Thursday, December 13, 2012

Vivian Fung: Dreamscapes

Many of us have attempted to train ourselves to lucid dream. Lying in our beds, we’ve tried to wrangle our thoughts into those of control, discipline, and predictability. Some, if not most, nights, though, we are left with bizarre, alien-like episodes that seem perfectly normal only until we wake up.
Somehow, though, despite our attempts at control, these beautifully strange dreams can stick with us, long after we’ve forgotten the story we tried to construct ourselves.
And, somehow, Vivan Fung’s new album Dreamscapes feels a lot like this. While only one piece on the five track album has the word “dream,” her abilities as a composer can take over the subconscious of the listener in any setting.
The Canadian-born composer’s works span from prepared piano pieces to string quartets, but she somehow finds a way to make each form sing new tones. Combining distinctive sounds of Western music with those of gamelan and other non-Western timbres, she equals something from a direction neither cardinal nor previously done. Dreamscapes is certainly no exception.
Like trying to control dreams, attempting to predict the direction of Fung’s works is futile. Throughout the album, with her Violin Concerto, her prepared piano pieces Glimpses, and her piano concerto “Dreamscapes,” melodies change instantaneously into rapid textures, otherworldly plucks of piano strings reverberate off of passing drones, and Americana brass back up gamelan-influenced violin lines. But the album is about more than mixing and contrasting—it’s about Fung’s ability to invent an entire world from a certain web of sound, and her knack for knowing exactly how to disintegrate it.
The album opens with Fung’s stunning Violin Concerto. Inspired by Javanese gamelan, the piece is a distinctly gamelan theme running through settings from around the world. Kristin Lee, the soloist who worked closely with Fung, does an impeccable job being both virtuosic and accurate with the demanding passages, and the Metropolis Ensemble (conducted by Andrew Cyr) moves well together, bouncing, traveling, and being able to release pressure all at once. Throughout the first half of the concerto, Lee is in control; she guides the orchestra and audience into desolate, high register moments, into chugging, brass-filled areas, all the while exploring the landscapes the orchestra reflects with the reminder of the concerto’s pelog scale influences. Almost exactly half-way through, the violin drops the orchestra, letting it quickly dissipate as the violin seems to travel down its range, leaping sideways to build, piece by rearranged piece, a museum of styles. It builds to a climax, navigating through the gamelan scales with violent tremolo. When the orchestra arrives, it becomes the leader with animal kingdom brass and distant strings lurking in the now-familiar scales. Lee comes back in focus with almost Chinese-sounding melodies, gliding over the orchestra with more grace than was introduced. Like the listener has learned, though, no one mood stays for long, and the concerto feels impressionistic for a few minutes before it releases again into period of thinness. The ending, identical to the beginning, is a palette cleanser and a mirror, so pristine it reflects the multifaceted body that preceded it. As the strings glissandi up, the violin holds out until a small gong-like instrument is played, letting go of every sound before it, seeming to resonate for minutes. 
“Glimpses,” the second group of pieces on the album, uses a gamelan-like prepared piano to provide exactly that, glimpses, into three very differently woven moods. The first movement, “Kotekan,” is titled after a gamelan style of fast, interlocking parts. With some notes ringing with a hollow sound, some vibrating against metal, and some shaking like strict percussion, Fung slowly builds a syncopated fabric, each tone bouncing off the next, each release as important as the contact.  “Show,” the second movement, fills the dents from the previous movement with a fluid, sometimes impressionistic wave still spiked with the textures of the prepared strings. The third movement, “Chant,” mentally abducts. Like a flying object, the piece passes by deep, resonating, buzzes from the strings as abstract strumming, wood knocking, and echoing phrases gently create a narrative to follow.
While “Glimpses” pulls us in each direction, tugging by the arm to each new window of sound, the album’s powerhouse “Dreamscapes” for piano and orchestra becomes an entire comprehensive world. Conor Hanick, the pianist for both “Glimpses” and “Dreamscapes,” plays the inside of the piano with as much dedication and confidence as he does the keys, allowing the listener to fully accept the strange, distinctly Fung atmosphere that quickly constructs itself after the opening sounds. The piece begins with surprising fervor that holds out, transitioning through micropolyphony, jazzy spells, and the exact theme from “Glimpses” movement “Kotekan,” which on strings sounds strangely regal. Like dreams, though, each setting is accepted. No matter how out of place a section seems through words, the listener’s subconscious is taken over by Fung’s ability to weave each theme, each melody, each cluster of tones into the same environment that the listener is fully immersed in. Hanick plays a large part in this hypnotizing quality. His playing, especially in sections with undefined structure and simmering mixing of tones, is restrained and resists the temptation to become over-powerful in the delicate balance; he is also able to release off of these moments into commanding periods. After an orchestral sigh, around two-thirds into the piece, the direction of the piece becomes steeper, denser, and more urgent. Eventually, everything begins to spread out as old themes are resurrected in simple versions. As the world we have come to know disintegrates, an alien-like glimmer resonates behind the still tentative piano, which eventually dissolves.
Many composers fuse genres. Many composers build worlds. And, naturally, many composers have dreams. But what sets Fung apart is her ability to take over the subconscious of the listener, to build a world so captivating that even the strangest of transitions happen seamlessly. Lucid dreaming may seem enticing, but being taken away to Fung’s world would probably take the cake.