Sai xia qu 塞下曲 (2004)

for 2-part male chorus, cello and percussions

Commissioned by Master Singers (2004)
Premiered on 04/30/04 in Mills Concert Hall, UW Madison
by Master Singers, conducted by Chris Sheppard

The UW Master Singers commissioned 4 student composers in Spring 2004 for two SATB pieces, one SSA and one TB piece. As to compromise the limited number of voices for the male chorus piece, I could get to use any accompaniment I liked — thus loads of percussions and cello.

The text is a poem from Tang dynasty, written by Wang Cang Ling. It depicted the war scene in the border desert of Han dynasty, as a way to criticize the neverending battles at his time.

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Sai Xia Qu (Song under the Fortress)   by Wang Cang Ling
Drink, my horse, while we cross the autumn water!-
The stream is cold and the wind like a sword,
As we watch against the sunset on the sandy plain,
Far, far away, shadowy Lingtao.
Old battles, waged by those long walls,
Once were proud on all men’s tongues.
But antiquity now is a yellow dust,
Confusing in the grasses its ruins and white bones.

– translation: Jerry Hui

To depict an atmosphere of the ancient time, the technique of vocal harmonics — a method for one single person to sing multiple notes via the phenomenon of harmonics — is employed. At times in the piece, basses will sing a fundamental and produce another note a fifth about the fundamental, while the tenors sing a simple melody on vocal harmonics.

**If you are ever interested in doing this piece, there are simple instructions in the score about producing vocal harmonics, and you are always welcome to ask me about doing and teaching this technique to your choir. Oddly simple.**

Program notes for premiére concert:

Based on a poem written in Tang dynasty (618-907 AD) depicting the post-war scenery of the desert border, its sense of pro-peace and anti-war message is nonetheless quite suitable to our current political climate. Wu xing, the Chinese 5-element system, determines many of the musical events via the creation and destruction of elements. Vocal harmonics – a technique for one singer to produce multiple tones – is also used to recall an ancient time, when such sound of peaceful serenity was still heard and treasured.

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