Through history, western composers have tended to create great structures with their sounds or have painted landscapes or told stories. The music of the East, on the other hand, has dwelt on sound for its own sake.
For her recital at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater on Saturday, pianist Margaret Leng Tan performed a program of music by western composers that was rooted in an eastern tradition.
This is an introspective idiom, an idiom that requires great concentration on the part of the performer, and Tan managed this masterfully.
This was most evident in Crumb's early "Five Pieces for Piano," which compelled both performer and audience to focus on each note. Crumb establishes a pianissimo context that includes the sympathetic vibration of the piano's strings among its arsenal of sounds. Crumb has an extraordinarily sensitive command of sound nuances, and even this early work is rich in delicate shifts of textures and overtones.
Anything but delicate was the piece "Litania," for prerecorded and acoustic piano, by Somei Satoh, the only oriental composer on the program. Here the audience was treated to a tonal bath, a veritable deluge of clusters of tones that shifted and gushed out in waves. Tape and live piano seemed undifferentiated and, other than whatever pure sensual pleasure could be derived from the splashes of sound, there seemed to be little reason to listen.
Works by Hovhaness, Cage and John Adams were similar in their focus on spirals of slowly changing configurations. Cage's prepared piano gave a tang to his sonorities, but all these shared a timelessness and a sense of static contemplation.
Tan rounded out her program with Griffes' sonata and three of Debussy's "Images" Book II.