Last Cicada Singing   CB0034

The music

“So Confucius walks into a bar, just in time for Bill Evans’s last set, and after closing time pulls out his qin for a few solos.… That’s the vibe that Christopher Roberts captures in these intimate nocturnal musings where crystalline harmonics dance among gutsy bass slides while elegant harmonies whisper their most private thoughts. A truly haunting recording.” —John Schneider, Host of KPFK’s Global Village

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.)

“Chinese scholars in antiquity took their qins 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, even zephyrs and mist. Gesture became music, a tactile rhetoric to describe the most distant or delicate notions. Silence was an integral motif. I was inspired by the old qin books of music notation and extended the calligraphy to include a contemporary language.” —CR

1. Remote Stories

2. The Channel

3. Travelling Alone

4. Last Cicada Singing

“Remote Stories is based on an old song that is dear to the Star Mountains people of Papua New Guinea, where the environment is one of high mountains and mist. It describes remembering distant friends so vividly that they seem close once again. I set this song in harmonics on the qin, then gave it a very free interpretation in my own compositional language. The piece’s many overlapping phrases reflect a natural counterpoint that the Star Mountains people use when singing together. I completed it while traveling between Papua New Guinea and Bavaria in 1991.

The Channel is about the ocean, with its currents and tides in constant movement. It was conceived and composed on the qin, then orchestrated for double chorus and orchestra for its first performance. A traditional song from the Trobriand Islands is given a very free interpretation in the center of the piece. One high, melismatic passage from the song, traditionally sung in falsetto, matches precisely the harmonics of the qin in my chosen tuning. This piece began to write itself as I traveled between Taiwan and Papua New Guinea to research the structure of Austronesian music and produce the CD Betel Nuts. I completed it on the Big Island of Hawaii, as part of a Continental Harmony commission from the Composers’ Forum, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Travelling Alone is about solitude, the qin being my companion on lonely travels. I began the piece in Papua New Guinea, continued it in Hong Kong, and found its final cadence in Los Angeles in 1989. It uses traditional qin notation and techniques as well as some extended techniques that allow me to reach contemporary combinations of notes.

Last Cicada Singing began after years of deep listening to crickets, katydids and cicadas at dusk, through the night and at dawn in Taiwan. Some in choirs, some singing alone, the insects call from distant mountains, from the bush next to where I settle to listen, and from the hill across from me. As they abruptly start and stop their singing, I feel a new sense of near and far in the dark.

“Late one summer, motifs that conjured the inherent motion of the phrasing of the insect calls appeared at night on the qin. I worked from my rooftop in Yangmingshan, letting the piece unfold its own narrative, some voices appearing in the story as mine, some reflecting the constancy of the insects. I was held most strongly by each evening’s fading of the cicada chorusing as night grew dark. I would follow the last cicada to sing each evening into my own thoughts and stillness.” —CR

The composer-performer

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.

“I wanted to read the traditional notation and understand the structure of the longer ancient pieces, and, if possible, learn to compose contemporary pieces in a way originating from the qin. Over the years I returned to Taiwan to show Prof. Chang what I was writing and to work more on the classics. Today I continue to work on a book of qin compositions which have been slowly unfolding over the last two decades.”—CR

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! There’s 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. It’s 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 indulgence—it’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 doesn’t 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

“[Roberts’s] music is so rich in its textures and gestures and harmonies that his voice is distinctive.” —Stephen Eddins, All-Music Guide


“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 don’t snob your pleasure!… Released in Cold Blue’s 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 mountains—the idea being that nature would seep into the music they composed—and 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 contrasts—quiet vs. loud, abrupt turns vs. relaxed meander—or, 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 guqin—an ‘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 guitarist—or a cellist—would.… 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. It’s of course not like traditional qin music because Roberts suggest such disparate elements as Delta Blues and Ralph Towner, achieving an end product that’s 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 reference—each 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 sounds—here at least—somewhat 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-like—all 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, which features Roberts performing his own compositions for a fretless Chinese string instrument called the Qin. I’ve only heard a real Qin in live performances a handful of times, but after each performance I found the instrument’s harmonically complex, evocative sound—which can entail both soaring treble lines and plunging bass lines of almost ethereal delicacy—really 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 Roberts’s disc of four original works for the zither-like qin…. ‘So Confucius walks into a bar, just in time for Bill Evans’s last set,’ commented John Schneider of radio station KPFK about this music, and the fanciful metaphor is an apt one. Cold Blue Music’s press kit also suggests the intersection between Morton Feldman and Delta blues, which works for me as a description too. Additionally, Roberts’s thoughtful plucking, which seems to adhere to none of Western music’s traditional forms or patterns, suggests the work of American outsider musician Jandek—if Jandek had grown up in Taiwan, that is. In other words, ‘Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.'” —Raymond Tuttle, Fanfare magazine

“One of the most realistic and beautiful recording I’ve run across of late is Christopher Roberts’s Last Cicada Singing, 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

“The Qin is an ancient Chinese instrument—modern 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

“What is possible in today’s music is nearly endless. So today we have one possibility of many, a good idea realized with virtually every nuance you might expect in such an encounter. It is the interaction of a composer-musician of the West with a Chinese stringed instrument that goes back to antiquity, namely the Chinese instrument known as the qin.

“The qin is something akin to the Japanese koto, for a quick analogy. Its sound, when combining different techniques—the harmonics, sounded notes and slides—has a feel perhaps more intimate than its Japanese counterpart.

“So what we have is Christopher Roberts in a 30-minute recital of his new music for the solo qin. It uses the alteration of sound and brief silences as does traditional Chinese music for the instrument but the musical content has more to do with Western ‘radical tonality,’ new music with a key center but otherwise a unique postmodern take on how tonality can play out.

“Like traditional Chinese music for the instrument which uses gestural phrasing to convey nature as an art form, the title piece especially but all the works presented here make direct reference to such concerns. The entire album has a meditative cast that manages to convey nature in its unassuming presence as felt by the solitary maker of musical sounds. The album is filled with a kind of quiet luminosity hard to resist for those used to concentrated listening. It is not perhaps what you expect of Western new music, but that in itself is of significance. Christopher Roberts gives us a rarefied glimpse of music-in-being that may well become a favorite for when you are in the mood to get inside the quietude of nature. Highly recommended.” —Grego Edwards, Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review

Mesmerizing sounds…quiet, sparse, serene music.” —Michael Barone, New Sounds, Minnesota Public Radio