Occidental Accidentals

For New Music Connoisseur, Vol. 12, No. 3, "The Scoreboard"

by Barry Drogin

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ZHOU Long: Harmony for string quartet, Dhyana for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-386612-9 and 0-19-386508-4.

The first two “Score Board” reviews were of song collections, so, although I am a composer of vocal works, I suggested to my editor that I review non-vocal chamber music this time. We agreed on two Oxford University Press offerings by Zhou Long, a China-born composer who became a US citizen in 1999.

Although Dr. Zhou (Zhou being the family name) has written in Western notation for Chinese instruments such as the pipa, zheng, dizi and erhu, I’ll be reviewing two pieces for four and five conventional Western instruments. Both scores include a “Guide to the Notation” where Zhou invents symbology for special effects, such as for playing inside the piano to simulate the sounds of the guqin, a Chinese zither.

After an intense period of graphic scores and experimental techniques in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a performer backlash against such practices. Word on the street was that if a score contained even a single “special” symbol, it would be thrown in the reject pile immediately. I’m seeing a renewed interest amongst new music performers in these old scores and their techniques, and it is refreshing to see composers and their publishers accepting the practice again as well.

That said, I cannot imagine why Zhou has created his own symbols for quarter tones. I thought a flat with an up arrow and a sharp with a down arrow (on the second vertical) were pretty widely accepted by now. It’s about time somebody assembled the systems invented by Dick, Crumb, Berio, and others, as well as more recent examples by Corigliano, Kernis, and Monk, and published some authoritative judgements on what should become standard. My 1980 copy of Ken J. Williams’ “Music Preparation/A Guide to Music Copying,” distributed by the now-defunct Associated Music-Copy Service, is simply out-of-date.

I’m also going to protest against the practice of, when writing non-tonal music in C, expecting performers to keep track of some flat or sharp from several notes back, or its cancellation because of a bar line. I presume that performers are marking up their scores with lots of accidentals because of this old Western music practice. I guess I carry this grudge over from the choral world, where common sense prevails, and an accidental may even be placed in one part because of a different accidental previously heard in a separate part!

(Both works I am reviewing are available for viewing and printing for free as PDF full scores on the American Music Center’s NewMusicJukeBox website - parts would have to be purchased from Oxford. This allows me to write: For example, see measure 155 of Dhyana (page 22 in the score, 24 in the PDF). I can understand why the F sharp and C sharp are stated once in measure 154 of the cello (fourth stave), but what harm would accrue from reiterating the F sharp two more times in measure 155, as the C sharp slides down to a C natural?)

Following the neo-Romantic trend that dates back to 1968 (according to Druckman), Zhou gives these works programmatic titles. The title of the string quartet, Harmony, refers to spiritual well-being, not to music. In three movements, the first and third use a tight chromatic motive that I found too uninteresting to be used as a theme for development. Zhou does compensate by the use of rhythmic force and the aforementioned effects. Surprisingly, the middle movement actually contains a key signature, and some modal melody writing. The third movement brings in a tonal traditional Shanxi folk song as well, which Zhou merges with the chromatic motive to conclude the piece. So is this piece about musical harmony after all?

Dhyana, in one movement, gets its name from a Buddhist term for focusing thought. Most of the piece is pianissimo (which would, I assume, focus the thought of the listener) and pointillistic in melody and harmony. The tempo changes ever so slightly from quarter note 60 (eighth note 120) down to quarter note 56 and up to eighth note 126 for most of the piece (except for a few measures at quarter note 48). I’m not sure why, except, perhaps, to focus the thought of the performers. I apologize that I am unfamiliar enough with both Chinese music and Chinese instruments to determine in what way the score evokes or pays homage to same. For me, the score evokes Webern, Cage and Feldman.

Unfortunately, the full score is meant as the piano score, and contains only the piano’s “Guide to the Notation.” I had to check the parts (not available on-line) to find out, for example, that the squiggly line used in some instrumental parts means “slow vibrato.” I first noticed it in measure 13 for the flute paired with the words “turn instr.” and then was left wondering why the cellist, asked to perform a “fingernail pizzicato” in the same measure, would perform the same feat. Oxford has decided, in each part, to only tell each player the special notation that they will encounter in their part. This makes the full score of Dhyana not a truly comprehensible full score (this is not true of Harmony). A minor quibble for those who might want to follow up the reading of this review with an on-line visit to view the pieces themselves (links are provided above).

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007