Title a concert of new music “Inspired by Buddhism,” and John Cage — the pathbreaking composer influenced in the 1950s by Zen philosopher Daisetz Suzuki — leaps quickly to mind. But Buddhist thought is shaping a fresh new generation of composers, as well, as the young Momenta String Quartet showed at the Freer Gallery on Thursday night. Cage was on the program, of course — his “String Quartet in Four Parts” is as transcendentally gorgeous now as it was in 1950 — but the spotlight was on works by four intriguing, if relatively unknown, Asian American composers.
First up was Kee Yong Chong’s “Clouds Surging” — an atmospheric work in every sense. Arranging themselves around the room like the four winds, the Momenta players unleashed an utterly abstract, utterly beautiful sonic skyscape that seemed to reveal the inner life of clouds. Built almost entirely from airy, weightless textures, its scratches and whispers and delicate wisps of sound seemed to form, evaporate and appear again in constantly changing shapes with all the relentless inventiveness of nature. An extraordinary musical experience — you felt you were floating the entire time — and a fine new work.
Ushio Torikai’s “Four Teen,” which followed, opened with such determined gravity that the Freer felt as if it were crashing suddenly to Earth. But Torikai is among the most gifted female Japanese composers on the planet, and the work (based on her visit to a Zen garden in Kyoto) proved to be strikingly original, satisfyingly complex and altogether absorbing. Huang Ruo’s “The Flag Project” — inspired by Himalayan prayer flags — didn’t impress as much. It may have been the tinkly-winkly Tibetan finger cymbals, or the po-faced, more-Buddhist-than-thou feel of the thing; either one was enough to undermine its impact.
Things picked up again with the cheerfully postmodern “If We Live in Forgetfulness, We Die in a Dream,” a recent work by Jason Hwang. Its connection with Buddhism was maybe more theoretical than musical, but it was a warm, human, richly melodic work with all the finely tuned eclecticism we’ve come to expect from Hwang (who brought his extraordinary “Burning Bridge” suite to the Freer two years ago). It was Cage, though — the old master — who stole the show. His “Quartet” is a work of such profound tranquillity, it sounds like it came from another plane of existence entirely, and the Momenta players gave it a reading Cage would have loved: dry, spare, uninflected and free of anything but its own sound.
Brookes is a freelance writer.