Bright Sheng: Flute Moon
Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng is known for his clever mixing Western and Asian cultures within music. Sheng’s Asian influences come from his intense study of musical cultures over the past thirty years. His music pushes boundaries, whilst also remaining palatable for the everyday listener. Composed in 1999, Flute Moon is a perfect example of when musical worlds collide on one stage.
Split into two movements, Flute Moon is modestly scored for piccolo flute, harp, piano, extensive percussion and string orchestra. The work is dedicated to Christoph Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony Orchestra.
Movement I – Chi Lin’s Dance
Sheng describes the name choice and his influences for the first movement:
“Chi-Lin, the Chinese unicorn, also known as the “dragon horse”, is one of the four spiritual creatures in Chinese mythology (the others are the dragon, the phoenix and the tortoise). It is supposed to combine the body of the musk deer with the tail of an ox, the forehead of a wolf, and the hoofs of a horse. Eighteen feet high and covered with scales like a fish, its skin is of five colors–red, blue, white, black, with yellow under the belly. In short, it has a monstrous appearance albeit it symbolizes benevolence and rectitude.
The male is called Chi (represented here by the string orchestra), and the female Lin (represented by the piccolo). Except for the single horn which protrudes from the forehead of the male unicorn, the appearance of the two genders is otherwise identical. It is said that Chinese unicorns last appeared in the halcyon days of the Emperor Yao (the famous legendary Emperor of China’s Golden Age in the third millennium BC), but so degenerate has mankind since become, that they have never thereafter shown themselves.”
The driving force of the opening is led by the lower strings and piano. The power of Chi-Li lives through these bottom-end instruments as Sheng digs deep to present the main theme. As Sheng describes, the monstrous appearance is synonymous with the opening atmosphere. A dramatic drop in dynamic builds tension and bombastic percussion make an appearance. The dichotomy between the different voices around the orchestra makes for quite the experience for the listener.
A solo piccolo flute, representing the female Lin, led melodically during the second half of the movement. The piercing tone of the instrument goes against the rich and dark male-inspried string orchestra accompaniment. Sheng’s use of syncopation and decorations in the melody line creates two distinct voices playing off one another. As the drama reaches its height, the opening movement closes with a sweet piccolo flourish.
Movement II – Flute Moon
Based on the melody of an art song by poet Jiang Kui, Flute Moon is inspired by these words:
Oh, moonlight, my old friend,
How many times have you accompanied
My flute beside the wintersweet blossom?
We plucked a sprig to arouse her beauty,
In the brisk and frosty air.
But now your poet is getting old,
And he has forgotten the love and lyrics;
Yet, he still resents the few flowers beyond the bamboo,
For their chilling fragrance has crept into his chamber.
(Translated by Bright Sheng)
Sheng describes in his notes that:
“I was particularly attracted by the poet’s subtle metaphorical expressions. In this poem, the poet reminiscences and laments China’s prosperity before the invasions under the moonlight.”
Unlike the opening movement, Flute Moon is atmospheric, quiet and mysterious. It takes nearly three minutes to hear anything that resembles a melody, which builds the intensity of the movement from the start. Using the flute instead rather than the piccolo, Sheng places fast orchestral flourishes together to create swells of sound that bring the orchestra together. Snapshots of a theme are heard in these sections, either led by the flute or upper strings. The extensive use of percussion, cymbals and tam-tams in particular, show the broad texture palette that Sheng is working with.
Between dramatic changes, quiet solo sections and powerful tutti exclamations, we find ourselves amidst another flute solo. The sensitivity here is what makes this section stand out from the rest. As the texture begins to grow, so does the rate of melodic development. Perhaps the sweetest interlude across both movements, Sheng’s lyrical writing shines here. As the tempo fluctuates, this extended flute solo comes to a quite and poignant end. A small orchestral flourish led by the instrument concludes Flute Moon with bundles of awe and wonder.
Ⓒ Alex Burns