Du Yun and the JACK Quartet release their first collaboration, A Cockroach’s Tarantella.
A Cockroach’s Tarantella features two versions of the title piece, written by Du Yun for string quartet and spoken narrative, performed by JACK and with the composer narrating: one in English and one in Chinese. Also included are Du Yun’s string quartet Tattooed in Snow, written in 2014, and two improvisations: Epilogue and Prologue. The Epilogue is based on a field recording by a news reporter, Yang Nan, of a market in Wuhan, China on the first day it opened after lockdown in March 2020.
Recorded June 24 & 25, 2020 at Oktaven Studios Released August 13, 2020 on Modern Sky Records
Composed by Du Yun (ASCAP) Executive Producer: Du Yun Produced by Du Yun, Ryan Streber Recorded, mixed, and mastered by Ryan Streber @ Oktaven Audio Recording Dates: June 24 & 25th 2020
Album Cover Art Direction: Spa Theory Hair and Makeup Artist: Nina Carelli Photography: Qin Zhen Album design: Ding Jianjian
A Cockroach’s Tarantella: story by Du Yun. Story written in English (2006) and Chinese (2019). A Cockroach’s Tarantella was commissioned by Chamber Music America.
Tattooed in Snow was commissioned by PEAK Performances.
Thanks to JACK Quartet, Qin Zhen, Angela Fan, James Egelhofer, Jamie Leidwinger, Dayan Liu, Eben Askins, David T. Little, and Shahzia Sikander.
Du Yun’s music spans a vast stylistic spectrum, from ancient-sounding, hymnal strains to scratching, scraping string timbres. The transitions from one extreme to another occur with organic ease, and the music is seamlessly woven around Du Yun’s speaking voice, which is a mesmerizing instrument in itself
The irrepressible, idiosyncratic composer Du Yun not only recorded a new album in late June—with the reliably commanding JACK Quartet—but also fast-tracked its release, in streaming and downloadable formats, on the Chinese label Modern Sky. The 2010 piece that lends its title to the collection appears in two versions, one narrated by the composer in English and another in Chinese. The text, also by Du Yun, wrings poignancy from the musings of a pregnant cockroach who desires resurrection as a human, pondering the expectations and the strictures imposed by society and gender. In “Tattooed in Snow,” written, in 2015, for distanced players, ghostly melodies coalesce from jagged turbulence. The fragile opening improvisation, “Epilogue,” includes sounds recorded at a Wuhan market in March, the day after the city’s lockdown ended. That music is echoed in “Prologue,” which concludes this vivid collection like a fading memory.
Du Yun – A Cockroach’s TarantellaWe hear a lot about “resilience” in these quarentimes, and there is no better symbol of resilience than the lowly cockroach, a survivor’s survivor for over 350 million years. In this piece, which Du Yun completed a decade ago, the wonderfully imaginative composer goes Kafka one better, arriving at a complete mind meld with the titular insect. And her roach is a true individualist, sick of lugging around her eggs and longing for human emotions. For all the times when our feelings are a burden, consider seeing 20 of your children exterminated and not being able to feel anything. Du Yun, as committed a performer as she is a composer, delivers the roach’s tale in a tart, conversational fashion, in both English and Chinese, not overselling the fantastical nature of the piece. If this all sounds a bit abstract to you, get a gander at Julian Crouch’s wondrous short film, and all will become clear.
In this recording, miraculously made just a month or two ago, Du Yun is given the perfect accompaniment by the JACK Quartet, who navigate the dynamics of the piece perfectly. They also shine on Tattooed On Snow, a 15-minute piece for string quartet from 2014 getting its first recording here. It has a cinematic sweep and no small amount of insectile sounds of its own, making for a compact introduction to Du Yun’s sound world. The album is bookended by two short pieces, Epilogue and Prologue (in that order), with the former featuring field recordings from Wuhan’s market just after the lockdown was lifted. While the subjects of alienation and feeling uncomfortable in one’s own skin are evergreen, this is an album that will help us locate what it meant to human in 2020.
It’s All About Perspective In Du Yun’s “A Cockroach’s Tarantella”
IS THERE A RIGHT WAY TO LISTEN TO AN ALBUM? HOW LITERALLY SHOULD A LISTENER TAKE THE TRACK LAYOUT OF AN ALBUM? DOES LEARNING THE INTENDED LISTENING EXPERIENCE OF THE COMPOSER BRING YOU CLOSER TO A WORK? WHAT IS INNATE TO A WORK, WHAT IS PERSPECTIVE AND HOW DOES LISTENING ORDER IMPACT AN INTERPRETATION? THESE ARE SOME OF THE QUESTIONS RUMMAGING THROUGH MY MIND AFTER SPEAKING WITH DU YUN ABOUT HER ALBUM A COCKROACH’S TARANTELLA, PERFORMED MARVELOUSLY BY JACK QUARTET WITH DU YUN.
MY LISTENING EXPERIENCE
My first listening experience of A Cockroach’s Tarantella was a particularly pleasurable and illuminating one, so I’m going to share it. It comes with the caveat that this is not the listening experience that Du Yun intended. I’ll be thoroughly sharing her thoughts and intentions later in the piece.
The album, A Cockroach’s Tarantella, is for string quartet, electronics and narrator (Du Yun). The album begins with a four-minute Epilogue, immediately setting the tone for a work that is cyclical in nature. In this opening track, the sliding strings are simultaneously deeply grounding and disconcerting. Out of these morphing consonances and dissonances enters the unfamiliar: a male voice calling out regularly in Chinese, the sound of seagulls, flapping wings perhaps. And just as it emerges, it slips out of the sonic picture, much like the sliding of the string parts.
As if abruptly woken, from this Epilogue the story begins. This is the work A Cockroach’s Tarantella within the album of the same name. Du Yun’s warm voice enters alone with the unexpected line, “I have been pregnant, for as long as I could remember”. From here, there is a switch in musical language and the strings begin the underlying churning component to the story with a snap. Listening through the work, my mind took note of the strings and the tone of Du Yun’s voice, but primarily followed Du Yun’s captivating story. It is the story of a cockroach who is bored with her life, yearns to become a human, wants to have babies out of love, desires to cry and prays to both God and Buddha in the hopes that one of them will turn her into a human in four months. https://www.youtube.com/embed/AEQ46PrUWBM?wmode=opaque&enablejsapi=1
A Short Film: A Cockroach’s Tarantella, Short Animation Collaboration Between Julian Crouch and Du Yun
The story switches tones on a dime. At one moment we’re laughing with Du Yun, then sad for this creature and everything in between while being a little uneasy thinking about cockroaches for such a prolonged period. Throughout the work, the strings continue cyclical sounding musical material, moving and constantly transforming. Like the cockroach who is stuck in this life while trying to become a human, the string parts stay busy but are unable to reach a final destination.
OFF I GO
Even with the often uneasy nature of the story, the work has an oddly soothing and coaxing quality. By the end of the English version of A Cockroach’s Tarantella, I was ready to be guided into whatever musical material Du Yun presented next. Ocean is the final track in the story, which has a beautiful underwater quality to the voice and electronics that gently drifts you into the unknown, ending with the line “Off I go”, propelled into the next life.
TATTOOED IN SNOW
For me, this point is the real trick of the album. From the ending of this story there is a seamless transition to the substantial central work, Tattooed In Snow, which when relaxed after listening to the story has a dreamlike quality to it. Musical ideas surface and submerge like waves. It is the in between, the transitory, guiding from one life to the next. Glimpses of the past manifest, glorious moments of counterpoint come to the forefront only to be swept back into the depths. From here there is a recurrence of sliding, reminiscent violent bug-like thrown musical motifs and swells. It is a constantly shifting platform and is long enough to give an aural reset. There is a difference here in the string writing from what was heard before, an expansiveness and sense of allowing.
HEARING THE WORK FROM A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
After feeling like we’ve gone on this journey and perhaps might arrive in a new place, the cycle resets. A Cockroach’s Tarantella begins again, but this time it is spoken in Chinese. It is the same story and musical material, but from a different perspective which fundamentally alters the listening experience. As a native-English speaker who doesn’t speak Chinese, my attention was drawn to the sound of and inflections in Du Yun’s voice and the string parts grasped my attention. Hearing the work in Chinese after hearing it in English shaped how I heard it as little memories popped into my mind of what I thought was going on in this part of the piece or that, but the memory was fuzzy. Similarly, hearing the work in Chinese after hearing it in English made me want to listen in English again to notice the differences in tone, tempo and perhaps pick up on more details that I might have missed. This listening experience allowed me to see the same thing from a different perspective and notice what had been there all along. My experience of the work A Cockroach’s Tarantella was fundamentally shaped by listening to it in both languages and the layout of the album as a whole. In the spirit of talking about the same thing from a different perspective, we will shift to my discussion with Du Yun regarding this work.
THE DEEP ‘WHY’
One of the first things that I thought of when listening to A Cockroach’s Tarantella was Kafka’s best-known story The Metamorphosis, in which salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself inextricably transformed into a huge insect, a monstrous vermin. I heard A Cockroach’s Tarantella as at least partly influenced by this work, a kind of inverse. I’ve always pictured the bug as a cockroach, Du Yun has always pictured a beetle, and the internet doesn’t seem to have a definitive answer. “It’s one of those stories that I don’t mind associating with as I think it’s one of the best stories written in modern times. It really addresses the human condition within a social context and framework,” says Du Yun. “The inspiration is actually very far away from that story, but at the same time The Metamorphosis informs my story. The deep ‘why’ is that I grew up with stories about reincarnation, that’s the culture that I came from. It’s not unheard of that you become something else. One of the oldest sayings if you feel in debt to a person is saying that you want to be a horse to that person. That’s one of the vernaculars that we use. Then of course there’s the reason of what angels and fairies mean. Who gets to be thrown into the world? Who gets to be a human?”
LIFE BEFORE STORY
Du Yun began writing the story for A Cockroach’s Tarantella back in 2004, when she was 25. She wrote the story as she was simultaneously finishing her first chamber opera, Zolle (2005), a 55-minute one-act opera with narration and singing. “Zolle starts with the main character being a ghost. It’s an afterlife story. As I was finishing that piece, I realized that it would be really nice to have a life-before story,” says Du Yun. A Cockroach’s Tarantella became that work. “I never wanted to write a string quartet for the sake of writing a string quartet, because it’s one of those overly weighted forms. But with a story like this attached it feels a lot more lighthearted, it doesn’t feel like I’m writing an Opus. That way I can free myself from the associations of Beethoven, Bartok and Ligeti.”
A few years later, Du Yun was speaking with iO Quartet and they got a grant from Chamber Music America commissioning Du Yun to compose A Cockroach’s Tarantella. She started writing the piece in 2008 and the premiere was in February of 2010.
TRANSLATING THE STORY INTO CHINESE
Fast forward to October 2019, when the Beijing Music Festival programmed Du Yun’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Angel’s Bone. As Du Yun is an exceptional performer and composer, they wanted to also feature her somehow as a performer. That’s when she had an idea. “I used that opportunity to translate the story (A Cockroach’s Tarantella) back into Chinese. I didn’t feel like I wanted to narrate in English to my people. I never believe in a hard translation, like word to word, I go for the spirit of the words,” says Du Yun. “Somehow, the Chinese version is much more fun and goofy. When I deliver it I recite it much faster, that’s why the duration of that piece is shorter than the English one.” https://www.youtube.com/embed/1uTyGH93J9Y?wmode=opaque&enablejsapi=1
Abigail Fischer sings Mrs. X.E.’s Mirror Scene (Angel’s Bone)
When JACK Quartet approached Du Yun wanting to perform her works, the idea for the album A Cockroach’s Tarantella was born and the album was recorded in June 2020 and released on Modern Sky Records. A Cockroach’s Tarantella showcases the concert music side of Du Yun’s musical practice, the label will soon also be releasing an album featuring her band.
It became immediately apparent when discussing A Cockroach’s Tarantella as an album with Du Yun that we had some fundamental differences in how we approached listening to it. Questions are always framed from a particular lens, and as my questions stumbled around what appeared to not be her intention, I briefly shared my experience with the album, which I share in greater detail above. “I love how you listen. I’ve never heard it like that because I understand both languages,” says Du Yun. “But when I listen to European films or films from other regions I notice other camera work. You scan once over the subtitle, you get it, and then your eyes are wide open to wander.”
The string parts in A Cockroach’s Tarantella seemed decidedly cyclical to me. I asked if she used any formal systems when composing these to give the parts this sense of endless business while going nowhere (which I meant as a compliment). “No, but it’s interesting to have people listen differently. Just like you have performers who perform differently, and you welcome that performance, I think it’s fantastic when you have audiences who approach listening very differently”, says Du Yun. “Your listening would never be my listening. Especially since our understanding of language comes from a different place.”
That led me to my next questions about language. Would the order switch for someone who spoke only Chinese so that English would come last? Was the order intentional? “With the order, absolutely that was intentional. But I have to be honest, when I wrote the music I didn’t think about this. It was just a story of a cockroach and I wrote it in English, and that was that, and last year I wanted to do it in Chinese because I wanted to perform to a Chinese audience,” says Du Yun. “But when I was thinking about an album, it begins with the improvisatory Epilogue. The sound that you hear in Epilogue is the Wuhan market and it’s real, not from the internet. It’s from my friend who’s a journalist who was stationed there for four months and was writing for the best journals in China. She covered Wuhan during the lockdown and the rebirth. So I asked her to send me sounds. Out of the many sounds that she sent me I chose this one because it’s the least emotional. A lot of the recordings are very emotional, with sirens, calling 119. But this is just people calling out like lottery numbers. It was the first day after lockdown.”
“Wuhan is definitely because of 2020. We recorded the album in late June. The first day that we rehearsed was incidentally on my birthday, June 18. It was the first day for all of us to take the subway and the first time that the JACK Quartet rehearsed in person since March,” says Du Yun. “It was very powerful to hear music in the same room. Before I wanted to have maybe a two-minute improvisation (Epilogue) but they did so well, that’s why it was longer. When we were in the studio, we were so excited that we were able to do something. There’s hope in the opening improvisation.”
From here, we will shift once again as the discussion becomes more conversational.
WINGS THAT DON’T WORK
Anna Heflin: I’m curious about this recurring theme of wings that don’t work in your pieces. Obviously this is a theme in Angel’s Bone, and there’s a line about the wings of the cockroach not working. What draws you back time and again to that idea?
Du Yun: Well, wings actually mean ambition. Wings are devices and resources that enable you to pursue any opportunities that you might have. I don’t feel like I have wings, many people, especially immigrants, feel this way. I have imagination, imaginative wings that allow me to make my dreams fly. There’s another piece, dreams-bend that deals with that. It was about a dream where I soared over roofs and cliffs and the wings didn’t fly, but I flew with the speed of my blood. The blood is your urge, your reason for being. I think that’s quite to the point of who I am.
AH: Can you talk about the role that writing and specifically storytelling plays in your creative process? Are you writing anything now?
DY: Yes I’m writing stories, always writing stories. When I’m dealing with large forms in music, I come up with stories for me to function as a structure. Some people use sound phenomena or images, I use a storyboard. It doesn’t have to be linear, but it’s a device I use.
So in the mixing of A Cockroach’s Tarantella I made a decision to break it into sections as it’s a nonstop piece. The text has always been without track titles, but the piece goes to many different corners which are a lot like scenes. So I thought it would be more interesting to break it up into separate tracks in the digital format so that it’s more like a scenery. I thought it would be more fun to approach it this way. Did you think it was more fun?
AH: I did and after listening to the album straight through, I hopped around and listened to the corresponding tracks in English and Chinese to focus on the differences in inflection. It makes me question how my hearing literally changes when listening in different languages.
DY: I appreciate that a lot. Because it’s speaking to a thing that I’ve always been working on, which is the nuance of language which is the nuance of the culture that we inhibit. To say that you’re American and I’m Chinese born is not enough. That’s what the nuance of language brings. If you pay attention to the nuance and subtlety, you realize that it’s much more than just the label. It opens up what the Chinese could mean, what the English could entitle, and shows how the images are different from each other even though they are talking about the same story. Sometimes lost in translation often gets into our way. How can we communicate with each other and how can we really navigate the communication gap? How do we transcend that, right?
AH: I couldn’t agree more, it also makes me question what I’ve been aurally fixated on the whole time when listening to the piece in English. What have I been ignoring while I’ve been telling a story in my head?
DY: Exactly because English is your native language so you’re not sensitive to other tones. When you listen in a different language, your brain frees up. This is how you position yourself as an immigrant or as a foreigner because this is how the psyche really works.
AH: That’s brilliant. I think that I have everything that I need, is there anything else that you want to add?
ANALYSIS OF METAPHORS
DY: I don’t think so. Except….maybe it’s important for me to touch upon, and for you to include this. When we’re dealing with a work with a story, or anything programmatic, sometimes it is just what it is. The over contextualizing and framework could actually bring the work further away from what it actually means.
AH: Do you specifically mean the analysis of metaphors?
DY: Yes. Metaphors mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But I welcome your interpretation and I can’t dictate how things will be listened to and experienced.
AH: To me, the pieces back to back in different languages with a transition given the subject material does feel like we move into another life that allows us to see things from a new perspective. It didn’t seem like you strongly disagreed with that.
DY: The album is just an album. The piece is a stand alone piece. Analyzing the album is an independent question, if that makes sense. Because for me, this piece existed before the album. And the album is a documentation of that piece. But I think that whether or not the piece is reincarnated into or not into Chinese is irrelevant for me.
AH: So would it be an equally valid experience for a native English speaker to only listen to the English version and someone who speaks Chinese to just listen to the Chinese version?
DY: Yeah, totally! I showed a lot of my friends just the Chinese version. I don’t think that people need to hear both. It would be nice if they heard both but that’s not the point for me. But I really appreciate how you listen.
In a society in China or (say), India, you feel like at such an age you must be a mother. And it’s often asked what the use of a career is if you’re not a mother. Still to this day, women are wrestling with that, including a highly educated demographic. This one woman who’s in her early thirties, and is beautiful and very successful, burst into tears when she heard this piece. And it’s not because she was so moved by the music. She was moved by the story because she could hear the cockroach ask ‘what is it like to be pregnant out of love?’. So in different demographics it will resonate differently. This is what matters to me, I feel like we aren’t even as wise as a cockroach. As a human being, the first thing you think when you hear ‘cockroach’ is extermination. It’s never cute. Cockroaches can exist through a nuclear bomb.
AH: The first word I think of is ‘survive’.
DY: Yes it’s like survival and resilience. In the story, she keeps trying to be a woman and fails. She loses count of how many times she tries. It’s also a ubiquitous insect, we all know what it means. This is a very feminist piece. This piece is from the female perspective and I’m not shying away from that. I think the first line is the best line of it. (‘I have been pregnant for as long as I could remember’)
AH: I’d agree with that. I feel like it’s so apparent that I don’t know how much I need to push that.
‘PREGNANT’ LABELED EXPLICIT
DY: Well I’m not going to tell you what to write about but this is how I see it. Just the word ‘feminist’ means such different things in different regions. In many regions of the world, people don’t even get to talk about feminism. They’re not allowed, not encouraged, shunned, ashamed, or afraid that they wouldn’t be a good ally. Feminism is a shunned word, it’s not a badge of honor in many regions. Maybe you have seen it, I was so mind boggled. I have to submit to the Chinese government first to approve the text because it’s through the Chinese label, Modern Sky. The “Piety in Motion” section was originally submitted as “God and Buddha”. The title was changed because the label said it could be too religious, and I then think the title “Piety in Motion” is a lot better in a lot of ways. She’s very funny in that movement, like a teenager. But then it’s really sad when she’s talking about her delivery. I had tears in my eyes when I delivered that text. So everything was submitted, and then I looked on Spotify and the first section was marked ‘explicit’. The only reason it could be explicit is the line ‘I have been pregnant’. I hate to … be political, and I think this is political. In America people always talk about the surveillance of the Chinese government. But look at this, you can’t even say ‘pregnant’ in America. ‘Pregnant’ is an explicit word. Different governments just use different sets of words. I made a post on Facebook, because you have to make light of it, making fun of it. It couldn’t be ‘cockroach’, every other track has that word. It’s ‘pregnant’. I don’t think I’m imagining this. Later there’s blood involved but that’s not marked explicit. What’s the spectrum of feminism that’s okay to talk about in different regions?
I didn’t want to politicize this, until my work was categorized that way. I don’t mind being explicit, I don’t need to be goody-goody. I thrive on not being that. But how this is being categorized is beyond me. And I think it’s really interesting for us to talk about.
Can you talk with me about something because I’m curious how you listen. You said that the music in A Cockroach’s Tarantella is busy but doesn’t go anywhere, it’s static, and I like that very much. I think it’s because of the short episodic feel to it. Do you feel that Tattooed In Snow functions the same way since it goes through a lot of different places?
AH: If we’re going with my interpretation, I felt it as this dreamlike ocean that propelled me to the next life. The others were cyclical. Tattooed in Snow presents images that fade and allows what’s next to emerge. You’re being led to this place but reflecting on everything that came before. I don’t know if that explains it in an adequate way, but that was my experience of it.
DY: Yes, me too.
October 22, 2020
SET 3: Du Yun and her roommates [1:05:52]⠀ 1. [1:09:39] Du Yun: A Cockroach’s Tarantella. From A Cockroach’s Tarantella 跳塔郎泰拉舞的某蟑螂 (Modern Sky Records, 2020) with Du Yun 杜韻 (voice), JACK String Quartet⠀
Richard Barrett, Agata Zubel, Du Yun & Stuart McLeod all have new albums, and guess who’s got them! From concertos to improv to mad love (including a cockroach as protagonist), Radio Eclectus samples them all, along with avant-berimbau via Luciane Cardassi, Anglo-Dutch postminimalism from the forthcoming Joe Cutler CD, and electroacoustic jamming by the Chantler/Noble/Wright trio. Plus, we honor Japan’s foremost living composer on his 65th birthday, unveil a cool artifact of early live electronic music, and close with an epic instrumental chillout by Vancouverite Jordan Nobles. Radical new music from the Northwest and beyond.
String quartets are among the hardiest and most adaptable of musical organisms. As mobile as rock bands, in some ways even more so, they can appear, do their thing, and slip away into the night. Small wonder that quartets have been especially visible and active during the covid-19 pandemic. If orchestras and opera houses appear to be the dinosaurs of the musical kingdom, reeling from an asteroid blast, quartets and other chamber ensembles might be compared to the birds that survived the Cretaceous period. To be sure, mobility is of little advantage when almost no in-person concerts are taking place and few people are willing to pay to see events online. For the moment, smaller nonprofit groups have been able to apply to foundations and the federal government for relief.
No group has been busier than the JACK Quartet, which, shutdown notwithstanding, has maintained a rigorous schedule of rehearsing, recording, coaching, and online performance. Since March, the members of the JACK—Christopher Otto, Austin Wulliman, John Pickford Richards, and Jay Campbell—have also made five in-person performances: one in a parking lot in Morristown, New Jersey, as part of the Lot of Strings festival, and the others in a canyon and along the Colorado River in Utah, as part of the Moab Music Festival, which regularly stages concerts in acoustically favorable natural spaces. In recent years, the jack has specialized in the wide-open soundscapes of John Luther Adams, and its programs in Utah aptly included Adams’s piece “The Wind in High Places.” In September, the Cold Blue label released the jack’s recording of two other Adams pieces, “Lines Made by Walking” and “untouched”—hypnotic lessons in the building-out of large musical structures from economical means.
The Adams disk was recorded before the pandemic began; so were albums devoted to Cenk Ergün, Clara Iannotta, Scott Lee, and Roger Reynolds, all of which were released this year. But a sixth new album, devoted to the wild, hallucinatory music of the Chinese-American composer Du Yun, was made in June, just after the quartet emerged from quarantine. The principal work is “A Cockroach’s Tarantella,” for speaker and string quartet, in which Du Yun recites—in both English and Chinese—her own story about an insect who longs to be human. This inversion of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” may seem an unappetizing proposition for people who have spent an inordinate amount of time cooped up in confined spaces, but Du Yun builds a surprising degree of sympathy for her cockroach heroine, who is touchingly naïve about the nobility of human existence:
I want to love someone. I want to be loved. I want to live in a community where people—huh, please please let me be one of them—love each other, need each other and, well, are not easily being killed by humans. I’m sure they don’t have enemies themselves. What would be wiser than a human? I have heard that humans are the wisest thing among all the living forms. And because we are not wise you see, we are killed by the humans.
excerpt from “A Cockroach’
Du Yun’s music spans a vast stylistic spectrum, from ancient-sounding, hymnal strains to scratching, scraping string timbres. The transitions from one extreme to another occur with organic ease, and the music is seamlessly woven around Du Yun’s speaking voice, which is a mesmerizing instrument in itself
Editor’s Picks: 2020 Contemporary Classical Albums
If this year has delivered any sort of message about our field, it’s that artists will inevitably find a way. Creative people will always find new ways to innovate and stay connected. This year was an absolute dumpster fire–and yet, the albums highlighted below are a reminder of the importance of art-making through dark and challenging times.
I never set out to create these lists with any sort of preconceived theme or through-line, but the albums I’ve selected this year can be categorized as celebrations of Black artistry, pandemic projects, and socially-conscious art that speaks to our present moment. With I CARE IF YOU LISTEN’s move to join American Composers Forum this year, our commitment to historically underrepresented and marginalized artists has really crystallized into a primary focus on racial equity. All of the projects listed below embody these editorial priorities and are highly deserving of your attention.
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Recorded in June 2020 with special attention to health protocols, A Cockroach’s Tarantella (Modern Sky) brings together superstars Du Yun and JACK Quartet for performances of Tattooed in Snow for string quartet (2017) and A Cockroach’s Tarantella for string quartet and narrator (English version, 2006; Chinese version, 2019), bookended by two short improvisations (“Epilogue” and “Prologue”).
The eponymous work is certainly the showstopper, utilizing cerebral experimental high art as the vehicle for telling the story of a lowly cockroach seeking socialization and love. While this “tarantella” subverts the expected lively musical connotation, JACK Quartet still captures the erratic, make-your-skin-crawl scurrying of these undesirable multi-legged creatures through tinkling col legno battuto, creaking bow overpressure, and hocketed bursts of short, rapid note clusters. The presentation of A Cockroach’s Tarantella in both English and Chinese provides a fascinating case study in the inherent characteristics of language. Du Yun’s narration in the English version is measured, careful, and pragmatic, while the Chinese version brings a different intensity and urgency of storytelling that is more animated, quickly articulated, and tonally contoured.
A Cockroach’s Tarantella is the latest collaboration between JACK Quartet and composer Du Yun. Released on August 13, 2020 by Modern Sky Ltd., the album is a mixture of recent compositions and world premieres. Scored for narrator, string quartet, and electronics, the titular work seeks to define and underscore the meaning of life and the existential dread that all of us feel, even cockroaches. Two narrated versions of A Cockroach’s Tarantella appear on the album, one in English and another in Chinese, both of which are performed by the composer herself.
A bit of a misnomer as epilogues tend to follow story endings, the album’s first track, “Epilogue,” serves as a beginning and features JACK Quartet’s brilliant improvisational prowess. Pitch bends between intervallically distant notes produce a light chromaticism and an atmosphere of general malaise. The slow, yet pulsing tempo contributes to the feeling of cycling between stress and relief. “Epilogue” also features a field recording by news reporter Yang Nan on the first day a market in Wuhan, China opened after having been closed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
JACK Quartet–Photo by Zhen Qin
Told from the perspective of a female cockroach named Uodfy, A Cockroach’s Tarantella begins with an exclamation of pregnancy. The quartet enters loudly and abruptly with a flurry of activity to underscore the excitement. Narrow melodic gestures are followed by more jagged riffs of only two or three notes. These fragmented moments turn into pointillistic chaos in the second movement, “I am Bored.” Call-and-response gestures keep JACK Quartet and Du Yun’s excited, animated, and tonally-varied narration in constant dialogue with one another, while the pacing of the narration and accompaniment quicken to signal impending rhythmic and melodic mayhem. The lack of a tonal center instills a sense of fear and unpredictability for the listener, as if to represent the almost human emotions that cockroaches might feel: joy, happiness, rage, or panic.
Middle movements such as “Next Life,” “Our Village,” and “The Impossible” maintain a balance between consonant, tranquil sustains and interruptions from the narrator to continue the ongoing story. The application of extra pressure on the bow against the strings creates a scratchy tone that is jarring and provides sonic variety. Repeated glissandi are passed around from instrument to instrument, imitating the sounds of sirens. Rhythmic gestures and sudden changes in dynamics and tone mimic the erratic behavior of cockroaches, often appearing and disappearing almost without a trace. These movements further highlight JACK Quartet’s skills as an ensemble, whose technical abilities are excellent.
In the penultimate movement of the piece, “Muilliska,” Du Yun introduces electronics and processing for the narrator’s vocals. Bell-like tones and whistles coupled with intermittent plucking and bowing all come together to produce an arid cacophony, emphasizing the uncertainty of existing in our modern world that is reiterated throughout the work. Ending with “Ocean,” sounds of flowing water painted by sparse textures help to finish off this cockroach’s journey.
Du Yun’s intention to reflect the often tense relationship between humans and cockroaches is cleverly realized by combining spoken text with the various timbral possibilities of the string quartet, which anthropomorphizes these insects. The inclusion of a version of A Cockroach’s Taratenlla in Chinese is reflective of the dualities of Du Yun’s identity as a Chinese-American immigrant and as a composer-performer. Her pride in those identities is unapologetic and provides important framing for understanding why nearly half of the album is dedicated to the same work in a second language.
Du Yun–Photo by Zhen Qin, Makeup by Nina Carelli, Art Direction by SpaTheory
Tattooed in Snow for string quartet features a controlled dissonance and a more formal structure than the rest of the album. Mostly stepwise melodic figures evoke a sense of nostalgia and sentimentality, while tight harmonies provide a greater feeling of cohesion. The dense textures, scratchy tones, and hurried rhythmic motives that appeared in A Cockroach’s Tarantella also shine through Tattooed in Snow. A perception of distance and uncertainty permeates the work–it is difficult to tell if this is a result of the composition, or of the socially-distanced times in which we are all living. However, the style of this piece successfully complements the rest of the album.
Recorded during COVID-19 lockdowns, which has made the production of new music challenging, A Cockroach’s Tarantella is a timely album. JACK Quartet’s precise performance and malleability brilliantly realizes the composer’s intentions. Du Yun’s imaginative telling of her own story as a composer-performer is fascinating. Her style invites the listener in to explore the breadth of musical possibilities through a diversity of textures, tones, and melodies that present new and relevant thematic and programmatic ideas.