For over a decade I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with Charles Huang and Ling-Fei Kang — both individually, and in their work together as members of Oboe Duo Agosto and the Sylvanus Ensemble. It is a privilege beyond words for a composer to have colleagues so supportive and so tireless in their advocacy for new music, and who play with such beauty, precision, and commitment. I see this release as a celebration of our work together, as well as a celebration of two of my very favorite instruments.
The first of these pieces, Mandarin Ducks (鴛鴦), was commissioned by Oboe Duo Agosto for their performance at the 2011 Asian Double Reed Association Conference in Bangkok, Thailand. The circumstances that gave rise to its creation are surreal enough to warrant recounting. Charles and I were talking on the telephone, discussing the parameters of the commission and what musical approach might best suit the planned performances. Noting that I didn’t have anything too avant-garde in mind, I trotted out a line I’ve used on several occasions: “After all,” I said, “I’m not usually the kind of composer who asks my performers to put ducks on their heads.”
A long pause followed, and then I heard Charles’s fateful reply: “Well, now that you mention it...”
Ornithologists can probably guess what happened next, as Charles described to me the mandarin duck (Aix galericulata), a species known for its diversity of appearance: the drakes have an unusual, brilliantly-colored plumage, while the hens are far less extravagant. They also have a reputation for lifelong fidelity, and in Chinese, the expression "Two mandarin ducks playing in water" is a proverb connoting a happy couple. Since Charles and Ling-Fei had recently gotten married, this seemed an apt image, and I gladly ran with it!
Mandarin Ducks is in seven short movements, each depicting a different anatine scene. While overall the piece is light in tone, it also makes some use of adventurous techniques, including multiphonics, circular breathing, and Lutosławskian indeterminacy.
The Heart That Loves But Once was written at the request of the University of Hartford’s 20/20 Ensemble, who premiered the piece in March 2007. Its title comes from a passage in a letter written to Robert Schumann by his future wife, Clara Wieck, at a time when their romance seemed without hope of fulfillment:
“You will hear so many things of me, many a doubt will arise in your mind when you learn of this or that, but then think to yourself – She does all that for me: Could you ever waver? Well – then you would have broken a heart that loves but once.”
The works of Robert Schumann were a major inspiration in writing this piece. I also owe much to Prof. Ira Braus, to whom The Heart That Loves But Once is dedicated. His wit and wisdom have profoundly illuminated Schumann’s music for me, and for many others.
Written in 2018 for Charles Huang, Imaginary Birds of the Frozen North is a trio of miniatures for solo English horn. These gnomic pieces aim to conjure the spirits of, respectively, the territorial Lesser Snow Ostrich, ever warning intruders to steer clear of its well-defended home; the hapless Great Northern Wandering Dodo, doomed to foresee its own tragicomic end; and the enigmatic Sub-Arctic Screech Owl, whose lovely call belies its harsh-sounding name.
The longest piece on this album, The Wood Between the Worlds, was commissioned for the Sylvanus Ensemble in 2009 by the Bishops Corner Neighborhood Group. Sylvanus means "of the woods" in Latin, so it’s appropriate that my piece takes its name from the mysterious forest in The Magician’s Nephew, the first book in the Chronicles of Narnia series by C. S. Lewis. Though appearing as a tranquil forest, in reality the Wood is a kind of nexus that exists outside normal space and time. The pools of water with which it is filled are each a gateway to a different place, with one for every world in the universe where living creatures still reside.
Compositional and stylistic unity are frequently idealized in Western art music, yet my own musical life has often been characterized by eclecticism and juxtaposition. During my years at Bennington, I might play trumpet in a Fela Kuti cover band, tour with an indie-rock trio, and sing in a colleague’s choral piece, all within a week. These strands have all contributed to who I am as a musician and composer; all are worlds unto themselves, with distinctive conceptions of time, harmony, and timbre. I’ve long been intrigued by the idea of creating a musical universe in which they can openly coexist, and perhaps this piece is an attempt to do exactly that.
The Wood Between the Worlds is also inspired by the work of the extraordinary oboist (and multi-instrumentalist) Paul McCandless. I’ve spent endless hours listening to his playing – as heard on albums by Oregon, the Winter Consort, Carla Bley, and Eberhard Weber, among others – and his approach to the instrument has fundamentally shaped my conception of what the oboe is and can be.
Finally, Expecting the Spring Breeze (望春風) is a famous and much-loved melody, composed by Taiwanese musician Teng Yu-hsien (鄧雨賢), which I arranged for oboe and guitar in 2006 at Ling-Fei’s request. Think of it as a kind of encore, both by placement and by intent.
My heartfelt thanks are due to Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford CT, Stephen Scarlato, and Joe Joiner; to Jeff Oehler and BeeHive Productions; to my colleagues at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music, with thanks for their support; to my wife Kate; and, last but certainly not least, to Charles, Ling-Fei, Katie, Mohamed, John, Andrew, Annabelle, and Yu-Chen, all of whom gave so generously of their time and musicianship to make this project possible.
— Phil Salathé
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