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About the Author
Ken Smith currently divides his time between New York (where he writes for Gramophone magazine) and Hong Kong (where he serves as the Asian–performing arts critic for the Financial Times). He is Co–Music Director of the recordings Dong Folk Songs and Miao Music for China's MediaFusion Group, and he won an ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award in 2008 for his liner notes to Gil Shaham's recording of The Butterfly Lovers Concerto for Violin. Ken is also the author of Fate! Luck! Chance!, published in 2008 by Chronicle Books.

Ancient Paths, Modern Voices Blog

Cell Division

I think I’ve finally learned that you really can’t be everywhere at once. I can’t be in New York and Asia; composer Liu Sola can’t be at rehearsals for the New Juilliard Ensemble’s program tonight at Alice Tully Hall and the Orange County Museum of Art, where she was scheduled to speak as part of the West Coast offerings in Ancient Paths, Modern Voices. But at least there’s always Skype.

Thanks to the miracle of VoIP, I was able to not only track down our elusive composer, but also find out what she talked about at the panel discussion Designing China, which was held last Thursday in conjunction with the California Humanities Research Institute. “I was on the panel with the artist Liu Dan,” she said. “My subject was sound.”

For her, the art of composition is broken down not into themes and motifs, but into shapes and cells. “How I hear the sound is the shape,” she explains. “The cells are the aesthetic. They make the music come alive.”

Looking at Mr. Liu’s art, for example—which often uses stones and rocks as its subject matter—Ms. Liu could already hear a musical shape. After that, she just needs to figure out the cells to fill those shapes.

So is this a strategy to keep in mind while listening to all new Chinese music?

“This is not just simply how I write music,” she says. “You can trace other people’s inspiration backwards. I can even trace free jazz, the way players like Ornette Coleman shape their music.”

How is a cell, then, different from a motif or theme?

“With motifs, you always look forward to development,” she explains. “Cells are there to make their own statement. They are very individual, and they can change very fast. That to me is much more exciting than a motif.”

Posted by Ken Smith

© 2001-2009 Carnegie Hall Corporation

Chinese Translation (Traditional Characters)
Chinese Translation (Simplified Characters)