Fan Li-bin & Zhang Yi-cheng
Ode To Time presents the devotional aspect of Chinese song played with guqin (7-string zither) and xiao (end-blown flute) in a recital of traditional aesthetics and modern melodies. Guqin master Fan Li-bin was born in Taiwan but displays a broad understanding of Asian spiritual impulse, having studied Buddhist philosophy and Zen meditation. Here he presents nine original pieces in an unrushed offering of praise and reflection. The majority of the songs feature Li-bin's delicately fingered, stillness-awakening guqin as he sings poems with meditative comport. To heighten the atmosphere of dedication, Li-bin uses flute accompanist Yi-cheng sparingly, and abandons accompaniment altogether in the concluding solo chant "Praise to Buddha." Though he does not have the voice of a monk, Li-bin's tenor still aims to strike a chord with distant Himalayan and even Japanese monastic sources.
The second of the two installments in the Solar Music Series by these two accomplished performers, Moon on Guan Mountain, illustrates Li-bin's more secular but no less tender concerns. Specifically, the springtime elation and unlucky Autumn blues of love. Here, Zhang Yi-cheng's xiao plays a more active role in this set of 15 folk songs penned either by Li-bin himself or Chinese & Taiwanese ancestors.
Each of these discs, though distinct in their respective themes, offers a spiritual tonic. Rhythmically and harmonically both sets reveal a common basis in sound and purpose, to ease the mind rightly onto the invisible foundation of the world. The big bonus here is that, appropriate to the material, the sound quality is so superb for each CD, the listener can immerse in it alone for spa-like healing. Kavi Alexander is a recordist famed in the audiophile community for his warm, highly dimensional recordings of the top talents in ethnic and world music. The production is all-analog, captured at his venue of choice, the Christ The King Chapel in Santa Barbara, California, and couldn't have made for a more apt enhancement of the event.
The Chinese long zither has 21 steel and nylon strings and though it has less range still comes close to matching the deeper timbral impact of a European harp. In her hands, Lien's guzheng becomes an object of limpid grace as she presents 10 pieces from seven different schools of guzheng playing. Each school, including the five majors - Chaozhou, Hakka, Henan, Shandong and Zejiang) - has a topical focus on this album. Likened to painting, the different styles seem to mirror the manner of genre, landscape, still life etc. but also attach to pure emotion. From "Mountains & Streams," "Moon on the Lake," "A Flight of Stairs," to "Parasite Grass," "Women" and "Autumn Ducks at Play," Wang Lien summons the essence of motion, pathos and poetry in all of these subjects and scenes. It is noteworthy to observe that the major key tuning remains the same for all of the pieces. As a result happiness and pain tonally resemble one another in this music, which provides valuable contrast and insight for Westerners. While The Lotus That Stands Out is long on patience and elemental beauty, it is also distinguished by its fantastic acoustic presentation. And here again, producer Alexander is at his best with an extremely fast, harmonically precise, tactile portrait that leaves the listener feasting on every note and shadow.
The di and xiao are both vertically held end-blown flutes whose soft flat tones lend themselves to the rustic immediacy of folk tunes. Shou-Cheng has created an animated recording richer in melodies and faster in tempo than either of the two preceding Solar sessions discussed. His vibrato, rapid trills, and sprite melodies tend more to rouse than massage as a result. Notwithstanding, the same quiet and plastic sense of rhythm mark these 11 performances and link them to the ultimate goal of the contemplative state. The songs take their inspiration from a familiar clan of archetypes central to the Chinese nature experience: autumn, the moon, mountains, waters. Complementing the other Solar titles reviewed here, the emphasis on Pastoral Song is more of travel, of journey and pilgrimage, and geo-piety. Because Chinese music scales do not suggest a polarity of feeling, emotions are described more in variances of velocity and degree of decoration. And in this regard Shou-Cheng constructs and articulates a thoughtful assortment of related moods. Yet, though rife with lively texture and color, Pastoral Song still relaxes and soothes like its sister editions, aided supremely by the acoustic climate of the church.
Taken together, these four discs make fine companions for those inured to sacred Chinese art music. The resonant production, kicked up to sonic perfection in the digital format, along with superb playback quality, proves them very attractive additions to the library of any deep listener. - Steve Taylor
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