High-Voltage Chinese Singer Gong Linna Teams Up with New York Avant Garde Mainstays At This Month’s Lincoln Center Festival
If you could see Bjork backed by Lark’s Tongues in Aspic-era King Crimson – or the Velvet Underground, for that matter – singing Asian-tinged art-songs, would you go to the show? That’s an approximation of what Chinese chanteuse Gong Linna sounds like, backed by the irrepressibly mutable Bang on a Can All-Stars, on her new album Cloud River Mountain. It’s streaming at Bandcamp, and she and the band are playing an album release stand of sorts, with shows at 8 PM on July 14 and 15 at the Lynch Theatre at John Jay College, 524 W 59th St,; as part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival. $25 seats are still available as of today.
Linna has the kind of melismatic, dramatically modulated, expressive voice typically found in Chinese opera – but she switches out mannered precision for raw, feral power. The album comprises songs by four composers; most of the lyrics. are taken from the works of Chinese poet Qu Yuan, who wrote around the third century BC. Linna sings them in the original Mandarin except for two English translations. The group – Ashley Bathgate on cello, Robert Black on bass, Vicky Chow on piano, David Cossin on drums and percussion, Mark Stewart on guitar and Ken Thomson on clarinets – has a blast with them.
The opening track, Lou Luo’s Yun Zhong Jun, depicts a dramatic encounter with a deity, triplet melody grounded in low-register guitar and bass clarinet. Gracefully circling piano and eventually vibraphone make appearances as the music rises, a mashup of artsy metal and Chinese folk. Linna’s extended cadenza, where she finally hands off to Thomson’s clarinet is subtly delicious.
The title track, by Julia Wolfe, evokes a swarm of flies, methodically expanding outward until all of a sudden it’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, fueled by Stewart’s fiery guitar and Bathgate’s acidic, shivery cello. The lyric may be about celestial grandeur…or drugs. It also pushes Linna’s voice to the limits of her linguistic ability.
River, Michael Gordon’s picturesque, endlessly circling, triumphantly polyrhythmic one-chord jam, punctuated by jaunty glissandos, illustrates a dramatic love theme,, Linna really reaching for the rafters. She finally hits a furiously gritty high note to cap it off.
Lao Luo’s dynamically charged pastorale He Bo sets dramatic mythological and river iimagery over contrasting low resonance and sunnier textures, til Bathgate’s cello picks the lock and Linna goes for broke. Girl with Mountain, an allusive tale of exile by David Lang, is a simple, catchy, oddly rhythmic art-rock ballad very reminiscent of Radiohead.
The final two songs are by Lao Luo. Shan Gui is a bitter, steadily marching 99-percenter lament that alludes to a popular Led Zep number before Linna, Thomson and then Cossin take it skyward. Linna tackles the final cut, Tan Te with a tongue-twisting, machinegunning jazz scat as the band stampedes along. Fans of music as diverse as art-rock old and new, kabuki theatre and traditional Chinese pastorales are going to love this album.