Stephen YIP: Whispering Fragrance (chamber works)—Henry Chen (piano), Yu-Chen Wang (guzheng), Yu-Fang Chen (violin), Daniel Gelok (saxophone), Rudy Albach (double bass), Andrew Schneider (piano), Yiuan-Reng Yeh (guzheng), Izumi Miyahara (flute), Masahito Sugihara (saxophone), Ben Roidl-Ward (bassoon), Tehlema Trio—Navona Records NV6175—67:00, ***
Composer Stephen Yip may be unconventional, but is wholly consistent in his release featuring chamber pieces in Whispering Fragrance. The titular piece for solo violin evokes an almost smoke-like form. It evokes tuning and sounds from the violin, including harmonics and overtones that most certainly are a challenging proposition for violinist Yu-Fang Chen. The piece is a great introduction to the entire recording. Stephen Yip composes music that is unwaveringly modern. Oriental-sounding evoking elements come and go, percussive proclamations are a staple element, and all the performances, no matter how exotic the notation may be, are well-captured and well-performed.
Yip scores Ding for double bass and guzheng, a type of zither. Ran is scored for solo guzheng. The remaining pieces are written for more recognizable instruments: piano, clarinet, saxophone, flute, and bassoon. That does not mean, however, you have heard these instruments produce all the sounds that Yip calls for.
Speaking to consistency, each of Yip’s pieces are slow-moving and and evoke an emerging soundscape. Not all this is natural or pleasant-sounding; in the piece In Seventh Heaven, the sax, double bass, and piano erupt at one point in a vexing explosion of timbres that just might raise one’s blood pressure. But it is that conflict that is an interesting aspect to Yip’s sound world. Bowing the guzheng in Ran produces a similar effect.
One cannot deny that Stephen Yip and his performing colleagues are adventurous and creative musicians. I auditioned these pieces for guests with mixed reactions. These included “oh, that’s so cool,” to “who would listen to this?” For the consumer, know that Yip’s music may challenge you, and that it is avant garde. Having access to the liner notes will provide context. I would add that seeing the pieces performed might enhance their drama, and each are well-suited to be paired with moving visuals, whether that be film, dance, or some type of performance art. For me, this is not music I will return to often, but these pieces do present many guises of the unexpected and unimagined.