Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Moving Sound Puts Their Original Spin on Ancient Chinese Music

Taiwanese group A Moving Sound’s music is not deferential or folkloric, at least in the sense that it tries to fossilize a traditional musical style for the same of mass appeal, or for yuppie cultural tourists who assuage their bourgeois guilt by proving to the world how multicultural they are. It’s cutting-edge, entertaining stuff that just happens to be played on instruments that go back several hundred years, using ancient Chinese folk tunes as a springboard for original songs and arrangements that draw on influences as diverse as indie classical and worldbeat. The songs’ lyrics are in native dialects. Frontwoman/singer/dancer Mia Hsieh’s heritage is mainland Chinese: her parents fled the terror of Mao to Taiwan, only to end up under Chiang Kai-Shek’s iron thumb. Hsieh won a Fulbright scholarship, studied with Meredith Monk and then returned home, bringing along multi-instrumentalist Scott Prairie, with whom she founded the group. The members also include Zheng-jun Wu on percussion and erhu (spike fiddle), Tang-hsuan Lo on erhu, Hua-zhou Hsieh on guitar and zhong ruan (four-string lute) along with guest sitarist Yi-chen Chang on one track.

The microtonal erhu adds an acidic bite to many of the songs, notably on the stately, processional opening suite, Silk Road – it’s hard to to tell where the erhu leaves off and Hsieh’s voice takes over, such is the clarity of both the vocals and Lo’s playing here. An instrumental, The First Thunder of Spring takes a graceful walk down the Asian scale and turns it into dramatic, ominous acoustic art-rock with an absolutely wicked chorus. The slowly slinky, joyously minimalist Harvest is followed by The Market Song, sort of like a Taiwanese Pogues tune, memorializing Hsieh’s parents’ hectic days as open-air vendors. At a semi-private mini-concert for bloggers and such earlier today, Hsieh lit into this one with a cheery, animated grace; as a singer, she switched confidently between hushed nuance and the stratospherically high leaps that give away her avant garde background.

Gu Gin, based on an 11th century poem, drolly celebrates playing in the rain, while Flying Dombra moves slowly and deliberately with Prairie’s spaciously placed bass chords. Dynasty has an upbeat, jangly folk-rock feel, nicking an old Allman Brothers lick at one point, followed by Toh Deh Gong, which contrasts Hsieh’s irrepressible vocal swoops and dives with stern, austerely percussive melodies. The album ends with the bouncy Howling Wind and then the aptly titled Ghost Lake, an ancient traditional song reinvented as a long, hypnotic tone poem with a trick ending. It’s out now on Motema; a Moving Sound plays Drom this Friday, Sept 23 at 9:30 PM. $12 advance tickets are still available as of today.

By the way, just in case it’s crossed your mind lately, this music is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the world stands to lose in the wake of Fukushima (Taiwan got hammered by the tailwind from 3/11). Think about that for a minute. Isn’t it time we got rid of nuclear power forever?

September 21, 2011 Posted by | folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: The Hsu-nami at the Passport to Taiwan Festival, Union Square, NYC 5/24/09

At times it seemed as if the Hsu-Nami were deliberately trying to injure themselves, ripping through a brief, barely forty-minute but physically exhausting set of artsy, spectacularly intelligent, virtuosic heavy metal instrumentals blending blinding blues, ornate Iron Maiden inflections and traditional Chinese melodies played by the band’s sensational frontman Jack Hsu on an amplified erhu (the traditional Chinese violin). Hsu didn’t let the the hundred-degree heat and crushing humidity phase him, flailing and throwing himself across the terrace at the park’s southwest corner as if possessed by demons. He didn’t even take off his vest. Hsu frequently transposes lead guitar voicings to his instrument, showing off a dizzyingly virtuosic command of an army of stylistic devices: slides, bent notes, lightning-fast 32nd-note clusters, blues runs, classical motifs and of course his signature permutations of the traditional Chinese scale. Guitarist Brent Bergholm’s pedalboard wasn’t working, so he went straight through his amp with tons of natural distortion. Tony Aichele, on the other side of what would have been the stage if there’d been one there, added a similarly ferocious blend of lead guitar precision and recklessness. Too bad the keyboardist was so low in the mix – but sometimes that’s what you get at an outdoor show. At the very least the band drowned out the nasty alarms undoubtedly blasting in the distance every time an M9 bus would open its doors, a couple of blocks away; at best, even taking into account the makeshift acoustics on what was by far the nastiest day of the year, this was one of 2009’s best NYC shows so far.

They opened with an especially aggressive version of Snake Skin Shuffle, featuring a ferocious bluesy solo by Bergholm. The next song segued from a predictably amusing, sarcastically metalized version of the Godfather Theme, Hsu mocking the melody against stately piano, then morphing into what sounded like Iron Maiden playing a dramatic Chinese opera theme lit up by a twin solo by the two guitarists. The title track from their new cd 4 Noble Truths began slow, deliberate, and soulful, building to a galloping stomp with Aichele and Hsu playfully doubling each others’ lightning-fast lines, then an interlude with keys that wouldn’t have been out of place on an early Genesis record. The most intense song of the show was the intially eerie, ominous Entering the Mandala, Hsu blasting through two twin solos –  one with each guitarist – as the suite reached whirlwind proportions. While what this band plays, for lack of a better word, is metal, they stay away from cliches, on this one finally giving into temptation and ending it with a deliciously flailing, crashing outro that could have gone on for twice as long as it did and the crowd would have loved it just as much. They closed the set with a new song, the strikingly pretty, pastoral triptych Passport to Taiwan, dedicating it to the festival where they’ve played for three years straight now, Bergholm adding some artful southern rock touches that actually managed to work. If you miss the days of aggressive, loud bands that don’t have the slightest resemblance to Pearl Jam or Nickelback, you ought to check these guys out. The Hsu-Nami are like Chinese hot sauce – no matter how intense it gets, you still keep wanting more and more.

May 26, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments