ancient lament (2018)
for soprano solo, flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, trumpet, harp 2 percussionists, 2 violins, viola, 2 cellos, double bass
Commissioned by OSSIA New Music
-Performed by OSSIA New Music, cond. Edo Frenkel, sol. Robin Steitz, Eastman School of Music; Rochester, New York, Feb. 2018
Gu Yuan (Lament in an Ancient Mode)
Amid the dusk,
A hazy mountain mist
Obscures the bank ahead.
I wish to tie the boat to land: but where?
I cannot overtake departed souls,
Nor can I know the men who’ve yet to come...
Alone I dream of ancient times.
What footing can be had in matters of this world?
A single hand can turn the clouds and rain...
In distant Golden Valley fell a flower:
Lü Zhu now lies amid the dust.
We mourn for her misfortuned life:
But who can bring her justice?
Can spring be gone, like this, for good?
...A maiden servant grieves amid the twilight dusk;
Her hair is turning white.
This life is short of joys: sorrows have no end.
My zither’s strings about to break from bitter sounds,
A mountain vista stands before my eyes;
Tears stain my feet.
Sire, do you not see: year by year,
Upon the waters of the Fen, only autumn
Geese fly by.
(translation by composer)
Jiang Kui’s poetic work fluidly addresses conventionally disparate realms of personal, historopolitical, and metaphysical conflict: Gu Yuan shifts seamlessly from the intimacy of personal reminiscence and the practical worries of the present to the immutable desolation of vast landscapes and the weight of ancient history. This rich layering of meanings suggests a musical setting that likewise contracts and expands between planes of stasis, obscurity, movement, and clarity. The narrative arc of the poem, in which the personality of the poet seems to emerge from and ultimately vanish into a barren landscape, guides the musical development: cantabile lines are gradually condensed and germinate from washes and wisps of airy noise, only to dissipate, in the work’s conclusion, into a bleak and intemporal soundscape.