Shen Ye 

Composer Ye Shen about “Gogol” (2017)

dateApril 6th, 2017

authorYe Shen

Lyrics by: Tomas Tranströmer (1931 – 2015)
Translated by: BEI, Dao (1949 – )
Music by: SHEN, Ye (1977 – )
First performance: April 8, 2017 | Heidelberg, Germany
by Lini Gong, soprano | Burkhard Kehring, piano

In the autumn of 2016, the German Festival Heidelberger Frühling invited me to compose a new work for the Divan of Song project, to be performed by coloratura soprano Lini Gong and pianist Burkhard Kehring in April, 2017. The new composition should be related to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

Chinese Tang poetry was translated into French, then rewritten as German, and eventually became the lyrics of Das Lied von der Erde. Likewise, as I was searching, Tomas Tranströmer's "Gogol" came to mind. This Swedish poem depicts the life of the Russian dramatist Nikolai Gogol. It has been translated into English and then re-translated into Chinese.

While I accompanied my mother during the last two months of her life, I would take the night train back and forth, and the last paragraph of this poem often flashed in the night sky outside the train window:

"Look outside, see how darkness burns hard a whole galaxy of souls.

Rise up then on your chariot of fire and leave the country!"

(English: Robin Fulton)

Music and human life are similar: both of them engage with time and with the tendency to leave its meaning. The human voice, in particular, has a kind of magic. This magic has not been consciously emphasized, but one perceives it naturally as the sound fades in evanescent time.

Perhaps drawing their inspiration from language, for nearly 50 years European avant-garde composers focused on the deconstruction and fragmentation of words and syllables, or brought various noise-like sounds from nature into voice; however, there has been very little exploration of the gradual change between syllables, vowels and consonants with different flow-rate gradients. For example, in my practice, the Chinese word ”像” (means “as”, “like”) can be pronounced with a very fast flow rate to make a[ʃʌn-like sound, or could be slowly pronounced from the approximate[ʃiː]to[jɛː]and then[ɑː]finally goes to[ŋ]. For this word ”像”, each stage of the changing speed is controllable, and further it can be combined with different speed of intonation and dynamic gradients, different breath and vibration, to achieve rich and varied sound morphs.

Furthermore, there is a key difference from the past avant-garde music: the voice-grade skill does not break the meaning of the word; it remains a natural but extremely sophisticated sound experience.

In music, with different flow rate of voice-grade processing, when the lyrics drift to the key syllables, it is like artificially adjusting the speed. That creates the flexibility of time. This music with time curvature is very similar to our memories of life:

Instantly shining
casts a halo toward eternity.

Shen Ye
Feb. 4, 2017

Tomas Tranströmer : Gogol (1949)

(English translation by Robin Fulton)

The jacket threadbare as a wolf pack.
The face like a marble slab.
Sitting in the circle of his letters in the grove that rustles
with scorn and error,
the heart blowing like a scrap of paper through the inhospitable
passageways.

The sunset is now creeping like a fox over this country,
igniting the grass in a mere moment.
Space is full of horns and hooves underneath
the barouche glides like a shadow between my father’s
lit courtyards.

St. Petersburg on the same latitude as annihilation
(did you see the beauty in the leaning tower)
and around the ice-bound tenements floating like a jellyfish
the poor man in his cloak.

And here, enveloped in fasts, is the man who before was surrounded by the herds of laughter,
but these have long since taken themselves to tracts far above the tree line.
Men’s unsteady tables.
Look outside, see how darkness burns hard a whole galaxy of souls.
Rise up then on your chariot of fire and leave the country!

Tomas Tranströmer : Gogol (1949) 

(original Swedish text)

Kavajen luggsliten som en vargflock.
Ansiktet som en marmorflisa.
Sitter i kretsen av sina brev i lunden som susar av hån och misstag,
ja hjärtat blåser som ett papper genom de ogästvänliga passagerna.

Nu smyger solnedgången som en räv över detta land,
antänder gräset på ett ögonblick.
Rymden är full av horn och klövar och därunder
glider kaleschen skugglik mellan min faders upplysta gårdar.

Petersburg beläget på samma breddgrad som förintelsen
(såg du den sköna i det lutande tornet)
och kring nedisade kvarter än svävar manetlikt
den arme i sin kappa.

Och här, insvept i fastor, är han som förr omgavs av skrattens hjordar,
men de har för länge sedan begivit sig till trakter långt ovanför trädgränsen.

Människors raglande bord.
Se ut, hur mörkret bränner fast en vintergata av själar.

Så stig upp på din eldvagn och lämna landet!

Ye Shen, Composer

Dr. Ye SHEN is Associate Professor of Composition in the Composition Department, Shanghai Conservatory of Music. He has been a visiting lecturer at Hamburg Music and Theater Hochschule (2009), visiting scholar at Berlin Arts University with the support from China Education Ministry (2011), and has studied and worked as a Resident Composer at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (Ircam) – Cursus 1 (2013 – 2014).

SHEN was awarded the Bach-Preis-Stipendium by the Senate of Hamburg (2011) and the “Music Theory Honorable Mention of China National Golden Chime Award” by the Chinese Musicians Association (2011). He is the 1st Winner in the 13th National Music (Symphony) Awards administered by China Ministry of Culture for Wen Hua Music Creation (2007), etc.

Ye SHEN’s works have been performed frequently in Mainland China, Asia, the U.S. and Europe. He has cooperated with several well-known orchestras including the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, Shanghai Opera House Orchestra, Hongkong Chinese Traditional Orchestra, and has completed commissions for the Universität Witten / Herdecke (Germany), Finisterra Trio (U.S.), Ensemble InterContemporain (France), TIMF Ensemble & Klangspuren Festival in Austria, the "Sounding D 2010" new music festival in Hamburg, Asia-Europe Foundation (Philippine), Shanghai Spring International Music Festival and Shanghai Cultural Development Foundation, among others.

vau© Staffan Jansson 2017