Xi Wang

Mountain Music

Gregory Sullivan Isaacs offers a primer on the sounds you'll hear in Xi Wang's Tibet Fantasia, having its world premiere by Voices of Change at Dallas City Performance Hall this weekend.

published Friday, March 13, 2015

Photo: Courtesy
Xi Wang

Dallas — On Saturday, Voices of Change will present the world premiere of Tibet Fantasia by Xi Wang, who is on the faculty at Southern Methodist University. This piece—the recipient of a Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund grant from TACA—is a musical postcard, incorporating the composer’s impressions of these highly unusual and unique sounds. The Dallas City Performance Hall will resound with modern versions of ancient instruments, as I witnessed sitting in on a rehearsal this week.

Xi Wang creates a soundscape in a series of four movements that does not try to duplicate Tibetan music; she readily admits that she has never been there herself, but this is the result of years of study of this music and the way it is used and produced. The Chinese-born composer brings a native knowledge of Asian music in general and non-Western scales and musical effects. While the music of Tibet is quite different, her study allows her to write a piece that brings Tibetan music to us through a Chinese filter, but written in Western notation. Much of it is in plain ol’ 4/4 with standard notation.

She will surround the audience with the music by placing groups of instruments throughout the hall, all coordinated by a conductor. A group of three female singers offers the underlying chants while two soloists sing other lines. One is a slow moving legato line, sung by VOC regular and SMU faculty member Virginia Dupuy. The other fast-moving and very expressive solo line, the most prominent feature of the piece, is sung in soprano range by SMU music major Vinnie Mahal in a virtuoso performance. None of the vocal music uses real words, but like Tibetan music itself, uses syllables derived from the religious texts much as is the chanting of the Buddhist monks. 

The music of Tibet is as big a mystery to most of us as the country itself. It is the most remote country on earth and the music, which is mostly religious in nature, has developed without many outside influences. The country is nestled on a plain high up in the Himalayas at is 16,000 feet above sea level. This is about 3,000 feet higher than a plane can fly without a pressurized cabin.  

Living in this rarified atmosphere has appeared to have the opposite effect than what you would suppose. Their music requires a lot of air to perform. Trombone-like instruments, called dungchen, are so long that the end bells have to rest on the ground, requiring a considerable air pressure to make their extremely low-pitched sound. They have been compared to the sounds made by elephants. Here, bass trombones playing in the bottom of their range impersonate them. 

There are drums, such as the damru, whose sounds are said to reproduce e the sounds of the creation of the universe. Small cymbals called silnyen and toned bell-like cymbals called Tibetan tingsha are combined with variously pitched singing bowls, which are made out of metal and played by running a mallet around the outside of the rim. Xi Wang uses groups of percussionists playing on a variety of instruments: such as many different drums, cymbals, bell trees, gongs, and singing bowls. 

There is a reed instrument called a shawm, a forerunner of the oboe, which is also common in early Western music. Every kind if indigenous music has some kind of flute and one of the Tibetan flutes is called the wu guo zhong and bowed string instruments such as the Piwang, which is somewhat like the Chinese Erhu. Xi Wang uses an oboe, flute, violin, and cello and writes the music using non-traditional sounds and bends. At one point, we only hear air being blown through the flute.

This music defies categorization. It doesn’t fit into a specific school of compositions. While there is a big helping of dissonance there are also tonal passages using the sixth, our most consonant interval. There is little that could be considered a melody in any Western meaning of the word, but intervals are used to expressive effects. The performance by Mahal is nothing short of exhilarating, made even more enjoyable by the pure joy on his face while he is singing.

So, what inspired Tibet Fantasia? There was a spate of “happening” pieces common in the 1960’s and 1970’s that were more about soundscapes than actual music but there is nothing retro about this work. It owes something to the new age movement but only because it uses some of the same meditative devices. It is not a recreation of Tibetan music and it is not a tone poem, telling a story, a piece describing feelings inspired by nature (such as Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony) or piece of impressionistic pictorial music (such as Debussy’s La Mer). 

When you sit down to hear it, try to let it overtake your Western desire to categorize or play the “sounds like” game we all do with new works. You will not be able to put your finger on it, a task in which I have not succeeded with all of these words, but it will define itself for you. Be content to enjoy, but leave it unnamed.

The concert will also feature Wang’s Echo. Poem. Image. Thanks For Reading

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Mountain Music
Gregory Sullivan Isaacs offers a primer on the sounds you'll hear in Xi Wang's Tibet Fantasia, having its world premiere by Voices of Change at Dallas City Performance Hall this weekend.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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