Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections in the Water) – Debussy
Bāng Chhun-hong (Pining for the Spring Breeze) – Teng Yu-hsien, arr. by Stephen Hough
The Butterfly Lovers – He Zhanhao, Chen Gang
Vers la Flamme (Toward the flame), Op. 72 – Scriabin
Ballade No. 2 in B minor, S.171 – Liszt
About the Five Elements
Ten composers are like ten Heavenly Stems. KJ Wong Piano Recital: The Five Elements is composed of five parts, with each representing one of the five elements and with Yin and Yang, together, forming a whole. The recital begins with “Earth” as if everything in the universe begins with earth. Then, the Five Elements generate each other as such: Earth generates Metal, Metal generates Water, Water generates Wood, and Wood generates Fire.
Metal signifies ideas and possibilities for the future; Water governs intelligence and represents how the element inspires wisdom; Wood, sturdy and always grounded, tells stories of people throughout history; Fire, in its flickering form, embodies humanity.
Everything begins with Earth, for the nutrition in earth gives life to all things. Therefore, the recital starts with works from the Baroque period, representing the style of that era.
Composers from the Baroque period used to construct pieces of music by putting together building blocks, from individual musical segments to singular elements, to form a cohesive composition. Each and every note, with each motive, was meticulously pieced together. These compositions, as if earth nourishes everything, had a profound influence on subsequent events in the history of music. Works of Scarlatti (1685-1757) and Bach (1685-1750) were like fertile grounds, with their influences indispensable to future generations.
Scarlatti’s Sonata in B minor seems reserved in its slow rhythm and gives an impression of withdrawal and introspectiveness. His Sonata in E major, on the other hand, is relatively faster, gives a brighter prospect and features strong repetition. Paired with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E major, the melodies gradually develop. This part resembles the structure of a building.
“Notations” refers to elements and techniques used in musical composition. Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) took the number ‘12’ as his guide to restrict his scope of creations. By such constraints, he explored the techniques in musical composition and utilised them to develop a language of his own. His work “12 Notations” reflects an approach with a strong digital nature.
The number ‘12’ could be associated with the twelve Earthly Branches. “Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches” is a historical system for ancient Chinese to record years, months, days and hours. “12 Notations” alludes to the twelve Earthly Branches: Zi, Chou, Yin, Mao, Chen, Si, Wu, Wei, Shen, You, Xu and Hai.
The word ‘digital’ comes from Latin digitalis, which originated from digitus meaning “finger or toe”. Or simply put, ‘digital’ relates to information in the form of digital signals. For the 21st century, the Digital Age, the way people perceive music has immensely changed. In the past, people saw music as a form of storytelling, an expression of emotions, while some believed compositions were determined by forms. Prior to that, composers simply wrote music to tell tales or make a tune out of myths.
However, this composition, created by a 21st-century French composer Boulez, focuses on the use of techniques such as accents, staccato, pedal, syncopation, etc. This music of the new era can be seen as stimulating, discordant, deconstructed, mixed with sound effects and characterised by sound designs. Some parts are completely unpredictable, as if the music comes out of calculation.
This “Metal” part leads to our reflection – how music represents different ways of thinking from different eras. That illustrates how “Metal”, metaphorically, can be relevant to our daily life and applicable to our modern society.
“Metal generates Water”
By nature, water permeates most things, by penetrating and passing through porous materials. It is omnipresent. One famous saying “Be Water” urges one to act and think as flexibly as water, as it symbolises intelligence.
“Aqua”, from Latin aqua, means “water”. It is a tribute to the late Japanese composer, whom we have lost recently, Ryuichi Sakamoto (1952-2023).
Sakamoto also performed this same piece in his final recital. Aqua builds slowly and mimics a steady flowing water. Dedicating his life to music and composition, Sakamoto had studied classical music since young. His techniques and approaches to music were heavily influenced by conventions in classical music, particularly by the works of Claude Debussy (1862-1918).
In French music, water has been a significant theme throughout history. The Impressionists composed a number of songs about water. After Sakamoto’s Aqua, Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections in the Water), as the name tells, is a piece about water, calmness and dynamism all in one piece.
“Water generates Wood.”
The cultural artefacts from the East and Japanese paintings Debussy had seen at the World Expo might have influenced his compositions. Following Debussy, there are two pieces originating from Chinese culture.
Bāng Chhun-hong (Longing for the Spring Breeze) is a famous Taiwanese folk song that celebrates nature. The Earthly Branches of Yin, Mao, and Chen are associated with the element of “Wood”. “Mao” represents villages, trees, woods, and also symbolises people of a bustling crowd. It tells stories of the people.
The Butterfly Lovers is based on the synonymous Yue opera, which is a story derived from folklore that depicts the relationships between Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai.
“Wood generates Fire”
Vers la Flamme means “Toward the Flame” in English. Fire, at the point of ignition, carries a sense of mystery. Then it gradually rises in combustion and ,with the right substance to burn, eventually explodes. In Scriabin’s music, fire is a notable imagery. It is not uncommon to say all music is derived from imagination. Music can as well be visualised.
The urge for music and inspiration for composition come like a flame, ever-evolving and growing towards eternity.
Finally, in the saying “JiaYi (Wood) generates BingDing (Fire)”, Bing symbolises the sun, whereas Ding represents people. Having started with “Earth”, the recital comes to an end with something substantial by telling the stories of people, of humanity.
Liszt’s Ballade No. 2 in B minor sums up the whole recital. This piece, rather emotionally-amplified, carrying the most traits of human unifies everything, as it combines all the elements appeared in the whole performance.