JUST BECAUSE THERE ISN’T a lot of competition in your field, that doesn’t mean you can’t be great at what you do.
In the wake of the Cultural Revolution, Ge Gan-ru emerged as China’s first avant-garde composer. His 1983 composition for radically detuned solo cello, “Lost Style,” came out of a comparative study of Eastern and Western traditions.
“In Western music, the precise pitch is the most important [thing],” Ge said. “In Chinese music, what is important is how to manipulate a pitch in an imprecise way.” The emphasis is on timbre and on all the tones around the central pitch, its microtonal character.
“Once you returned the cello one octave lower,” Ge said, “it completely destroyed the physics of Western music.” The historic 1983 recording by Frank Su Huang is now the title track of Ge’s new disc. Preceding it is “Wrong Wrong Wrong!” a commission for Margaret Leng Tan, a onetime associate of John Cage who has established herself as the world’s foremost exponent of the toy piano, taking as her motto Marcel Duchamp’s observation that “poor tools require better skills.”
“Boy, have my skills improved!” Tan said. “What a bonus it is. Because [of] the control it takes to control these very primitive toys — and you translate that back to playing the adult piano and your fingertip control and everything is so finely honed, so paramount at this point, that I can create the five-p pianissimos that George Crumb requires in his piano music ‘Makrokosmos.'”
Thursday at the Freer Gallery of Art, Tan will present the world premiere of Ge’s adaptation of 12th-century poet Lu You‘s tale of thwarted love, accompanying herself — untrained as a singer but nimble and widely expressive, she vocalizes male and female parts — with numerous toy instruments, from a table harp to a two-note paper accordion.
In addition, the evening will mark the world premiere of Ge’s more traditionally instrumented Fifth String Quartet, to be performed, along with his first and fourth quartets, by members of ModernWorks.
The fifth quartet is titled “The Fall of Baghdad,” and it was inspired both by current events and by “Black Angels,” the seminal Vietnam-era work by Crumb.
» Freer Gallery of Art, Meyer Auditorium, Jefferson Drive & 12th Street SW; Thu., 6:45 p.m. (gallery tour), 7:30 p.m. (concert), free (two tickets per person distributed one hour before show); 800-551-7328. (Smithsonian)