AMN Reviews: Anthony Cheung – Cycles and Arrows [New Focus Recordings: fcr215]

Cycles and Arrows, a collection of complex, well-crafted compositions for chamber ensembles, is the third portrait CD of work by Anthony Cheung (b. 1982). The recording highlights Cheung’s interest in composing with a focus on the qualities of instrumental voices both alone and in combinations.

Cheung’s concern with instrumental color follows naturally from his formation as a composer. A pianist as well as a composer, Cheung had as his primary composition teachers the spectralist Tristan Murail and Bernard Rands; he wrote his dissertation on Ligeti’s Hamburg Concerto, a late work exploring non-harmonic sonorities for solo horn and chamber orchestra. Given this background, it isn’t surprising that Cheung’s compositions tend to engage sonority as a substantive product of careful orchestration.

With the exception of 2015’s Après une lecture, a work for solo oboe, all of the pieces on Cycles and Arrows locate their musical centers of gravity in the timbral effects of instrumental aggregations and divisions. One of the more adventurous instances is More Marginalia (2014) for a ten-piece ensemble. The composition represents a reworking of Cheung’s 2012 piece for ten traditional Chinese instruments, originally written for the Taipei Chinese Orchestra. For the newer work, Cheung replaced half the Chinese instruments with Western instruments of more-or-less analogous makeup. The ensemble’s unconventional makeup allows Cheung to set up shifting timbral alliances and oppositions between groups of instruments whose contrasting voices reflect contrasting traditions and playing techniques; especially effective are the contrasts between the plucked and bowed Chinese instruments on the one hand, and Western strings and winds on the other. In this piece as in the other works for chamber orchestra, Cheung plays instrumental coalitions off against each other in constellations of color that break apart as quickly as they cohere.

Although a solo piece, Après une lecture also is essentially about the dynamics of sound color. Based on a free reading of Leoš Janáček’s transcriptions of spoken language, Cheung’s composition, forcefully realized by oboist Ernest Rombout, draws on a vocabulary of microtones and multiphonics to mimic the vagaries of the human voice; its irregular accents and tempos, along with mercurial changes of register, convey something of the range of sonic nuances that are an integral, if often overlooked, dimension of linguistic meaning.

Daniel Barbiero