaiHei visit “really showed me the garden’s impact on cross-cultural connections, representing a way by which Chinese and American cultures can share in each other’s presence.”
The first of three free TaiHei Ensemble concerts inspired by the Lan Su Chinese Garden will be performed at 7:30pm (PST) on February 12 in the UO School of Music and Dance’s Tykeson Rehearsal Hall, 975 E. 18th Avenue. This concert will be live streamed on the TaiHei Ensemble Facebook page. A reception follows the performance. The second TBA concert will be performed on campus this spring.
A third concert with a full program of 10 pieces will be performed inside the Lan Su Garden in the spring. (The TBA concert will be free, but audience members will have to pay the garden admission.) Participants include: Daniel Delay, Michael Fleming, Justin Graff, Cara Haxo, Sarah Jordan, Jarad Knight, JP Lempke, Tao Li, Luke Smith and Victor Zheng. Facebook Event page.
Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.
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