Gary Lucas – charmingly oddball pop songwriter, musical world traveler, utterly hellacious guitarist – is perhaps at his most hellaciously, charmingly cosmopolitan on this frankly amazing album, which finds him adapting popular Chinese songs that were originally recorded in the 1960s and which he heard and fell in love with during a sojourn in Taiwan in the mid-'70s. His girlfriend at the time had a cassette tape of such local superstars as Chow Hsuan and Bai Kwong, and it was, he says in his liner notes, "like almost no other music I had ever heard before." Twenty-five years later he put together this quirkily gorgeous tribute, which includes jaw-droppingly virtuosic fingerstyle guitar arrangements ("Mad World," "Wall") and song settings using guest vocalists. Among the best of the latter are the limpidly beautiful "Night in Shanghai" (again, note the guitar playing) and the country-flavored "I Wait for Your Return," which is simply a hoot. He's not playing this stuff for laughs, though; his genuine affection for the music comes through loud and clear, and even when he has fun with it he is obviously trying to do so in a way that brings its haunting loveliness to the fore. Very highly recommended.
Noted as a "maximalist" for his densely textured, intricately constructed serial works, Brian Ferneyhough is a challenging composer by any standard, and his uncompromising and intensely demanding scores are some of the most original of the late avant-garde. In such complicated chamber works as Funérailles I (1969-1977) and Funérailles II (1969-1980), both versions for seven strings and harp, Ferneyhough presents thickets of notes and short gestures that are tightly organized, but so abrupt and pointillistic that the lay listener may mistake them as random fragments, not at all as recurring ideas. Similarly, in the rhythmically layered Bone Alphabet for percussion (1991) and the angular Unsichtbare Farben (Invisible Colors) for solo violin (1999), the ear can only take in the surfaces of the music, having no way to grasp the underlying patterns that are employed. Yet it would be a mistake to think these pieces are just cerebral exercises, since Ferneyhough is too good a composer to pass off intellectual doodles as serious work. While there are designs in these pieces only a theoretician may comprehend and abrasive sonorities only a die-hard modernist may love, there are points of tension and release that are easily perceived, and textures and timbres that a prepared listener may appreciate without too much strain.
Alchemia Garden: the album’s wonderful title, creates an enchanting, ambiguous effect. Lucas Niggli relates the organic, biological and growing, which develops on its own and is cultivated and maintained in the form of the garden, to the metamorphosis of material, the scientific search for something unknown which historically has been seen to generate something new.