五代同堂 [five generations – one house]
During the time I lived in Beijing, from 2007-2010, I was bought, as a consolation prize for not mastering Mandarin, a yang-qin (butterfly harp), because I had admired it in a shop window. The sight of such a handsome instrument residing at home, unplayed, was a reproach, and so I got a very rigorous teacher who taught me the basics, so I was able to play duets with her, and later even joined in with a traditional ensemble. Strangely it is the one staple instrument of a Chinese opera band that probably originated in Eastern Europe, as it resembles a dulcimer. For a family birthday, I managed to compose and play a piece for my yang-qin, which I later transcribed for piano. I surrounded the piece with satellite pieces, using similar restricted pitches and textures, rather like Satie’s Gymnopédies, to create a small suite. The pieces were composed haphazardly and in no particular order. Because I ended up with five, I allude in the title to the strange inedible fruit, that resembles a lemon with five-fingers - or an inflated rubber glove - that appears at Chinese New Year to celebrate continuity: Wu Dai Tong Tang: five generations one house – here, five aspects of the same material.
Later, I transcribed the whole piece for string quartet, and then reworked the material for this string orchestra version, which incorporates new music from an abandoned orchestra piece. So even though the five movements remain, the string orchestra piece is slightly more varied and dramatic. The original yang-qin piece is the third movement, and the simple song-like material is the basis for the whole work. Only in the fifth piece is there a noticeable change in tonality, though it is firmly anchored to the whole by an unchanging refrain. The whole piece lasts fifteen minutes.
© Julian Grant 2013
also versions for solo piano and string quartet