“Trace” was commissioned by The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. It runs approximately 15 minutes in performance. The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, piccolo clarinet in E-flat, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (3 players: glockenspiel, crotale, vibraphone, chimes, triangle, cymbals, gong, tamtam, bass drum), harp, piano (doubling celesta), and strings. The work was originally titled “Poem from a Vanished Time.”
The inspiration of the piece came from my experience of witnessing the disappearance of many old cities and traditional values in China due to the industrialization of the country in the last two decades.
Before coming to the US, I grew up in China during a special time. Since the early 80s (the post-Mao period and under the direction of reformer Deng Xiaoping), China has opened up to the rest of the world and has been growing economically at an extraordinary pace in order to adapt to the modern world. Although the result is what many call one of the greatest modernizations in the recorded history, the price of such growth in such a short period of time is exceedingly high: many small, ancient cities and landmarks have been destroyed (a vast city wall that can be traced back 2,000 years in my hometown, Hangzhou, was gone), the environment severely damaged, and many traditional cultural values lost.
As a composer, I have always wanted to create pieces that reflect my own personal experiences. After coming to the US a little more than 10 years ago, composing this piece felt like a glance back at a blurry past, as I was picking up the lost tunes and reconnecting them into new melodies. Trace is a fusion of Chinese musical elements and influences from Western culture. It uses a modern symphony orchestra to convey a sense of traditional Chinese romanticism and energy.
The work contains two contrasting parts, each introduced by an aria that features the solo violin – a musical narrator of the piece. Followed by a light opening that introduces many of the piece’s basic elements, the first aria is simple and melodic, with frequent, parallel key changes – as if bending time. The music slowly grows larger in orchestration and eventually reaches a full soundscape with increasingly expansive melody line and harmony. A second aria follows. Still and chorale-like, it is first supported by plush strings and then darkens dramatically with a cadenza-like violin solo and some dissonant brass chords. The opening melody returns in the solo violin, which ignites a contrasting, fast toccata. Built upon a short motif inspired by a traditional Chinese tune, the toccata highlights different players and groups in the orchestra (solos, pairs, trios and entire sections) to constantly refresh the timbre of sound. After reaching a climactic point, the work closes with a simple, airy coda, which grows more and more distant measure by measure, until it vanishes with a sigh.