The Sound of Tea in China

Various Artists (Ellipsis Arts)

Typical of Ellipsis Arts releases, the three-CD set China: Time to Listen is text-rich. At the heart of the beautiful booklet is a group interview with some of the key musicians featured in the compilation. Here we learn some surprising things. Bian Liu Nian, a multi-instrumentalist with the dubious distinction of having written China's first rap, cites Barbara Streisand as an influence. Sisi Chen, a subtle performer on delicately voiced instruments, admits to cranking Shostakovich for inspiration. Zhang Weiliang, artistic director of the Huaxia Chamber Ensemble, chimes in with more conventionally Chinese wisdom: Asked for advice to new listeners, he says, "Patience is required. Have you noticed how the Chinese sip tea? The slower they sip, the more they get from it!" Sip slowly or guzzle as you wish, there is much to get from China: Time to Listen.

The title of the first disc, Sounds of Our Stories, emphasizes something one easily notices about Chinese music. All sounds tell stories, but China has evolved conventions for telling stories with instrumental music. I regularly wander into the Chinatown Senior Center in Manhattan to hear the old folks jam on Cantonese opera; their shaky playing skews the story, but you can still follow it. On Sounds of Our Stories, Shan Wen Tong plays "The Mountain Village Peddler" with all the busy swiftness of a peddler at work. In "Singing on the Fisher Boats at Dusk" by Pan Jing and Ensemble, the limpid fiddle nicely illustrates the calm of the exhausted fisherman. As for "Harvesting the Dates," I can't say I have done that work, but if it is as fun as Li Yao Rong suggests, then take me to the village when the dates get ripe. Rong plays the tune with three reed instruments in his mouth. A close local comparison would be a Jay Zelenka ensemble in a brightly mooded moment.

A Chinese phrase for embellishing a melody translates as "adding flowers," which is apt. When Huihong Ou plays the 16th-century folk song "Embroidering Flowers on Brocade" on the harplike zheng, she adds brilliant petals to the pattern. On "Birds in the Forest" by Wu Man and Ensemble, the birds are voiced by a high-pitched lute called the gaohu that swerves like those birds. The same instrument, played by Yu Long, movingly registers the heartbreak of the girl Jinzhur in the song named after her. These delicate instruments are perfect narrators for stories about flowers, birds and broken hearts, and holy shit can they do moody goodbyes ("Hard Parting at Yang Guan," performed by Shan Wen Tong on a small bamboo pipe). But thunder? Maybe my misspent Ted Nugent youth ruined me for subtlety, but in "Thunder Ends the Dry Season" by Jade Bridge I hear the joy of the farmer seeing his crops get watered, but thunder? Nary a clap. It is wise that when the Huaxia Chamber Ensemble tackles military history, they narrate the defeated general's crying on his armor rather than the stormy battle in which his ass got kicked.

Disc 2 is titled Many Faces and is devoted to representing the bewildering diversity of Chinese peoples -- about which I know nothing, except that you should experience anything that promises a window onto it. I strolled once into an art exhibit at Washington University devoted to the minorities of China, and images from that show are still emblazoned on my brain. Many Faces sticks with one, too. Hear what the musicians of Shanxi think a fight between an ox and a tiger sounds like (gongs and drums going to hell -- maybe these guys could do thunder). The Uighur people, a minority of 8 million people, contribute a raggedy folk song about a thorny flower. A Mongolian man named Gundenbijiliin Yavgaan gives a Jew's-harp interpretation of the rising sun, a pairing of the lowly and most high that reminds me how the ancient Egyptians saw, in the beetle rolling a ball of dung, the daily rebirth of the world in a sunrise. Some musicians from Tibet play a song to chase away evil spirits, named after the masks used to scare the bad guys. A chorus of old Dong men sing about the sour plum, and a chorus of Dong teenage girls sing -- and sound like -- "The Crying Cicada." An acupuncturist from Guangzi plays a flute song about abundant fish, and, indeed, succulent abundance is what Many Faces is all about.

The great Taoist philosopher Laozi theorized that Xi (Chi) could be equated to pitch, timbre and resonance of sound. That is one of 100 million good reasons a boxed set of Chinese music should conclude with an offering called Spirit and Wisdom. I also find something touchingly appropriate in Laozi's insight, "The greatest music has the most tenuous note." The disc opens with a schmaltzy take on "Hard Parting" by the cat who did the seminal Chinese rap; this sounds like an outtake from Hair, but from there the notes become tenuous and the spirit intense. A Tibetan woman whose name means "Moon Goddess" sings about the cuckoo bird. Wu Man and Ensemble give an open-space reading of a folk poem dating from 2 B.C. Li Xenchin worships the autumn wind on the shuang guan, a reed instrument that sounds roughly like a baby's squall. Wu Man blows us away again with an interpretation of an ancient Buddhist mantra played on the pipa, a beautifully tiny-voiced lute. The record, and compilation, ends with a song used to conclude a traditional Taoist ceremony. "The Qi returns to the original ocean," the lyric translates, "and longevity is boundless." China: Time to Listen is a new and valuable current in that endless ocean, and its joys are boundless.

For more information, call Ellipsis Arts at 800-788-6670.

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