A Powerful, Spellbinding, Paradigm-Shifting Asian Art-Song Evening Tonight at the Lincoln Center Festival
From singer Gong Linna and the Bang on a Can All-Stars‘ new album Cloud River Mountain, it seemed that last night’s release show at this year’s Lincoln Center Festival would have been all about the drama. Sure, there were plenty of spectacular peaks from the fearless Chinese singer and her American backup band, but there were equal amounts subtlety and dynamics in a mix of distinctly Chinese-flavored and just as distinctly western material written by Lao Luo and the Bang on a Can organization’s three-headed monster: Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang.
There’s just as much of a campy thread through Chinese theatre music as there is in its western counterparts, but Linna doesn’t go there – at least not for this show, anyway. Varying her delivery from a breathtaking, gale force attack to meticulous, hushed melismas, she held the crowd rapt.
Many of the songs were based on the Asian pentatonic scale: some vividly incorporated the blues scale as well. yet many of them eschewed any kind of Asian reference. The lyrics, mostly in Chinese, were taken from the work of the poet Qu Yuan, whose wild imagery, evocations of river gods and spirits and sun falling out of the sky raise the question of whether ganja had made its way north from India by the third century BC. If not, opium definitely had.
They opened with Luo’s suspensefully vamping, allusively chromatic, crashingly crescendoing Darkness and Light, Linna swooping up and down, the band echoing her; then drummer David Cossin’s 7/4 stomp kicked in. Part ancient Chinese theme, part Mars Volta and part Iron Maiden, maybe, it gave Linna a chance to fake out the crowd with her nuance and a couple of false endings as cellist Ashley Bathgate and clarinetist Ken Thomson flickered and swiped behind her.
Gordon’s When Yi Shot Down the Sun turned out not to be a fiery metal tune but an uneasily waltzing, lyrical pastorale lowlit by washes of guitar, cello and clarinet. Lang’s The Lady in the Moon opened in the same portentous vein as the concert’s first number, awash in resonant guitar, stark cello and clarinet and quickly rose to dramatic heights even as the band held back, bluesy Moody Blues art-rock riffs interspersed with Linna’s high-powered insistence.
Shivery, microtonal low-midrange ambience kicked off Luo’s The Lord in the Clouds, finally punctuated by a stygian piano accent from Vicky Chow. To the band’s infinite credit, they resisted the urge to take the hammering melody completely over the top into grand guignol, choosing achingly tense Asian ambience until a final anguished, hammering conclusion.
Wolfe’s Into the Clouds built slowly and hazily to a hydroponic bluesmetal guitar solo from Mark Stewart, Jimmy Page juxtaposed with Thomson’s crystalline pastoral clarinet colors. Water Mountain, an instrumental co-write by all four composers blended Chow’s harplike piano cascades with soaring clarinet, echoey psychedelic guitar and guest Nie Yunlei’s sheng, a sort of supersized Chinese harmonica. building to a triumphantly cantering cinematic theme.
Linna held nothing back in Gordon’ s insistently pulsing River, played with impressive terseness by the band. Luo’s River Earl was a slight return to pastoral shades and trick endings before a bittersweet chorus, the most vivid and darkly cinematic art-rock number of the night. Linna finally rose out of the haze with a fevered, anguished wail
Tilted, by Julia Wolfe was awash om suspenseful atmospherics and creepy melismas from Linna. The group built David Lang’s Girl with Mountain ever so slowly – remember, it takes a long time to climb a mountain – reaching terrified, majestic heights anchored by Chow’s steady, jabbing piano. They encored with the wildfire, galloping syllabication of Luo’s Mountain Spirit The show repeats tonight, July 15 at 8 PM at the Lynch Theatre at Fordham Law School, 524 W 59th St. west of 10th Ave. $25 tickets are still available; if you can find a train to get you into Manhattan tonight, you would be crazy to miss this.