Program Notes

Luan Tan, Variations for Orchestra

Qigang Chen
BORN: August 28, 1951. Shanghai
RESIDES: Paris, France

COMPOSED: 2014-15. The work was commissioned by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Hong Kong Philharmonic, and Radio France

WORLD PREMIERE: April 17, 2015 at HK Cultural Centre, Hong Kong. Zhang Xian led the Hong Kong Philharmonic

US PREMIERE: October 30, 2017, at Carnegie Hall in New York, with Lü Jia leading the China NCPA Orchestra

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes and piccolo, 3 oboes, 4 clarinets (4th doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, marimba, vibraphone, xylophone, snare drum, bass drum, roto-toms, temple blocks, tambourine, tam-tam, cymbals, suspended cymbal, Chinese cymbals, harp, piano, and strings

DURATION: About 22 mins

Luan Tan (chaotic music or random notes) was a musical style in Chinese drama that originated in the 1600s, around the time of the dynastic succession from Ming to Qing. Compared with the established traditions of Kun Opera at the time, the music in the Luan Tan style was remarkably bolder, blunter, and tended to be more virtuosic. Various musical traditions now well known to the Chinese audience, such as Qin Qiang, Hebei Bangzi, Henan Bangzi, or even earliest forms of the now-prominent Peking Opera, could all be categorized under the Luan Tan style. If, for Chinese connoisseurs, Kunqu Opera symbolizes elegance and refinement, then Luan Tan would stylistically be its opposite, very much rooted in folk traditions.

Over the years, my music has frequently been described as “melancholic,” “sentimental,” and “refined.” Therefore I wanted to set a challenge for myself to see if I might enjoy producing something that could be quite a departure from my usual musical images. In this way, the process of composing Luan Tan was almost a battle with myself. Elements that usually appear in my works, such as long melismatic lines, attractive melodic themes or imposing harmonies are almost completely absent, replaced by ceaseless rhythmic patterns, leaps of tiny motifs, and gradually accumulated force through repetitions.

Since the stylistic inspiration was from the traditional form of Luan Tan, timbres and characters from traditional Chinese musical drama make an inevitable appearance in the work. This is reflected in the shape of the important role played by the temple block, with the almost cacophonous counterpoint of the Chinese cymbals.

I started to work on the piece in 2010, but the composing process was interrupted a number of times by major events that have occurred in my personal life in the intervening years, including the passing of my son Yuli, after which I could not write any music for twelve months. The double bar was finally set on paper in January 2015.

—Qigang Chen

2017 © Qigang Chen 

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