|Last Cicada Singing CB0034|
Four serene, unique, and entrancing pieces for solo qin (a zither-like Chinese instrument). Quiet, sparse, almost Feldmanesque, almost delta-blues-like, too. Performed by the composer, who mastered the qin while living and teaching for many years in Taiwan. (He performs on a qin built by Lin Li-Zheng.)
1. Remote Stories
2. The Channel
3. Travelling Alone
4. Last Cicada Singing
Christopher Roberts is a composer/performer (double bass and qin) who is as comfortable within Western classical, jazz, and folk traditions as he is within a number of non-Western Pacific Rim musical traditions and as an idiosyncratic solo improviser. He grew up in Southern California (where his first bass was the "prop" bass, with bullet holes, from the Billy Wilder movie Some Like It Hot), but has spent much of his life since the early 1980s living overseas. Only fairly recently did he return to the United States, where he currently lives and teaches music in Bellingham, Washington.
Roberts studied composition with Vincent Persichetti and double bass with David Walter at Juilliard, where he earned doctoral degrees in both subjects. Following the intensity of the conservatory environment, he shouldered his bass and went to live alone in Papua New Guinea, on a quest to understand natural prosody in music. This was followed by a Fulbright to Taiwan to study the Chinese classical qin, in a quest to understand idiomatic string composition within a culture and a way of training different from his own. He taught composition, theory, and double bass for a number of years at Soochow University in Taipei. Roberts was the subject of the award-winning documentary Songs of a Distant Jungle.
As a Fulbright Scholar, Roberts studied qin in Taiwan with Prof. Chang Ching-Chih in 1987.
Roberts has one previous release on the Cold Blue label, Trios for Deep Voices (double bass trios), about which new music bass virtuoso Bertram Turetzky wrote, "A magnificent piece! Theres nothing like it. Roberts voice is truly original." And noted critic Greg Sandow wrote, "Trios for Deep Voices is thoughtful music, beautifully worked out, and very absorbing to listen to. Its wonderfully individual, both in its sound and its construction. Clear some space in your life, both literally and figuratively, and give it a listen." Julian Cowley wrote about the trios in The Wire, " This music has none of the kitsch of cheap ethno-musicological fantasy or neo-primitive indulgenceit's an elegantly reverberant, harmonically rich and gracefully delineated composition for resonant strings. Rather than relaying tourist impressions, he maps changes in his own musical sensibility brought about by Papuan experiences. And he doesnt conceal what endures from his earlier training, with his evident love of the double bass at its heart."
"Roberts has arrived at a new American music ... something unique." Michael J. Schumacher
"Two exciting releases from Cold Blue [Christopher Hobbs's Sudoku 82 and Christopher Roberts's The Last Cicada Singing] that push new music in new directions. Some 50 years after John Cage and Lou Harrison looked eastwards for musical inspiration, just how much their music has influenced subsequent generations is a matter of debate. But as these two CD singles from Cold Blue clearly show, their mentality is alive and well . Where Hobbs is from Cage's intellectual camp, Roberts is from Harrison's hands-on school, learning a tradition from within. Where Harrison's primary love was the communal world of Indonesian gamelan, however, Roberts turns to the solo qin . The most Chinese of instruments, the qin has roots in the ancient literati tradition that stem from its scores being less tablature than an elaborate written description of where to put your fingers and how long to hold the notes, intimidating even to most Chinese . But then again, the qin is essentially just a fretless zither, and a treasure-trove to anyone with a remedial grasp of its tuning structure and a sense of musical adventure. Having studied its classical tradition in Taiwan, the quixotic Roberts (also a double bassist) also brings his own traditions of jazz, blues, and solo improvisation to the table. While starting somewhere near its traditional core, Roberts bends his instrument in new directions entirely, turning it westwards even as he faces east." Ken Smith, Gramophone
"A short CD of modern compositions for solo qin. ... a great idea and a very nice record. Quiet, introspective, slow-unfolding pieces. It may be a tad bit too clean and gentle, but dont snob your pleasure! ... Released in Cold Blues low-priced EP series." François Couture, Monsieur Délire's Listening Diary
"Last Cicada Singing presents four intimate pieces for solo qin (a zither-like Chinese instrument) composed and performed by Christopher Roberts, who developed his qin mastery while living and teaching in Taiwan and whose double bass-based Trios for Deep Voices also appears on Cold Blue. In accompanying notes, Roberts cites the tradition of Chinese scholars who took their qins to the mountainsthe idea being that nature would seep into the music they composedand developed string techniques that would capture the movements of natural phenomena (e.g., birds, insects, streams). Roberts' material merges a personal style that feels open to improvisation with the influence of folk materials "Remote Stories," for instance, is based on an old song dear to the Star Mountains people of Papua New Guinea. "The Channel," in which Roberts attempts to capture the movement of ocean currents and tides, shows how much the qin can resemble a nylon-string guitar, especially when it involves bluesy slide playing. "Last Cicada Singing" finds Roberts adding percussive effects (e.g., knocks, scratching) to his qin playing in a piece that can be experienced as a explorative journey of contrastsquiet vs. loud, abrupt turns vs. relaxed meanderor, if one prefers, as an aural rendering of Taiwanese cicadas calling out to one another during the night from distant mountains, as their songs gradually fade away as the night grows darker. Last Cicada Singing is a recording for a single instrument and so naturally feels intimate; the recording is so intimate, in fact, that one hears Roberts breathing alongside his playing during the brief "Travelling Alone." Ron Schepper, Textura
"'Exotic' is a relative term. Gorecki's music is exotic compared to Lloyd Webber's, Ligeti's music is exotic compared to Gorecki's, and Christopher Roberts' music is exotic compared to nearly any music you are likely to think of. The best approach to anything this far from the beaten track is usually just to listen to it: My first reaction on hearing Last Cicada Singing was that the sounds were lovely but I needed to know more about the instrument. It is a qin, also known as a guqinan 'ancient zither' rather than just a 'zither.' It certainly deserves the adjective, since it reached its modern form two thousand years ago It has seven strings, the lowest tuned to approximately the pitch of the lowest string of the cello. Classical playing techniques emphasize artificial harmonics on the open strings, as well as stopping the top (melody) string as a slide guitaristor a cellistwould. The instrument has a long association with the sounds of the natural world. As Roberts says: 'Chinese scholars in antiquity took their qin to the mountains to compose music in accord with the aesthetics of nature. They developed string techniques to convey the movements of birds, insects, streams ... Gesture became music, a tactile rhetoric ...' Roberts earned degrees in both double bass and composition from Juilliard and then set out to discover other cultures, spending time in New Guinea before going to Taiwan twenty years ago to study qin and teach composition, theory, and double bass. It is no surprise, then, that Last Cicada Singing integrates Eastern and Western music so well, finding their common ground in calm reflection of natural sounds and processes. Sit back, relax, contemplate." Malcolm Tattersall, Music & Vision
"Roberts here plays the qin, the venerable Chinese zither-like instrument. Its of course not like traditional qin music because Roberts suggest such disparate elements as Delta Blues and Ralph Towner, achieving an end product thats neither East nor West but a synthesis that does honor to both frames of mind. Like classical Chinese solo instrumental playing (or Ralph Towner, for that matter) Roberts makes silence work for him. Nothing is forced; all sounds as if it has existed for a very long time as part of a previously unimagined tradition. The tension between experimentation and conservatism is irrelevant here. All of this makes this album very much one to recommend." Richard Grooms, The Improvisor
"Christopher Roberts is an American player of the qin, an ancient Chinese zither. He's studied the instrument and the tradition and evidently knows both inside out. His purpose with Last Cicada Singing is to make compositions for qin that honor the tradition but offer something new. Like the qin masters, Roberts draws inspiration from nature, its forms and functions, it elemental forces, but the music owes much more to his reflections on nature than to his representations of it. Inevitably, there's a strong emotional element at play too. The mournful tone and poignant use of repetition in 'The Channel' sounds like a mulling over of lost things. 'Travelling Alone' is brief and wistful. The title track is more obviously programmatic; the music gets slower and sparser as it approaches its conclusion, the cicadas gradually falling silent until only one remains, then it too falls silent. I've played Last Cicada Singing numerous times during the last few weeks, and my enjoyment hasn't gone the way of the cicadas." Brian Marley, Signal to Noise magazine
"Forced to look for some not overly disorienting comparison, you might consider some of Leo Kottke's slower, more profoundly timbral pieces, or some of Chris Whitley's late and daunting solo stretches as just a sort of point of referenceeach example wrong for different reasons but for the exception of the often stunning presence of the string, its drag, its bow, its ring, its sudden and grainy stop. In the performance of a Qin, a Chinese instrument that slightly resembles the koto and soundshere at leastsomewhat like a dobro, the union of heaven (harmonics), earth (an open sound), and humankind (a stopped sound) is meant to be symbolized. Roberts' study has taken its notational system, and timbral significance, further to convey movements of the animate and the inanimate through a language of refined musical gesture. There are four solo Qin pieces here, each offering a mostly reflective state without sacrificing underlying complexity, moments of conflict or a latent now-and-again glimpse of unrest. The tactile quality of the performances are well-conceived and admirably captured, giving the music an unusually heightened sense of presence. But unlike many examples of reflective and representational music, these original works display remarkably unpredictable and often unexpected harmonic and rhythmic turns. Combined with the non-linear structures, the music of Last Cicada Singing remains solidly in the foreground, and insistent of what will finally be your often rapt attention." K. Leimer
"Christopher Roberts plays the qin
a zither-like Chinese instrument. Unlike many (if not all) releases on Cold Blue Music, this actually doesn't sound composed (a composer jotting notes on a piece and then get it performed by somebody), but more improvised. Silent, slow, and sparce, envisage a vast empty desert space. Americana music, slide-like, blues-likeall of which seem odd if you realize its not played on the guitar but some Chinese instrument.
What counts is the true beauty of this music. Peaceful music. Think Loren Connors playing Morton Feldman. And the strange thing is, perhaps, that it doesn't sound at all improvised. A very refined release." Frans de Waard, Vital Weekly
"Notes are flexed and twirled to produce a malleable presence. One is reminded of fireflies cavorting in a twilight garden . While melodic in character, the actual melodies are elusive." Sonic Curiosity
" you-are-there-grade realism. The recording is Christopher Roberts hauntingly beautiful and stunningly well-recorded Last Cicada Singing (Cold Blue), which features Roberts performing his own compositions for a fretless Chinese string instrument called the Qin. Ive only heard a real Qin in live performances a handful of times, but after each performance I found the instruments harmonically complex, evocative soundwhich can entail both soaring treble lines and plunging bass lines of almost ethereal delicacyreally stuck with me. Imagine my surprise, then, when I put on the Roberts recording and heard through the [Audio Monitor] Silver RX system what sounded very much like a real live, no jive Qin performing right there in the midst of the playback listening room. the sound of the Qin itself, but also the sense of the acoustics of the room in which the recording was made, while recreating the often elusive feel of the "air" surrounding the instrument." Chris Martens, Absolute Sound
"It is unusual for a Western composer to compose and perform on a Chinese instrument. That is reason enough to explore Christopher Robertss disc of four original works for the zither-like qin. . . . 'So Confucius walks into a bar, just in time for Bill Evanss last set,' commented John Schneider of radio station KPFK about this music, and the fanciful metaphor is an apt one. Cold Blue Musics press kit also suggests the intersection between Morton Feldman and Delta blues, which works for me as a description too. Additionally, Robertss thoughtful plucking, which seems to adhere to none of Western musics traditional forms or patterns, suggests the work of American outsider musician Jandekif Jandek had grown up in Taiwan, that is. In other words, 'Toto, I dont think were in Kansas anymore.'" Raymond Tuttle, Fanfare
"One of the most realistic and beautiful recording Ive run across of late is Christopher Roberts Last Cicada Singing [Cold Blue Music], which presents Roberts performing a selection of four of his own compositions written for a fretless Chinese stringed instrument called a Qin. The instrument, which is typically plucked, has a distinctive and almost chime-like voice, with a terrifically evocative quality that becomes apparent whenever the performer slides (or bends) a note upward or downward in pitch, evoking a rainbow-like swirl of harmonics and overtones . the presentation takes on a heightened quality of "reach-out-and-touch-the-performer" palpability, which is well worth experiencing." Chris Martens, Playback magazine and AVGuide.com
"The Qin is an ancient Chinese instrumentmodern name: Guqin. It is a plucked seven-string member of the zither family. It is very quiet, and the player produces sounds by plucking, by glissandi, and by other techniques akin to those used in the slide guitar. It has a range of about four octaves, the lowest string being tuned to around two octaves below middle C. To an untutored ear, the sound is reminiscent of that of the twanging guitars of blue-grass music, though the prevalence of sliding and other techniques mean that there are also reminiscences of an early experimental Pink Floyd track.
Though the instrument is old, the music on this disc is new. Christopher Roberts studied the Qin in Taiwan in 1987 and the disc is dedicated to his teacher. Roberts describes the way that ancient Chinese scholars used to develop playing techniques to enable them to depict events in nature, such as the movement of birds. Christopher Roberts has extended this repertoire into the contemporary.
The resulting pieces are exotic and evocative. True to the traditions they sound half improvised. Their very quietness compels concentration from the listener, but provides a remarkably intense experience.
This isn't a disc for everyone. Its ethos is far distant from traditional Western classical music. But for those inclined to explore, do try this evocative disc.: Robert Hugill, MusicWeb Int'l
"Mesmerizing sounds ... quiet, sparse, serene music." Michael Barone, New Sounds, Minnesota Public Radio