Chien-Yin Chen

Chien-Yin Chen: Purr

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Chien-Yin Chen is a young composer of Taiwanese origin (residing, at the time of this recording, in New York) and Purr, her first album, would seem to represent a reasonably wide sampling of her work. There are certain common threads that run through the pieces, particularly an emphasis on churning rhythms, as well as a consistent "feel" to her compositions that's problematically academic. Though she studied with Ligeti, her professed admiration for Conlon Nancarrow is perhaps a more dominant influence. "Cloud Walking" is for a sextet featuring pipa virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen, rattling and chugging along on irregular but insistent tempi, making the occasional nod toward jazz. As with most of the compositions here, it's solid and packed with detail but there's a tinge of music school-itis, of something that might have emerged (except for the pipa) from a student of Gunther Schuller in the '70s. There is a rather dry quality that tinges the pieces presented here even as they fascinate with other attributes. "Chen Dah at Large" is similarly active, forceful, and dynamic, somewhat more romantically oriented with the swirling lines of the violin and clarinet battling like swallows for gnats over the staccato piano. The title track calls for the most unusual instrumentation: double bass and pipe organ. Mark Dresser, a master at this sort of challenge, energetically plumbs the nether regions of his ax, bow in hand, while the composer mixes all manner of propulsive ostinati and bright chords on top. Sonically, it might be the most engaging work on the disc, though structurally it's really not too different from the others. For a composer apparently obsessed with rhythm, Chen seems reluctant to use it in any kind of natural manner; there's an academic stiltedness at play here that frustrates the listener and inevitably introduces some degree of aridity when one wants to experience fluidity.

The remaining pieces fall into a similar category: engaging on the one hand, mildly frustrating on the other. "Wogen-Brandung-Wonne," for three guitars (with whistling), is airy and pleasant but, after all is said and done, lackluster. Chen writes that it's about Mandingo rhythm combined with Renaissance harmony. Perhaps this is the problem, that a merge of this sort makes little musical sense no matter how professionally deployed and that it almost inevitably does no real justice to either tradition. Despite falling into the same general area as her other pieces,"Fuse Box," a two-part septet, is arguably the most successful work of the date. There's more breathing room between the instruments (flute/piccolo, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, cello, percussion, and piano) and although it's once again rhythmically intricate, the rhythms don't dominate to the exclusion of the intertwining melodies. She still balances the romantic and the modernist approaches a bit shakily and one wishes, sometimes, that she'd choose one or the other and be done with it, but it's difficult to begrudge her a certain amount of appreciation for what's achieved.

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