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JIA Daqun (b.1955)
Percussion Works
Pole (1996) [10:34]
The Song without Words (1997) [22:21
Prologue of Drums (1994) [9:11]
Sound Games (2000) [18:21]
Lu Zhengdao (percussion)
Stick Game Percussion Ensemble
Gu Feng Percussion Ensemble
rec. 2017, No.100 Studio, Beijing
NAXOS 8.579028 [60:26]

Last year I reviewed the second Naxos release of Jia Daqun’s chamber music and I shall not rehearse here the details of this fascinating Chinese composer: if the name is unfamiliar, you can refer to my earlier review to learn something of his background. Suffice it to say he remains on the staff of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and it is that organisation which has supported this release as part of its 90th anniversary celebrations.

Jia’s output is not large – amounting, so far as I can ascertain, to around three dozen individual works – so to be able to fill a disc with music written just for percussion indicates a particularly intense interest in this area of instrumental writing. This is immediately obvious from the very outset of Pole, a 10-minute piece written in 1996 for Chinese percussion instruments. Full of space and emptiness, the instruments are used sparingly and are sparsely dotted around the score to create a kind of deserted but varied landscape. In his own notes, the composer suggests that Pole was inspired by “the differing local conditions and customs of California” experienced while he was on a visit to the US. We also read that the work “depicts East-West diversity”. Hmmm! Far rather sit back and enjoy this highly atmospheric and effective piece for its arresting qualities than try to identify some political or symbolic undercurrent. It is brilliantly performed here in a stunning recording.

The only work on the disc which is performed by a single player, The Song without Words, comprises three movements each highlighting a different percussion instrument. Lu Zhengdao makes his way seamlessly around no less than 25 different kinds of percussion instrument, the number symbolic of the original purpose behind the work’s commission; to mark the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Japan.

The first movement introduces us to the Octoban, (“deep, small diameter, single-head tom-toms often positioned in groups of eight”), and provides a brilliant virtuoso opportunity for Lu, who is a member of the percussion faculty at Shanghai Conservatory as well as of the China National Opera Symphony Orchestra. In the second movement Jia attempts to relate the music even more to the object of the original commission by basing it around two pentatonic melodies which “represent Chinese culture and Japanese culture”, although I regret to say, I am not sure which is which. The past decades may have seen Sino-Japanese relations relatively benign, but there is an eternity of enmity between these two ancient civilisations, and Jia maintains a reserved, almost distant feel, as if the two instruments are treading warily around each other rather heading for a warm embrace. The sense of stillness and space here is quite magical, and again it is superbly aided by an astounding recording. The third movement celebrates drums, but quite a lot more besides. While it is certainly the most extrovert and powerfully driven movement, it uses its material sparingly, keeping plenty of space for the ear to absorb the evolving timbres of these different instruments, and holding back on higher end dynamics so that the subtleties of the writing are not obscured by the sheer volume of it all. Lu proves to be both a highly capable and intuitive player who presents this work in a marvellously rich and poised manner.

If The Song without Words sought to identify links between Japan and China, Jia describes Prologue of Drums as being “quintessentially Chinese”. That Chinese-ness derives from the playing techniques which are drawn from traditional Chinese painting. During the Cultural Revolution Jia studied traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting and here he suggests he has “musically structured” techniques he learnt then. Even more, the Chinese-ness is enhanced by the Chinese wind instruments and occasional shouts which provide a distantly raucous backdrop to Lu’s highly muscular drumming. This is an extremely effective work which, typical of Jia’s style, uses its resources sparingly to make a highly impressive effect. There is none of the in-your-face percussion playing which characterises so much Chinese percussion music; rather this is a work which emphasises the delicacy and fragility of the drum heads. Only towards the end does it set up any kind of sustained rhythmic momentum – something which is surprisingly rare during this one hour long programme.

The concluding work on the disc is also the most recent. Sound Games was written in 2000 for a festival of Chinese music held in Paris. As might be expected from a work intended to showcase Chinese culture, the music highlights a number of traditional Chinese instruments both as solo and in accompanying roles. Jia writes that “the work is saturated with the rich yet elegant folk customs” of China, but the delicacy and finesse of the visual artist is never far from the surface, and far from being just a musical picture-postcard of Chinese culture, Jia has created a deep and effective piece which uses subtle pastel shades rather than vivid splashes of primary colour.

Interestingly, perhaps the most abiding impression from this disc is not so much the sounds created as the large tracts of silence which, like the painter’s blank canvas, give the sounds when they do appear all the more impact. This is an extremely rewarding disc which will surprise anyone who thinks of percussion works as being about rhythm, noise and aggression.

Marc Rochester



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