As SFCMP prepares to perform Aural Hypothesis, we asked composer Lei Liang about the piece:

In the performance notes for Aural Hypothesis you mention that “the overwritten ‘cadenzas’ are meant to trigger improvisatory action and accidents,” and that what you prefer from the performer is “not deliberate details…but rather an explosive energy that threatens to destroy the overall balance of the composed work.” Certainly this seems appropriate for the piece given your description of contrasting calligraphy brushstrokes in the program notes as well as of shigaraki ware in the piano note, but is this kind of openness to the unpredictable and technique of “overwriting” despite anticipation of mistakes typical of your work? If so, what are your limits with regards to how much control you’re willing to relinquish or maintain?

Sometimes I write passages that are meant to be so challenging that it forces the musician to wrestle with it in live performance. Their difficulty level is not absurd, but rather attainable – or almost attainable. In fact, every detail should be realizable, and it should be rewarding for practice. It is a special feeling for me to experience the intensity of struggling to gain control.  I don’t think of it as relinquishing control – it is not about that. Rather, it is about the challenge of attaining, and gaining control in an intense moment. It is about the willingness to sacrifice the correctness of a few notes in order to channel the explosive energy. I find this struggle – and the mistakes that come with it – to be very human.

On a similar note, it’s very interesting that you would “overwrite” something which you expect not to be played exactly. That is, there’s an interesting tension between the specificity of notation and the acceptance and expectation of deviation from what you’ve written. Of course, with transposing instruments it’s common practice to notate in a way that to an extent directly contradicts what is actually heard, but it seems to me that in this piece you’ve discovered an interesting sort of variant on this idea of “transposition” which allows for deviation from the specific notes written based on a given performer’s own experience of reading the notation and interacting with the sonic results of your score. Since the cadenzas are so specifically notated, could you talk about how you chose exactly what notes to write in terms of the actual sonic results you desired?

I write these rapid passages very slowly, and I test them out with care to make sure that they are playable, and at the same time awkward – “awkward” in the sense that they pose real physical challenges to the pianist.  How rapidly and precisely can one play? How far can one’s fingers leap? What is a really “awkward” move that makes the passage challenging yet still musical?

The title of the piece is extremely interesting; the pairing of somewhat scientific terminology with an art form traditionally perceived as exceedingly subjective; the use of the word “hypothesis” suggesting conjecture and questions which anticipate results and thus discovery. There’s so much to think about before even hearing the first note. Could you talk about the title and your conception of the piece as a “hypothesis”?

Chou Wen-chung, the composer to whom this piece is dedicated, once made the remark that “music is calligraphy in sound, calligraphy is music in ink.” I have been intrigued by this remark, and by another one he asked me, “when is a line not a line?” Writing music is a speculative process for me. In this piece, I was trying to discover for myself whether there is a parallel between lines in ink and lines in sound. When is a melody no longer merely a melody? The second half of the work is really an effort to answer this question.

Aural Hypothesis will be performed on Thursday, October 25, 2012 (more information).

Lei Liang will be a featured panelist for Young American Composers and the Legacy of John Cage on Friday, October 26, 2012 (more information).

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