Decay and growth is the push-and-pull that makes life a journey rather than a stagnation. On Of Being, pianist Ning Yu explores this ideology, performing three new works that each take a different ephemeral phenomenon as inspiration for musical composition. Of Being is suspended in time, asking us to ponder rather than answer, to listen with intent rather than to tune out.
Ning’s piano performance has been heard in groups like boundary-pushing quartet Yarn/Wire and fiery chamber ensemble counter)induction, but Of Being marks her debut solo recording. With the album, she displays a deft understanding of the intricate music she’s playing, moving between styles and techniques with ease. Each piece on Of Being is a premiere; Ning’s capability makes the music feel both cutting edge and lived-in, guiding us through the new compositions with her deep intuition.
The album opens with 2014 Guggenheim Fellow Wang Lu’s “Rates of Extinction,” which launches thoughts of decay into the forefront. The piece centers on the ultimate fate of endangered species, combining a series of short, vignette-like movements that eventually fade into oblivion. Wang Lu finds a balance between subtlety and passion on “Rates of Extinction,” using delicate melodies to build complexity. The piece has its most memorable moments during the twinkling fifth movement, where mysterious intricacies leave an unshakable, haunting feeling. Throughout the piece, Ning’s skillful playing is evident: Wang Lu writes for the highest ability, and Ning never misses a beat in highlighting the complexity of the music.
Like Wang Lu’s piece, New York-based composer Emily Praetorius’ “Of Being” centers timbre. Here, Praetorius explores the liminal space between the flow and stillness of time, slowly building from questioning plinks into striking extended techniques and luminous chordal harmony. The piece is a mixed bag — some moments are pleasantly transportive, while others lack spark. The most arresting moments come in the third movement, where steady harmonic repetition appears in contrast to the sparse sound we had heard before. But it’s only with the ending, whose repetitions are unflinching and evocative, does the music finally lock into place, exhibiting an unforgettable poignancy.
While Wang Lu and Praetorius’ works focus on timbre, Misato Mochizuki’s “Moebius-Ring” exhibits a different sonic framework. The Tokyo-based composer uses stark juxtapositions: high pitches and low pitches, harsh chords and scattered tones. The brazen sound of the music stands out from the other two pieces, and its pulse-raising motion is infectious. Continual motion is fitting for its subject — the title “Moebius-Ring” takes its name from a one-sided surface. With the music’s powerful jolts, she illustrates the feeling of running in place, or ending in the same place where you began. Ning accentuates these rises and falls, highlighting the piece’s underlying vibration with an expert flair.
Of Being excels most in its flawless execution of three new works that each delve into the unanswerable questions of existence. It’s no secret that we’ve spent much of the recent past watching the Earth around us decay, in motion that’s sometimes slow and sometimes fast. This entire year, in particular, has been in freefall, a hyperspeed decay where time both exists much too prominently and much too little. Of Being, while created devoid of the context of 2020, slides neatly into today’s collective emotions. In listening, time is both present and lost, reflecting the ways in which time feels like it’s both eternal and never long enough.
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