Music Monday: Du: Kraken

Described by the New York Times as “an indie pop diva with an avant-garde edge”, Du Yun makes a point of being hard to categorize. Born in Shanghai in 1977, Du was drilled in the Western solo piano tradition from an early age, but in her own words she was “not your typical Chinese good student at all”. Her inclination towards the subversive was only amplified when she began studying composition at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. It was rapidly becoming easier to access 20th–Century Western culture, but she describes the music as coming over in a wash — without Western contextual frameworks in place, Penderecki seemed on an equal footing with Pink Floyd, with everything up for grabs. Du embodies this eclecticism herself, being an active performer as well as having written everything from chamber operas to electroacoustic pieces to uncategorizable performance art spectacles. (She also has a dance pop album out called Shark in You which I have not listened to yet but am very eager to.)

Ultimately, Du emigrated to the United States to study at Oberlin Conservatory and then Harvard, and she’s been an active force in the new music scene in this country. She’s one of the founding members of the International Contemporary Ensemble, and was recently named the Artistic Director of the MATA contemporary music festival in New York City. In addition to those duties and her performing and composing careers, Du serves on the composition faculty at SUNY–Purchase.

You might expect a piece called Kraken (2011) to be bright and flashy, telling a programmatic tale of nautical derring-do, but Du takes a more abstract tack than that. There are certainly elements that suggest oceans and monsters, but in lieu of an outright narrative, Du offers instead a series of vantage points, suggesting the nonlinear structure of certain novels. The piece (which you can hear over on her website) begins with irregular plucked notes under a listless kazoo that somehow conjures an eerily empty salt-encrusted dock. Periodic percussion outbursts suggest something more is lurking in the background, but an air of uneasy tranquility remains.

Uncertain, at first, an english horn joins the kazoo in meandering counterpoint, and is soon joined by an oboe singing slightly higher. This seems to push the piece over a tipping point and the percussion roars to the fore in a violent outbreak that sweeps away everything that has come before. Panicked lines scurry around in the upper registers while the low brass slosh and sway. The music keeps trying to coalesce into a bedraggled calm (as in the wake of a great wave’s passing), but the surface is too unsteady for anything to settle for long. At last, the skies seem to clear a little, revealing a hard–edged, glittering vista of light and water. Wisps of danger rise and flutter about, until the cymbals launch an abortive oboe solo that, for all its similarity to a strange seabird’s call, has some measure of hope and triumph hidden somewhere in it.

Nausea abates, and the upper winds twine together in playful idleness over a sea of cymbals and brass. This fades to silence, and then the brass launch something altogether grander, a majestic vessel making its maiden voyage to distant lands. All seems well at first, with noble crests and swells, but the placid air is soon shot thru with threads of danger that a delicate harp solo cannot fully assuage. The onslaughts come with increasing furor and intensity until another silence heralds another landscape–clearing wave. Trumpets sound alarms while the strings eddy about in confusion, and each potential ebbing is met with a percussive re-start to the maelstrom. If the piece is presenting a series of vantage points, then this, surely, is staring directly into the maw of the beast. Things build to a fever pitch of activity, a wall of noise devoid of seeming sense or order when suddenly the whole thing is sucked beneath the surface and out of sight, leaving only the harp to pluck a few quiet final chords, a few last ripples on a rapidly calming sea.