♥♥♥♥♥♥ »Her album should resonate across multiple continents« Politiken
»The often ceremonial-sounding music opens up new sounds, new expressions, new paths« Passive/Aggressive
With the eight solo works that make up Dark Radiance, percussionist, performance artist and composer Ying-Hsueh Chen takes listeners on a journey through subtle musical movements that meticulously weave the past into the present in a remarkable manner. Nearly every piece is devoted to a single instrument, and each, for the most part, emerges from a single musical gesture or action, creating sounds from the thunderous to the delicate.
Album trailer (analogue 16mm film by Rikke Benborg and Ying-Hsueh Chen)
Weaving the Past into the Present
By Tim Rutherford-Johnson
On her previous solo recording, Raw Elegance, the percussionist Ying-Hsueh Chen played music by Iannis Xenakis (Rebonds), Pierluigi Billone (Mani.Matta), and Toke Brorson Odin (Maskine). The influence of all three can be heard on the eight solo works that make up Dark Radiance. While the three works on Raw Elegance concentrate on single instruments or groups of similar instruments at a time – skin drums and woodblocks in the case of Rebonds; marimba, log drums and woodblock (with a Chinese gong as the single exception) in the case of Mani.Matta; fourteen pieces of metal in the case of Maskine – on Dark Radiance, Chen takes things a step further. Nearly every piece is devoted to a single instrument, and each, for the most part, emerges from a single musical gesture or action. Also important is the influence of the French-Vietnamese percussionist Lê Quan Ninh, a good friend of Chen’s who over twenty years has developed a concentrated improvisational practice centred on the possibilities of a single bass drum.
Five of Chen’s pieces – Meditation, Flames, Tunnel, Dawn and Dark Radiance – were developed at home during 2021; another reason for their restricted means. Chen says that she made them like a folk musician would, remembering a basic structure but freely making variations on that, without ever writing anything down. Machinery, Fireworks and Nocturne grew out of particular variations made during the recording sessions, using instruments that were already to hand. Finally, the building in which the recordings took place – Sankt Ansgars Kirke in Copenhagen – also played a part, its sonorous yet clear acoustic allowing Chen to create sounds from the thunderous to the delicate without them overpowering or becoming lost.
Stills from the music film Dark Radiance by Rikke Benborg (2022)
And what about those instruments? Like all percussionists, Chen is a collector and a shapeshifter, able to enter different worlds and cultural spaces using just a pair of beaters or drumsticks as her passport. She has a long-standing interest in traditional instruments from around the world (manifest in her ongoing project ‘Ancestral Modernism’), and this is reflected in the instruments chosen for Dark Radiance, which come from all around the world: bass drum, muyu (Buddhist ‘wooden fish’ woodblock), jing (Korean brass gong) and marimba. Overall, the elements are similar to those used on Raw Elegance, but individually each instrument occupies its own sphere of sounds, gestures and associations – and it is from here that Chen begins her musical explorations.
Meditation on One Buddhist Woodblock is perhaps the most tightly restricted of all the pieces. A single woodblock is an instrument with seemingly few possibilities for variation in pitch or timbre. Named for their carved, sculptural appearance, ‘wooden fish’ come in many different sizes, from handheld objects to giant instruments more than a metre across. They are traditionally used in Buddhist ceremonies across Japan, China and Southeast Asia to accompany the chanting of sutras and mantras. (The sound is said to have an awakening effect: in Buddhism, fish, which do not appear to sleep, symbolise wakefulness.) Revered objects, muyu typically rest on embroidered cushions; very large variants, known as mogeo and carved into the shape of dragons, may also hang at temple entrances.
In Buddhist contexts, there is a ‘correct’ way to play the muyu. When Chen tried some instruments in a Buddhist store in Taiwan, she says, the owners couldn’t understand why she was striking the instrument all over: ‘But you said you are a percussionist, how can you not know that you have to play on the sweet spot?’ they asked her. Today she laughs at the memory – ‘Come on! I think that the side of the instrument has potential that has never been explored.’ Her idea, then, was to utilise the full range of the instrument (sometimes cupping her hand over its mouth to create even more colours), using a stable tremolo rhythm as a way to create continuity. This is an idea frequently found in Billone’s music, which often follows quite radical paths in deconstructing traditional performance technique, but always with a distinctive recurring gesture to provide a structural foundation. Chen was inspired too by another religious instrument, the toaca or semantron of Romanian Orthodoxy. A suspended wooden plank that performs a similar ritual function to the muyu, the toaca is celebrated for the variety of sounds that it can make: a skilled monk can produce an extraordinary variety of colours and pitches.
Tunnel and Fireworks take inspiration from different religious rituals, in particular the gut ritual of Korean shamanism, a point of connection between the worlds of men and spirits. The brass jing used in Tunnel is one of several percussion instruments featured in such music (the others include cymbals and hourglass-shaped drums). Like the muyu, the jing is traditionally struck on a single point, but again Chen activates a variety of sounds by playing all over its surface and rim. Sitting cross-legged next to the gong, she addresses it partly like a ritual object and partly like a science experiment, moving systematically through a range of beaters to create noises from dripping water to cavernous roars. At times she uses her feet to muffle the instrument, engaging her whole body much as Billone employs the percussionist’s palms in Mani.Matta. In Fireworks, on the other hand, inspiration comes from a typical rhythm of shamanistic music: a characteristic d-dum beat from which Chen’s piece begins. The sound of contrasting accents, articulated here by playing alternately on the skin and shell of the drum, resembles the ecstatic rhythmic and timbral quality of gut music while also evoking the coloured gunpowder explosions of its title.
Three pieces for marimba – Flames, Nocturne and Dawn – provide tonal contrasts to the pieces for untuned percussion. The variety of performing techniques is not as wide and the atmosphere is less dramatic. Still, Chen restricts her playing to a narrow set of rules. Flames evokes a fiery flickering through the use of harmonies in fourths that move in and out in contrary motion; visually, the rapid interlocking of her four beaters provides a further impression of shimmering movement. Dawn was restricted to the notes of C major, and an overall ascending motion that mimics the gradual lightening of the morning sky. A similar approach was taken in Nocturne. Yet within such constraints, Chen finds just as wide a range of colours as she does in her pieces for untuned percussion, using different beaters, attacks and ways of playing. Here, the influence of Xenakis and Odin can be heard, in Chen’s awareness of the compositional potential of small variations within a restricted timbral context.
The influences of Billone and Ninh are most apparent, however, on Dark Radiance, the longest and most complex work on the album, as well as Machinery, which was extracted from a recording outtake. In Mani.Matta, Billone creates a kind of extended or hybrid marimba, replacing its upper register with two log drums and a woodblock (instruments related in material and sound, if not pitch, to the marimba), and requiring the player to wear a small Chinese gong on their chest. Something similar happens in Dark Radiance, which centres on a tam-tam and large bass drum, which – as in Ninh’s practice – are rubbed and struck by various handheld objects, including cymbals and chains, as well as percussion beaters. Although not related in sound, both instruments are related by size and shape, and means of playing.
Dark Radiance begins with the sound of Chen circling a Chinese cymbal across the surface of the tam-tam. As in a Jackson Pollock painting, we can make out the particular movements of the artist’s hands and arms across this surface; but as the two metal instruments activate each other they create an additional polyphony of sonic trajectories. A switch to beaters (felt and metal) clarifies the texture somewhat, replacing gestural sweeps with percussive accents. As these become looser and more diffuse once more Chen switches attention to the bass drum, laid horizontally and with other cymbals and objects placed upon its surface. Once more, the music arises from distinct physical gestures – the spinning of a cymbal, the rub of a plastic superball mallet. As Chen continues, however, the distinctions between her instruments soften and blur. The external constraints may be as present as ever, but within that space all boundaries dissolve.