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Album Liner Note: A Performance Beyond Concert Convention

A Guide to the Musical Odyssey: Sonata Fantasy "The Book of Moments" - by Ji Liu

Sonata Fantasy “The Book of Moments” was composed in 2020 when many things about our lives changed their long-existing forms and established practices. 

1. Background

During the first lockdown in London in March 2020, I began writing musical fragments whenever musical ideas popped into my mind. This is how the piece started and the entire work was completed later that year. 

In 2020, my musical journey spanned the west and the east. This dialectic between west and east provided me with many personal and memorable moments and also a rather more holistic view about these different worlds and also about the new, different and contradictory worlds we are all currently inhabiting. These thoughts and experiences inspired and enriched my music-making. For example, during my concert tour in China in 2020, I visited an exhibition at Wuhan University which replicated the emergent situation in the Alternate Care Site(ACS) during the initial outbreak. The Elegy of this Sonata Fantasy was inspired by a two-note motif (a descending major third interval) that I head beeping from a ventilator in the ACS. I was remarkably moved by and attuned to this moment such that I tried to convey those emotions and sounds when I wrote this passage. 

Due to its unusual length of 18 hours, the entire piece was initially written to be performed only in a utopian scenario. However, I had the opportunity to play the entire work at an 18-hour non-stop live performance at the Wave Lounge of Seatopia Cultural Community, Qinhuangdao, a town on the east coast of China, from 7:00 am on Dec. 31st, 2020, until 1:00 am, Jan. 1st, 2021. The piece commemorated and memorialised the commitment and sacrifices of the many brave front-line professionals and staff members who devoted their efforts and lives to saving others from the effects and traumas of the Covid-19.

2. Questions

Since 2020, streamed and online performances have become more popular than ever. While I was enjoying connecting with my audiences in these new ways, online concerts also made me think about the following questions: 

1) Does the length of the piece play a critical role for the audience when the performer gives a highly satisfying performance? 

2) Does programming have to account for adherence to normative time structures for a live concert? For example, a one-hour concert without an intermission; or a one hour and a half, or two-hour concert with an interval? 

3) Does a piece of music have to be within a prescribed length of time? For example, a five-minute track which conforms to many radio stations’ programming criteria or an hour-long piece - or movement - that normativises average concentration spans for audience members and also the performer’s physical limitations. 

While traditional established practices - and some practical considerations - often dictate the answers to the above questions, the flourishing of streamed performances because of pandemic restrictions have renewed the debate regarding the length of musical pieces in performance. In some ways this has encouraged me to write a work in a massively expanded format. 

3. Genesis and Inspiration

Coincidentally, I was also working on the final chapters of my doctoral thesis on Schubert's unfinished piano sonatas in 2020. So, my research on Schubert directed me to contemporary composers who wrote unusual compositions in long and complex forms, such as Michael Finnissy, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, Morton Feldman, John Cage and Frederic Rzewski. Their pieces also inspired me to think about writing a piano sonata on a much larger scale. 

My compositional practice is also connected to Schubert's evolution and experiment with the sonata form, which inspired many other composers, such as Liszt, whose Sonata in B Minor was written in a developed one-movement sonata form comprising of an organic group of sections. This structure inspired my Sonata Fantasy, too, as the 21 chapters seamlessly connect, presenting a unified single-movement sonata with exposition, development, recapitulation, and double codas. 

Although it might be a sentimental analogy to consider the nature of music as a journey, many composers saw music this way, such as Schubert. For example, "the wanderer" character in his music and the idea of drifting between unusual harmonies and forms are some of the trademarks of his music. One of his best examples of associating music with the journey is his Winterreise. Another one of Schubert's musical idiosyncrasies is how he sensed time and manipulated time to convey his feeling of speeding up a time-lapse or freezing it. 

4. On Performing, Composing and Interpreting

The notion of “performing as composing” is at the heart my philosophy and work as a composer. As a pianist-composer, my piano compositions are highly connected to how I perform on and play the instrument. While structural and proportional issues – among many others – are essential from a compositional point of view, how the performer manipulates sound and makes interpretive decisions are equally important to me.

In my opinion, the piano is one of the most neutral of musical instruments. It can reflect the colours of many instruments and sounds. So, when I compose a piece, besides the structural foundation, I also pay attention to colours and illusions of different sounds, which provide extra dimensions in portraying and reviving the musical ideas and shapes from my mind to the performing stage.

5. Notation Practices

The principal aesthetic idea in this sonata is inspired by a type of minimalism, as the musical materials I use are highly economical. So are the textures, dynamic and instructive marks on the musical score. New ways of notating music have been developed over the past century. However, I aimed to provide as much interpretative space as possible to allow for the performers' creative and imaginative perspectives. Apart from the notes on the paper, I barely marked any dynamics or tempo indications. 

Furthermore, I encourage performers to improvise at specific points in the composition. This improvisational idea was partly inspired by my journey during that uncertain pandemic year, 2020. There were so many surprises and spontaneous events that we all experienced, I decided to allow for these aleatoric and unplanned moments in the piece and at specific points, turn control of the performance over to the interpreter. 

Some of the chapters in The Book of Moments were written with open endings or endings with long silence/pauses, demonstrating their "unfinishedness" and incomplete form. They are purposely designed this way and create a musical dialectic with those chapters that are "finished". 

Although I divided this piece into 21 chapters in this album, each chapter doesn't necessarily represent only one moment. On the contrary, they recollect my feelings and epiphanies on many occasions and moments. Also, it's a magical "book" in which people might find their own moments. In an 18-hour sound world, there must be a moment or two that one might resonate with. 

6. An invitation

Think about what can people do in 18 hours? For example, one can travel from New York JFK to Singapore on the longest non-stop flight in 18 hours 50 minutes; from Los Angeles to Singapore in 17 hours 50 minutes. Or, maybe, just make yourself comfortable and hear the silence, the surroundings and beyond.

A Performance Guide to Each Chapter of the Sonata Fantasy "The Book of Moments"

Chapter 1 - Introduction 

Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 are written in C Minor and C Major, respectively. They depict the start of a long journey from twilight to brightness. Chapter 1 begins like a wanderer walking in the dark and searching for exits. After a period of searching and escaping from the darkness, this journey leads to the singing of an heroic and vigorous song. After this episode, a short codetta spans the middle register to the top register of the keyboard. After this, Chapter 2 begins. 

Chapter 2 - Sunrise 

As mentioned above, Chapter 2 is brighter than the previous chapter. The music and structure resemble those in Chapter 1 but the nature and images depicted are contrasting. The chapter begins with a chorale-like passage humming from the top of the sky (which uses the top register of the keyboard). Next this chorale moves to the middle section of the keyboard, delivering a warm singing passage. At 17:29 the musical material is replicated from that heard in the C Minor chapter at 20:20. This time modulated to C Major. The tonal change gives this related musical material a new character, which after a journey searching and longing for spirituality and optimism arrives at a chorale in the spirit of Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy". This marks the first emotional peak of the piece. 

Chapter 3 - Odyssey -” People United Will Never Be Defeated  

Chapter 3 is written in A Minor. The introductory passage until 02:00 is comprised of three musical elements: repeated long notes, long notes with tremolos, and ascending and descending scales with dotted rhythmic patterns typically used in Baroque music. This chapter's determined and heroic character is reinforced by the theme (02:20) inspired by Eisler's "Solidarity Song" which leads to a series of variations and returns to the beginning of the chorale in Chapter 2, however, this time in A Minor. Eisler's "Solidarity Song" is brought back in a recitative form (26:10) when the pianist's left hand plays the melody in a melancholy manner. The introductory passage reappears at 29:50. Instead of returning to the heroic theme as it was previously developed, it takes the character of a Schubertian and minimalist approach (32:20). It symbolises the movements of the wheel of life on rotating on an endless journey. 

Chapter 4 - Daydream 

This chapter is written in the warm key of A Major and uses a series of dislocated treatments in developing and aligning two independent lines. The tonal design is opposite to the one in the previous chapter. It starts in the lower and middle register of the piano. As the piece develops, it becomes faster and faster. The rhythmic momentum of the triplets and the subtle moves between the harmonious and inharmonious create an atmosphere that is colourful and intriguing yet mysterious and dangerous. 

Chapter 5 - Solitude Song 

This chapter is written in F Sharp Minor, the relative minor key of A Major used in the previous chapter. The tonal design used this way creates a sense of continuity and coherence between each chapter as the sonata develops. It starts with a transitional section. The primary material of this section was created by a single monophonic line, short, hill-like, up-and-down motif that begins to repeats from the start of the passage. This motif is joined and reflected by another melodic line in the opposite direction(01:25). This two-part conversation continues with additional elements joining in throughout their repetitions. After a few moments, this rolling motion is joined by the slowed version of the main melody of the "Solitude Song" at 06:05 and onward, foreshadowing the “Solitude Song”. This walking and strolling pattern continues as if in slow motion for nearly 15 minutes and then changes to a repeated-note and heart-beating pattern at 16:00, while the pianist's left-hand plays a shadowing version of the "Solitude Song" written in a pentatonic scale. After a few bell-like chords (21:43) the “Solitude Song” in its chorale form is introduced at 21:22. 

The melody of the “Solitude Song” was written during the pandemic lockdown at my home in London. It reminded me of when moonlight at midnight lilted on the keyboard of my Steinway piano while everything was still and quiet. As this melody develops, it returns to the transitional passage at the beginning of this chapter, however, at a faster speed. Next, it moves to Beethovenesque- Moonlight Sonata-inspired codetta. The left hand plays continuous octave lines, and the right hand plays non-stop triplets which symbolises my lockdown experience and that of many others. 

In this chapter, soft playing and manipulation of sound and colour attempt to portray a sense of isolation and its related emotions. 

Chapter 6 - A Written Reverie 

This chapter is written in F Sharp Major and is an improvisational and fantasy-like piece of music inspired by the meditations of eastern cultures. I discovered meditation during the lockdown and benefited from it enormously. During my daily meditative routi I developed a more balanced sense of well-being, and the ritual procedure gave me a feeling of calmness that inspired my music-making. However, the religious and sensual atmosphere that arose throughout this piece is indeed stirring which leads to an almost empty open ending that channels to something more profound. 

Chapter 7 - Raindrop 

This chapter comprises the repeated note figure throughout, a motif traced from the beginning of Chapter 1. From May 2020, I initiated a weekly series of online concerts titled "Live for Love" from my London home in which I performed pieces from the solo repertoire that I felt like spontaneously sharing with the audience. During one of these online concerts, I played Chopin's Prelude in D Flat Major Op.28 No.15, "Raindrop". It was a piece that I recorded and performed hundreds of times. Yet the emotional intensity and vulnerability of the work rose to a new level when I performed it online during this challenging time in 2020. A rainy day in London isn't unusual. During the pandemic I often gazed out the window and observed the alternating rhythmic patterns of the droplets falling from the roof of the balcony to the floor below. I began to draw inspiration from this shifting but continuous pattern. This entire piece is quite melancholic, as if one is praying in tears, another variation of rainfall. This temporary peace foreshaddows something grander to come. Like in Chapter 5, the ssoft playing on the piano are essential elements in drawing pictures of the raindrops and their metaphoric meanings. 

Chapter 8 - Coming Home 

After the previous gloomy chapter, Chapter 8 represents a more optimistic point of view. The starting passage comprises gentle and repeated movements that offer positive and warm feelings. These movements alter between the keys of E Flat Major and C Minor, showing how this musical journey that started in C Minor, has developed and how journeys no matter close or far they may take the wanderer relate to home. As a global citizen and a frequent traveler, I find the idea of "coming home “encouraging and multi-dimensional and often resulting in an anticipatory sense of wonderous anticipation and excitement. 

Chapter 9 - Earth Idyll 

This chapter reflected my passion for the universe as it relates to the scientific and philosophical. In the previous chapter, "coming home", what I meant about the term being multi-dimensional, is partly based on the notion that no matter how near or far we travel, we never really leave home in the broader sense. Through my meditations I feel the earth and its energy. I wrote this Idyll to express my understanding and feeling of our planet and its multifarious connecting worlds. The Idyll consists of a humming tune that emerges from the deepest part of our planet's ocean. It was written in the style of a string quartet with a constrained harmonic progression to support the slow development of the music and a solo oboe performing the main theme above the string quartet which starts at 05:44. 

Chapter 10 - Hope and Pride 

At the middle point of the sonata, this chapter combined all sorts of characters and treatments reflected in previous chapters, providing a development-like section to the sonata. The piece is about building and maximising tensions, leading to the next chapter, Chaos. 

Chapter 11 - Interlude: Chaos 

Composed with the idea of clusters, this interlude connects Chapters 10 and 12. However, it is performed with different approaches and characters and at the performer's discretion. This short interlude creates intensity and conflict, making the music horrifying and diversified. The liberal and theatrical character of the piece and its rhythmic and harmonic structures were influenced by the four distinctive features of the traditional Beijing Opera, Singing  recitative  Acting  Acrobatic Fighting 打. 

Chapter 12 - Deja-vu - Hope and Pride 

This chapter bears some resemblance to Chapter 10. However, instead of developing into something explicit and intense in an obvious way, here the music leads to something more profound. 

Chapter 13 - Elegy 

The main motif of this chapter is two-notes, A and F (a descending major third). I heard this two-notes motif when I visited the pandemic museum at Wuhan University and listened to the beeping sound from a ventilator that was helping Covid patients breathe. After standing there for a while, the beeping from the machine was constant and irritating. I was so absorbed in that moment as I imagined these people suffering and hearing this almost bell-like beeping sound chiming with the prospect of death and the hope of life. I tried to imitate this multi-layered emotion with a two-note motif on the piano. In the sonata it becomes an elegy in D minor at 03:00. The elegy then becomes an agent of consolation at (29:15). 

Chapter 14 - Transcendental Surpass 

This chapter represented a reflection on the previous chapter and was written as an homage to Romanticism, particularly represented by composers like Schumann. The harmonic treatment in this chapter leads to the recapitulation section of the entire sonata. 

Chapter 15 - Recapitulation - Reversed World 

This chapter marks the first recapitulation of the sonata - however, explicitly written in F Minor, rather than in its home key of C Minor. 

Chapter 16 - Blue Sunrise on Mars 

As part of the first recapitulation section of the sonata, this chapter bears a resemblance to Chapter 2, however, this time in G Major. It provides an entirely different colour to the music than in the exposition section. 

Chapter 17 - Galaxy Idyll 

This chapter is written in C Minor and is the advent to the return to the sonata’s home key. 

Chapter 18 - Einstein-Rosen Bridge 

This chapter was based on my understanding of the Einstein-Rosen Bridge Equation, Einstein's general theory of relativity, and my imagination of travelling beyond time and space. 

Chapter 19 - Paralleled World 

This chapter marks the second recapitulation of the sonata, this time, in C Minor. 

Chapter 20 - Contemplation of Harmony

This chapter uses similar materials as Chapter 18 and creates a transitional section that leads to the finale of the sonata.

Chapter 21 - Finale - Metempsychosis Ritual

The finale summarises the fundamental materials used in the sonata and blends and alternates between major and minor keys. The final chapter is reminiscent of the beginning of the sonata. The journey is completed and returns to the place where it began.