What: Empyrean Ensemble
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Vanderhoef Studio Theatre at the Mondavi Center
Tickets: $20 general, $8 students/children; www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787
The Empyrean Ensemble — the resident professional new music group at UC Davis — will perform four recent works by contemporary composers in a Friday night concert that is part of this week’s Art of Migration festival.
The concert includes an opportunity to hear a piece by composer Lei Liang, who is one of the festival’s principal guests. Born in China in 1972, and now on the music faculty at UC San Diego, Liang has certainly experienced migration and change in his own life.
“I was born into China’s Cultural Revolution” — a turbulent period of social and political change from 1966 to 1976) — “and was denied access to older traditions of art forms in China,” Liang told a San Diego interviewer last year. ”As a teenager, I participated in mass demonstrations and witnessed the bloodshed in Tiananmen Square (1989).”
Liang added, “I made a personal effort to acquire knowledge of traditional Chinese culture by studying and copying classics, sutras, and treatises on paintings by hand. I think of this effort as a way to break down a modern Great Wall that separates me from my own heritage.”
Liang’s piece on Empyrean’s Friday night program is “Aural Hypothesis,” scored for flute, clarinet, vibraphone, cello and piano. In his program note about the piece, Liang wrote that a Chinese professor once told him “(Chinese) calligraphy is music in ink, and music is calligraphy in sound.”
Liang said this idea inspired him to write “a quasi-fantastical study on how lines may find expression in sound. The lines in this piece, however, are not modeled after traditional Chinese calligraphy; they are something more basic or primal: a simple curve or a straight line, drawn slowly with a thin brush with intense attentiveness, or with a thick brush with explosive speed.”
Liang’s music has brought him several awards, including an Aaron Copland Award (2008), a Guggenheim fellowship (2009) and a Rome Prize (2011, a coveted honor that includes a residency in Italy to work on a special project).
Also on Empyrean’s program Friday will be “Black Piet” by David Coll, who earned his Ph.D in music at UC Berkeley in 2010. The title of the piece is drawn from the Christmas traditions in Holland and Belgium, where Saint Nicholas has one or more black assistants, who are servants or slaves in differing versions of the tale. Children or adults sometimes appear in blackface to play Zwarte Piet, as the character is known, and Zwarte Piet throws naughty children into his burlap bag and carries them off.
“I became aware of this tradition in late 2012 as I was composing this work after a year of living in Ghent, Belgium,” Coll said. He realized that picking “Black Piet” as a title might be “problematic,” but he ultimately decided to keep the title as a sort of protest, hoping “the work might in some small way draw attention to a cultural practice that does more harm than good.”
Also on the program will be “Iso(r),” a trio for flute, cello and piano by A.W. Khumalo, who Empyrean Ensemble co-director Mika Pelo described as “a composer who migrated from the poor neighborhoods in South Africa to Germany to study composition, and then on to Columbia University, where he recently got his doctorate.”
The program also will feature “Black Grey Red Orange Grey Blue Grey” by Kari Besharse, a young composer on the faculty of Southeastern Louisiana University.
“All the works on this program use a wide variety of extended techniques for all the instruments, pushing the boundaries of what sounds can be created out of a small ensemble,” said Matilda Hofman, who will conduct the concert.
Friday’s concert will begin at 8 p.m. in the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre at the Mondavi Center. Tickets are $20 general, $8 for students and children, available at www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787.