Gong Linna & Bang on a Can All-Stars: Cloud River Mountain
Cantaloupe Music

The Bang on a Can All-Stars' adventurous story continues on this inspired collaboration with Chinese singer Gong Linna. She might be a largely unknown property in the West, but the Guizhou-born Linna enjoys celebrity status in her homeland. Yet though a performance of the song “Tan Te” vaulted her to fame when it appeared on Chinese national television in 2010, Linna is no vacuous pop star. She dedicated seven years to vocal study at the Chinese Conservatory of Music, performs with her own chamber music ensemble as well as major Chinese orchestras, and is regarded as one of the most important innovators of contemporary Chinese vocal music. Linna blends a number of contrasting techniques into a highly personalized style, with Chinese opera and Folk song traditions blended with art songs and experimental material in a manner that invites comparison to Björk, despite the thousands of miles separating their respective home countries.

The project with the Bang on a Can All-Stars was set in motion when Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon during a China visit saw her on television and subsequently met with Linna and her musical partner, composer Lao Luo. One thing led to another, and a first iteration of the Cloud River Mountain song cycle was presented by the singer with the Bang on a Can All-Stars at 2015's annual Bang on a Can Marathon.

On the thirty-three-minute Cloud River Mountain, Linna sings in both Mandarin and English in texts inspired by the writings of classical Chinese poet Qu Yuan (c. 340-278 BCE). Ancient meets modern to startling effect when early Chinese storytelling is paired with the sometimes raucous performances of the singer and All-Stars. As daring a project as it appears on paper, it's business as usual for the New York-based outfit, which currently features cellist Ashley Bathgate, bassist Robert Black, pianist Vicky Chow, percussionist David Cossin, guitarist Mark Stewart, and woodwinds player Ken Thomson. For twenty-five years, the group has been collapsing boundaries between jazz, rock, and classical and has released a number of memorable albums, among them versions of Eno's Music for Airports and Terry Riley's In C.

One of the most striking things about Cloud River Mountain, aside obviously from its sonic presentation, has to do with the way Bang on a Can founders Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe inserted themselves into the mix. With one exception, the rollicking charger “Tan Te,” the album presents related treatments of three songs, with each of those featuring Yuan's lyrics and Lao Luo's music mirrored by a related version by one of the three founders. To illustrate, Yuan-Luo's “Yun Zhong Jun” (sung in Mandarin) is followed by Wolfe's “Into the Clouds” (in English), whose lyrics she adapted from “Yun Zhong Jun”; in such a scenario, the original text is typically condensed, such that Yuan's “Let me play with you among the river's islets, / While the swollen waters come rushing our way!” (“He Bo”) becomes “Let me play with you / while river waters rush” in Gordon's treatment (“River”).

Contrasts in style and dynamics are plentiful, with the seething, almost punk-fueled fury of Wolfe's “Into the Clouds” countered by the delicate rendering given Yuan-Luo's dream-like “He Bo.” As entrancing as that song is, Lang's “Girl with Mountain,” the album's high point, is even more powerful, despite being pitched at the level of a hush. The sonorities of Linna's voice, admittedly, takes some getting used to if you've had little exposure to the vocal character of Chinese singing. But acclimation sets in quickly, especially when her alluring delivery receives such sympathetic support from the musicians, the All-Stars again showing themselves to be a unit capable of tackling any style, no matter how unusual. A typical arrangement is an intricate entity that sees guitar, clarinet, vibraphone, piano, cello, and an equally enthusiastic Linna woven into high-energy presentations. Each participant, be it singer or band member, contributes forcefully to the material, and their passionate performances do much to recommend the result.

September 2017