Chinese composer Ge Gan-Ru has experienced in his lifetime the full rite of passage in the bewildering and terrifying legacy of China's Cultural Revolution. In love with the violin from childhood, Ge was "re-educated" at 17 and served in a work camp where he nonetheless managed to study under a master violinist. After three years alternating planting rice fields and playing revolutionary music in an ad hoc group, Ge was able to enter the Shanghai Conservatory, though he attracted some negative attention from authorities owing to his openness to avant-garde techniques associated with the West. Through the help of composer Chou Wen-Chung and others, Ge was able to travel to the United States in 1983 and has lived in New York ever since. New Albion's Lost Style is Ge's first domestic American release; an earlier disc, Chinese Rhapsody, appeared on BIS in 2005.
Upon listening to even the first minute of Ge's Four Studies of Peking Opera, listeners accustomed to the distinct sound world of Chinese opera will immediately find themselves in familiar territory, but with a difference. Ge's "studies" are a dreamlike re-invention of Chinese opera, much as some of Harry Partch's The Wayward seems like a dreamlike reinvention of American hobo folk music. Ge's gestures, however, contain the best of both worlds in a formal sense; the music is both loaded with surprises and familiar sounding as his way of unfolding the music is so well worked out and naturally stated. The drama of the dream may contain a narrative that is distended in the manner of a dream, but it is a narrative nonetheless, something that moves with an inexorable sense of forward progression.
Margaret Leng Tan plays 17 different instruments on Ge's Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!, ranging from one of her trademark toy pianos to "a smiley-face bead rattle drum." Anyone who has heard Leng Tan talk is acquainted with what a thoroughly charming speaking voice she has, and Ge has, for the first time, put it to work in here, a setting of a twelfth century Chinese poem. Leng Tan's voice swirls and swoops, exhorts and moans as her one-woman orchestra of toy instruments rattle, toot, ring, and shimmer in uncanny synchronicity. Lest one think this panoply of textures was achieved in the studio, Leng Tan is uncommonly ambidextrous and highly disciplined as a performer -- she can do all of this stuff live. Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! is a happy and entirely successful collaboration between an artist of extraordinary, and extremely specialized, talents and a composer who has the ability to match the challenge.
The title track, Lost Style, is performed by cellist Frank Su Huang in a recording made in China in 1983. It is a startlingly well made recording and holds up well to the 2006 recordings with which it is paired -- the average listener will not be able to tell the difference. It is a historically important recording, as well, as Lost Style is considered to be the first avant-garde composition in the history of China, a nation plagued with unimaginable horrors and privations in the last decade of Mao, which had only begun to recover in 1983. That recovery continues, but Ge Gan-Ru's music is not so much the evocation of a "style" that is "lost," but that of rebirth, in terms of personal creativity and freedom. His music on Lost Style imparts a sense of promise for the future that is, in itself, stronger than individual pieces or performances. Ge's music provides a glimpse into the hope that the Chinese have about the future, even as one might only be able to regain a little of the past in the wake of the Cultural Revolution.