PCE January Newsletter
THE MUSICAL ODYSSEY OF MIN XIAO-FEN
In 2005, I profiled Min Xiao-fen – our soloist for the PCE Gala on April 28 — for The New York Times.
Xiao-fen is one of the world’s great instrumentalists. She’s also a quintessential “postclassical” artist, transgressing musical boundaries of every kind. She’s long been part of the PCE family. Re-encountering my own article thirteen years later, I find that I like it sufficiently to share it in this space. We are privileged to have Xiao-fen as our gala guest artist, playing Thelonious Monk and a new work by Daniel Schnyder, with Angel and PCE. You’ll get your money’s worth at this event. – J.H.
By JOSEPH HOROWITZ [abridged by the author]
Min Xiao-Fen is a pipa player like no other. When she speaks the language of Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington or Miles Davis, the results are transformational. In her trio, Blue Pipa, with guitar and double bass, the lutelike pipa becomes a super-banjo. With orchestra, she performs concertos in which a Western concert genre acquires new foreign accents.
Ms. Min’s fretted string instrument is itself unusually versatile. Its four strings and heavy rosewood body traditionally invite sharply contrasted “martial” and “lyric” performing styles. The martial, connecting with depictions of battle, is harsh, noisy and percussive. The lyric, connecting with nature, is fragrant: with quivering vibrato, the pipa here imitates the human voice.
Ms. Min’s rendition of Monk’s “Ask Me Now” is a cross-cultural tour de force. The skittery repeated notes that bind and shape the long lines, the twanging sustained tones, the interpolated pentatonic riffs, the dry precision of every sound, all intended to connect equally with Monk’s quirkiness and with centuries-old Chinese practice. The bent notes Monk idiosyncratically simulated on his piano are, on the pipa, truly and idiomatically bent. If jazz is America’s most influential “classical music,” the Monk-Min idiom is a postclassical signpost to the future.
Ms. Min also sings. In her performances, the cool, sauntering thirds of Miles Davis’s “All Blues” are a pipa accompaniment to a breathy vocalise.
Her bluegrass style, as in “The Red-Haired Boy,” incorporates flicked inflections of timbre and melody that banjos, with their lower frets, cannot manage.
Ms. Min has traversed a sweeping musical odyssey. She comes from a family of musicians and visual artists. Her father, a pipa master in Nanjing, was her first teacher.
“Of course we heard Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, all the famous European composers,” she said in a recent interview. “Our neighbors played violin, cello, piano. Every day after dinner we all made music. The Cultural Revolution was not yet over. Everyone was a little afraid of being called to the countryside, and if you could play music, you could get a better job.”
Chinese universities were still closed — a legacy of the Cultural Revolution — when Ms. Min graduated from high school in 1979. At 18, she auditioned successfully for the Nanjing Traditional Music Orchestra, with which she performed as a soloist for more than a decade. The orchestra gave about 80 concerts a year and toured widely in Europe.
Meanwhile, Ms. Min began singing in Chinese clubs, backed by saxophone, electric guitar and drums. Sudden exposure to Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and other American pop stars was ear-opening. Though Ms. Min had been trained by her father to sing Beijing opera, her voice proved adaptable to cooler Western styles. Some of her father’s colleagues were not pleased.
In 1992 she felt the need for something new and moved to San Francisco. It was in the Bay Area that she first encountered nontonal concert works by immigrant Chinese composers. “That was challenging,” she said, “all kinds of new rhythms and meters. I had to practice a lot, sometimes eight hours on a couple of measures.”
Ms. Min moved to New York in 1996. (She now lives in Forest Hills.) Months after arriving, she played at the Knitting Factory. The composer-saxophonist John Zorn was there, and he invited her to make a recording with the guitarist Derek Bailey. The entire CD, produced by Mr. Zorn, was to be improvised.
“I said, ‘I don’t know how to do it,”‘ she recalled. “In China that kind of individualism was not encouraged. I always needed someone to tell me what to do. In traditional music you could improvise some ornaments, and that was it. John said I should listen to Derek’s recordings and decide.
“Derek made guitar sounds I had never imagined. I felt sparks and colors — like a Dalí or Picasso painting. I even practiced by improvising along with his CD’s. A week later I phoned John and said, ‘O.K., I can do it.”‘
In 2003, Ms. Min was invited by Jazz at Lincoln Center to perform a 30-minute solo set of Thelonious Monk compositions.
“At first, I thought he was actually a monk,” she said. “Little by little, I started to like his music. It reminded me of different styles of Chinese calligraphy: standard script, clerical script, seal script and especially the running script, a very fast, very free style with a little improvisation involved. And my contact with his music felt physical. Even though I had a year to prepare, I honestly wasn’t ready for this engagement. But the feedback was so positive that I wanted to continue.”
Moving on to works by Davis and Ellington, Ms. Min conceived a mission to build a bridge between American jazz classics and Chinese tradition.
The variety of settings in which Ms. Min has performed, from clubs to concert halls, with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and other American orchestras, tells the story of her versatility. Her repertory with orchestra includes “Two Poems From Tang” by Zhou Long, whose unsurpassed gift for combining Chinese and Western instruments parallels Ms. Min’s intermingling of Chinese and Western genres. She also toured Europe in Peter Sellars’s version of the Chinese opera “The Peony Pavilion,” with music by Tan Dun.
Central to all these activities is the pipa itself, which originated 2,000 years ago. The body acquired its present pear shape in the fifth century, influenced by the Middle Eastern oud. Partly because of its considerable weight, it gradually evolved from a horizontally held instrument to one held vertically. Today, there are more than 70 playing techniques, many of which were devised only over the last century.
“I want to show that this instrument, which so far not too many people know, has no limit,” Ms. Min said. “I want to tell the world that there are no boundaries. I can say I’m an avant-garde musician, right? I’d like to go in this direction. I like this kind of feeling. I feel free.”
Min Xiao-fen’s Misterioso and Ask Me Now by Thelonious Monk
MY WEEKEND WITH BENNY
by Mather Pfeiffenberger
PostClassical Ensemble’s mission as an experimental musical laboratory provides a potent vehicle for reassessing and reviving composers who have been unjustly neglected. A prime example of this was the 2016 festival devoted to Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975). We all know Herrmann as a great Hollywood composer (Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo, Citizen Kane, etc.). PCE’s Bernard Herrmann: Screen, Stage, and Radio was the first attempt to reapprise Herrmann’s achievement in all its facets. My appreciation of Herrmann was profoundly changed.
It is also worth mentioning that this experience is now available to anyone via PostClassical. This is the singular radio series that PCE Executive Director Joe Horowitz and Music Director Angel Gil-Ordóñez have been curating for the past year with well-known radio host Bill McLaughlin on WWFM, The Classical Network. New episodes are broadcast every other month and all are archived online here.
Celebrating Bernard Herrmann – in which Horowitz staked the claim that Herrmann is “the most under-rated twentieth century American composer” — was first broadcast this past October and can be found here. You owe it to yourself to listen to it (and all the others as well). You will not find anything like these two-hour programs anywhere else on terrestrial or Internet radio. They feature all the hallmarks we have come to expect from PCE: informed discussion of music and wider cultural topics, with listening selections far outside of the classical “top 40” we have all heard endless times. And the studio repartee between Horowitz, Gil-Ordóñez, and McLaughlin is indescribably vivid and frequently controversial.
Here’s a sample (including an amazing Psycho anecdote told by Herrmann’s daughter Dorothy):
Herrmann was a New Yorker born in 1911 to a middle-class Jewish family of Russian origin. In 1934 he joined CBS radio as a staff conductor. In 1936 he was appointed music director of the Columbia Workshop, an experimental radio series. In 1943 he was named conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra and ended up introducing more new music to the US radio audience than any other conductor of his time, with an especial fondness for the works of Charles Ives.
Prior to PCE’s festival, I associated Herrmann with the famous shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho (those eek-eek slashing chords). I also knew that he had worked on radio with Orson Welles as music director for the notorious 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast and later with the radio dramatist Norman Corwin on On a Note of Triumph, written to celebrate V-E Day. I would say that most of my awareness of his work was on a superficial level, as music written to accompany other things going on. By welcome contrast, the aim of PCE’s festival was to focus in on the music itself.
The festival opened with a look at Herrmann’s radio work and featured the array of expertise that only PCE brings to Washington musical events: Christopher Husted, perhaps the foremost living Herrmann scholar; the composer’s daughters Dorothy and Wendy Herrmann; and individuals connected to Norman Corwin, including Corwin’s son-in-law and daughter. They set the stage for the performance of the Herrmann radio work that made the biggest impact of anything I heard during the closing three-day immersion weekend: the world premiere performance of a reconstruction of the 1944 radio drama Whitman with music by Herrmann (strings, piano, percussion, and harp) accompanying poetry by Walt Whitman. It was a revelation!
The burnished, gentle nobility of Herrmann’s score perfectly complemented Leaves of Grass. It’s challenging to hear these qualities in the original radio performance by Charles Laughton that Joe Horowitz brought to WWFM, but give it a try:
PCE will perform Whitman again in 2019 (and record it for Naxos) as part of a Whitman Bicentennial tribute. Don’t miss this concert!
Whitman undeniably clinched the point that Herrmann’s radio work, with its emphasis on scoring dialogue and creating mood, was invaluable training for his film composing. This led PCE to detailed exploration of Herrmann’s most famous score. Here’s PCE’s DC premiere performance of Herrmann’s Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra:
The famous shower scene is here:
As a prelude, PCE treated its audience to the amazing experience of hearing live excerpts from music by Debussy and Bartók, followed by passages from the Psycho score illustrating the influence of those composers — a marvelous way to be educated. At the same time, pace Herrmann, we heard an example of Herrmann borrowing from himself: his 1935 atonal masterpiece, the Sinfonietta for String Orchestra, fed the harrowing Psycho score.
Here – from the PostClassical broadcast — are two passages, one from the second movement of Bartók’s Divertimento for Strings and one from the Herrmann Sinfonietta. Both were likely inspirational for the “Madhouse Cue” and closing scene in Psycho:
Bartók Divertimento excerpt:
Hermann Sinfonietta excerpt:
Psycho Madhouse Cue and closing:
For the next festival highlight, I need to skip ahead by one week to the screening of Vertigo at the National Gallery of Art on April 23. By this time (the festival had begun weeks before), I had a deepened appreciation of Herrmann’s talent and stylistic traits. Although Vertigo starts out sounding “modern” (ascending and descending spirals in clashing harmony to depict the vertigo afflicting the main character, John “Scottie” Ferguson, played by James Stewart) — it is soon apparent that this film clearly exemplifies Herrmann’s artistic credo: “My feelings and yearnings are those of a composer of the nineteenth century.”
In this case, the artistic model is Wagner, specifically and fittingly Tristan and Isolde, with a touch of extra madness added. One of the most purely beautiful pieces that Herrmann ever wrote is the Love Scene from Vertigo. The opening in the high strings hints at the elusive, desperate nature of Scottie’s quest for “Madeleine Elster” (actually the disguised Judy Barton played by Kim Novak), which becomes more frantic and driven as the piece proceeds until finally settling into a tentative peace. Here is the Love Scene performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen:
Note the passage from Vertigo with the famous four-note falling theme, clearly inspired by the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.
This romantic idiom forms the background for Herrmann’s Souvenirs de Voyage, the final highlight in this survey. It is a 25-minute clarinet quintet composed in 1967 as a wedding gift for Herrmann’s third wife — another revelation. A brief callback to Vertigo and Tristan can even be heard:
Joe Horowitz called Souvenirs de Voyage the best chamber music work by an American; I would certainly place it in the top two or three. Here is the complete hypnotic performance from the PCE festival, introduced first by Joe, Angel, and Bill and followed by their assessment of Herrmann’s place in musical history:
In short, I left the PCE Herrmann festival newly aware that Bernard Herrmann was the great American composer who had been under my nose for years. His music is substantive, impeccably crafted and orchestrated, compelling, and appealing. And if nothing else, the festival’s examination of Herrmann “in the round” showed that he likely accomplished more across a wider range of media than any other American composer. If you want to delve further into his importance, there is no better start than the full WWFM PostClassical episode on Herrmann found here. Beyond that, on YouTube you’ll find the cantata Moby Dick, the eloquent and wide-ranging Symphony, the moving wartime cameo For the Fallen, Echoes for String Quartet, and the opera Wuthering Heights. I should also mention Herrmann’s charming Currier & Ives Suite that has an appropriate holiday reference: a quotation of Jingle Bells in the final movement:
As for the film music, Herrmann worked with an array of talented directors and one cannot go wrong with the following scores: Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles), The Devil and Daniel Webster (Wilhelm Dieterle), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Herrmann’s favorite film score (Joseph L. Mankiewicz), The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise), the Alfred Hitchcock triumvirate of Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho, Jason and the Argonauts (Ray Harryhausen), Fahrenheit 451 (François Truffaut), and Taxi Driver, Herrmann’s final jazz-infused score from 1975 (Martin Scorsese).
Finally, Herrmann’s television scores are worth mentioning. You are probably already familiar with some of them. He wrote music for two Christmas specials that could give Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors a run for its money: A Christmas Carol (1954) with Frederic March and Basil Rathbone and A Child is Born (1955, repeated 1956) introduced by Ronald, Nancy, and Patti Reagan and featuring soprano Nadine Connor.
Herrmann also composed the mysterious first season theme for The Twilight Zone (different than the later, more famous doo-doo-doo-doo theme by Marius Constant) and the opening theme for the western Have Gun Will Travel. By now, you should recognize even these short selections as clearly by Herrmann.
Finally, if you still haven’t gotten enough and want to connect with other lovers of Bernard Herrmann’s music, the Bernard Herrmann Society should fill the bill.
And what of future Herrmann performances? We in Washington have the 2019 Walt Whitman festival to look forward to. But surely a composer with as wide and varied a body of work as Herrmann deserves many more frequent performances. The Symphony was presented this past November in New York for the first time in 76 years. Does this give hope for a performance in Washington soon? Surely one of DC’s many choruses could take up Moby Dick (memorably sampled on PostClassical here). And could we dare hope for a staged or concert performance of Wuthering Heights?
What is certain is that PostClassical Ensemble will continue to play a key role in the necessary reassessment of Bernard Herrmann — for which we can all be grateful.