Ergo - New Music for Piano and Chinese Folk Instruments - Zhen Chen
With his Navona debut ERGO, pianist and composer Zhen Chen makes an impressive contribution to the decades-long legacy of composers blending Chinese and western instruments and musical materials.
This musical trend can be traced back 20 years, when a potent generation of Chinese and Taiwanese composers who began to explode across American and European concert stages. Luminary composers like Bright Sheng, Tan Dun, Chen Yi, and Zhou Long paved the way for younger Chinese artists like Zhen Chen, who uses ERGO to continue this blend of his native musical culture with many parts of the Western musical tradition.
ERGO places piano alongside two of the most familiar traditional Chinese instruments to Western audiences: the pipa – a kind of Chinese lute – and the erhu – a bowed Chinese string instrument. Chen’s use of spacious piano accompaniments and straightforward and expressive melodies makes this combination sound natural while retaining its unique charm.
While the album’s compositions don’t directly draw from Chinese folk tunes, Chen does an excellent job of creating musical contexts that suit the piano, pipa, and/or erhu, as well as his typically naturalistic subject matter. The titles of many of the composer’s pieces describe a landscape, which he, accordingly, seems to illustrate with his music.
These pieces – such as Stroll by the Lake, Springfield, and others – are composed with clear forms that proceed with a gentle, rhythmically consistent piano accompaniment, from which a tender, sometimes plaintive, melody will emerge and develop in one or more solo instruments.
Chen’s melodies and textures play to the strengths of his instrumental forces, and he demonstrates keen awareness of their coloristic similarities and differences. Moreover, his harmonic language tends towards pentatonic and natural minor scales, though the song Plum Blossom Chant, for voice and piano, beautifully mixes different forms of the minor scale.
Two works on ERGO stand out in their style, rhythmic intensity, and playfulness: Turpan Tango and Dance Floor Banter. These pieces are based on Western dances – the tango and waltz, respectively – with Turpan Tango most notably departing from the album’s overall contemplative character for a more raucous mood. With this said, Chen’s earnestness, which abounds in his inward-looking music, remains a driving factor in these two dance pieces, and helps connect them with ERGO’s other works.