Lei Liang, “My Windows” (1996-2007)

Lei Liang is a Chinese composer, now at UCSD. “My Windows” is four pieces for solo piano composed between 1996 and 2007.

Liang’s pieces are all about timbre, sonority, breathing, silences, textures. The music is notated, sometimes well beyond what can be heard (notice measure 53 here, marked 3/4 + 1/8 even though it follows a continuous stream of notes in groups of 12). What matters is mood, tone, effect. This is the aesthetics of microscopic moods, moods too expansive for music (another piece in this set is marked “as if crazy”), silences too vast to be spanned by sound (one piece here is quarter note = 40, with up to four beats between isolated notes), passions too ferocious to be contained (one piece is called “Magma”), transcendentally vast scales of time and space (the notes say one piece was inspired by a passage in a Purana describing “a hundred years of rain” and “the mysterious rays of light sinking into the deep seas while Visnu sleeps”). At one point Liang asks the performer to “change the pedal swiftly and violently, resulting in some noise from the pedal.” It’s familiar territory since Nietzsche’s critique of Wagner as a composer of small theatrical effects, and it has become even more expansive since Cage’s silences and his sense of ambient sounds. In a statement quoted on newmusicbox.org, Liang says “I like extremely fast, extremely slow. I also like extremely varied surfaces and extremely limited materials. For me, only extreme things can be interesting.” That is the aesthetics of extremes, which is a common feature of kitsch, what Karsten Harries, I think, called the “kitsch economy”: the need to continuously ratchet up the effects in order to make them expressive for increasingly jaded audiences. Liang is compelling at first, but I wonder how well the music will wear.

The most innovative moments in these pieces are ones in which virtuosity is required to be weak. Elsewhere in this piece Liang has a long passage in which a single note is repeated, marked “change pedal frequently at various time intervals to change the resonance.” In the performance I have from iTunes, that results in dropped notes and a general impression that the pianist isn’t very skilled or attentive. On this page, the glissandi are marked “extremely delicately with notes occasionally missing,” an odd direction given the tempo, quarter note = 72, which means these have to be fingered, and fairly slowly at that — so it’s not likely notes would drop out. The laying down of virtuosity and skill are more interesting modernist strategies than the attenuation and refinement of microscopic moods: the art historian Richard Shiff has written about that in the book “Doubt,” and Howard Singerman has written about the related figure of “de-skilling” in “Art Subjects.” I like those moments better than the extremely refined effects Liang creates so fluently.