An Atlas of Time: Wang Lu Explores the Imperfect Cartography of Memory
Updated: Aug 9, 2021
(Originally posted on I CARE IF YOU LISTEN on December 16, 2020 at 6:00 a.m.)
Two years have passed since the release of Wang Lu’s debut album Urban Inventory, making the release of her second album, An Atlas of Time (New Focus Recordings), a compelling expansion of her artistic range. Where Urban Inventory dealt with the everyday frenetic energy of the early 21st century—making the ephemeral substantive—An Atlas of Time is introspective and personal. Memories are her subject, specifically the evolving relevance they have to an artist approaching the end of their fourth decade. Yet listeners expecting sentimentality or nostalgic serenity will be disappointed. Wang Lu conceives of memory as disjointed, even arbitrary, noting: “It’s not only that we have no choice over what we remember—what comes back to us with precise detail. When I compose a piece, what comes out are those moments from my 38 years of life over which I’ve had little control. Instead, I have to try to embrace them.” The result is a collection of musical souvenirs, sonic fragments that flash and erupt, sometimes uncontrollably, into what might be best described as the composer’s aural un/conscious.
The title track of the album is Wang Lu’s most ambitious exploration of her past. Commissioned by Ensemble Modern and performed on the album by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (Gil Rose, conductor), the work combines recorded sound samples reminiscent of her Chinese childhood (bicycle bells in morning traffic and noisy neighbors) with allusions to 1980s Chinese rock music, and her young self playfully banging on the piano. These clips suddenly emerge from the chaotic timbres, interrupting the musical conscious by randomly panning back and forth across the listener’s speakers. Obviously, Wang Lu’s musical cartography is rarely linear.
What makes the album most interesting is its range. Counterbalancing the expansiveness of An Atlas of Time are pieces more focused on discrete events like Wang Lu’s memories of Rome. But in keeping with her conception of memory, even this limited period of time draws from the ambient and the specific. The bells of Basilica San Clemente are peppered through several tracks, especially in “Caravaggio’s Descent,” while her string quartet, Double Trance (artfully and deftly performed by the Momenta Quartet), is an intense reflection on Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto and monastic life at the Basilica. The latter is particularly successful as faint remains of the monophonic vespers that the composer heard during her time in Rome are accompanied by a fountain of floating overtones. As these motives grow in intensity as the piece progresses, they evoke both the nuns’ canonical ritual as well as the calculating precision of Piero della Francesca painting.
Memory as a bodily occurrence underpins Wang Lu’s Unbreathable Colors (dedicated to violinist Miranda Cuckson). The piece translates her terrifying experiences inhaling the polluted Chinese air into a sonic equivalent. The track begins as a benign plucked arpeggiation of recognizable tonal chords but becomes more and more distorted and scratchy while whistling overtones try to float above. The struggle of melody and cacophony is viscerally effective in realizing the composer’s verdict of the experience: “How cruel it is to inhale and exhale in this unbreathable world.”
Other tracks strain the concept of memory, though none to the point of losing the thread. Her musical symbol of friendship Ryan and Dan, written for her friends Ryan Muncy (saxophone) and Daniel Lippel (electric guitar), requires some thought to reconcile with earlier pieces. The work emulates the Chinese seven-string guqin with spontaneous glides and plucking from the electric guitar and the saxophone providing the multiphonic, key-clicky atmospheric accompaniment. Maybe the instruments are synecdochic of Ryan and Dan, which would make their evocation through Chinese musical structures an interesting rumination on subjectivity and perception. But even if there is not as firm a conceptual underpinning, the work is one of Wang Lu’s most impressive efforts. The piece expertly pushes structure and improvisatory-like “automatic music” into a state of play rarely matched.
Wang Lu closes the album with Siren Song, an operatic tale about her hometown (Xi’an). The story of an old eunuch who buys a young wife and declares that she will be buried with him when he dies is another loose connection to the theme of memory. But like Ryan and Dan, the instinct to draw such connections testifies to a foundational logic. Perhaps Wang Lu is amending the terms that defined the initial tracks. Rather than submitting to the uncontrollable nature of memory, she recognizes an almost liberatory creative agency that the fragmentary offers her as she confidently stitches together sounds that play dual roles. The chaotic and brash orchestration and harsh glissandos mimic the dialect of her hometown, but are the monolog of her eunuch. The snippets of folk melodies similarly evoke both the emulated traditional form as well as the childhood alluded to in earlier tracks.
An Atlas of Time is the culmination of many decades of Wang Lu’s musical lifetime. She has always been inspired by traditional Chinese music interpreted through a modernist lens, but in this album, she approaches her work with more introspection. And while, as Wang Lu notes, there is no perfect cartography or even classification system that would neatly sort these flashes of musical memory, the listener is glad to join her on her journey and future explorations.