Modern Awakenings: New Music Inspired by Buddhism

Composers from Malaysia, Japan, China, and the United States explore aspects of Buddhism through music written for string quartet. Formed in 2004, the adventuresome Momenta Quartet has performed often in New York at BargeMusic, Tonic, Le Poisson Rouge, The Stone, Roulette, and Symphony Space. It also serves as the quartet-in-residence at Temple University. This concert was recorded as part of the Meyer Concert Series at the Freer Gallery of Art on November 8, 2012.


Modern Awakenings: New Music Inspired by Buddhism
Momenta Quartet

Emilie-Anne Gendron, violin
Adda Kridler, violin
Stephanie Griffin, viola
Michael Haas, cello

Kee Yong Chong
String Quartet no. 4, “Yun Yong” (“Clouds Surging,” 2011)*

Ushio Torikai
Four TEEN (2003)

Huang Ruo
String Quartet no. 2, “The Flag Project” (2009)
In three movements, with projected images**
I. With projection of Study for a Flag, 2004, Dan Christensen
II. With projection of Swadhi #2031, 2000, Sohan Qadri
III. With projection of Study #1 “The Flag Project,” 2004, Phong Bui

Jason Kao Hwang
If We Live in Forgetfulness, We Die in a Dream (2011)*

John Cage
String Quartet in Four Parts (1950)
Accompanied by video art by John Gurrin
I. Quietly Flowing Along
II. Slowly Rocking
III. Nearly Stationary
IV. Quodlibet

*Written for the Momenta Quartet

**Projected images from the Rubin Museum of Art exhibition The Flag Project, courtesy of the Rubin Museum, with special thanks to Tim McHenry

This podcast was made possible through support from the Thaw Charitable Trust and was presented in conjunction with Nine Deaths, Two Births: Xu Bing’s Phoenix Project. Audio preservation and editing of this recording were supported by funds from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee.


String Quartet no. 4, “Yun Yong” (“Clouds Surging”)
Kee Yong Chong (born 1971)

Kee Yong Chong writes about this composition: “This work reflects my deepest sense of how clouds surge across a natural landscape. It was inspired by an ink painting by my friend, the German artist Helena Belzer. In this work, the four instruments depict different levels, layers, and reflections of the phenomenon of clouds surging—different viewing angles of the same basic artistic concept. While I composed this work, I was moved by the poem ‘My Retreat at Mount Zhongnan’ by the eighth-century Chinese Buddhist poet, painter, and musician Wang Wei, which can be translated as, ‘I will walk ‘til the water checks my path / Then sit and watch the rising clouds.’ My Fourth String Quartet was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and written for the Momenta Quartet. This work received its world premiere at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York and is dedicated to the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky.”

The composer was born in Malaysia, where his parents were farmers. He completed his bachelor’s degree at the Xian Conservatory (China) and his master’s degree at the Brussels Royal Conservatory. His list of honors includes prizes at the Andrzej Panufnik Competition in Poland, the Seoul International Competition, the Max-Reger-Tage International Composition Competition, and the International Isang Yun Competition in Seoul. Chong also received the Malaysian Philharmonic International Composers’ Award, the Lutoslawski Award, the Lepo Sumera International Composer Prize, an Asian Cultural Council NYC Visiting Artist Fellowship, and a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation to write this work for the Momenta Quartet.

Four Teen
Ushio Torikai (born 1952)

About Four TEEN, Ushio Torikai writes: “The idea of this composition came from a Zen garden I once visited at a temple in Kyoto, Japan. In my mind’s eye, we stand at the entrance of the temple, thinking about serenity, the history of Japanese Buddhism, and Zen. We slowly walk to
the Zen garden, but what we find there is nothing, just several small and medium-size rocks that have been scattered in the garden like dots on a canvas. We try to figure out what these rocks mean. These dots (rocks) expand in our mind doubled, tripled in size, as we imagine their placement on the canvas (garden). They sometimes resound together as bell-like chords, to make sure that we are still contemplating the idea of Zen. Walking around the temple, we wonder about these rocks, and about what Zen does for us in our daily life. . . . We return to where we started, the entrance (and exit) of the old, steady, serene temple.” Four TEEN was written in 2003 on a commission by the Canada Council of the Arts for the Toronto-based Madawaska Quartet.

— Emilie-Anne Gendron

Compositions by Ushio Torikai range widely in instrumentation, including Western orchestral and traditional Japanese instruments, computer electronics, reconstructed ancient Asian instruments, Western classical choirs, and chanting Buddhist monks. She has received commissions from Ensemble Modern (Frankfurt), the Modern Art Sextet Berlin, the City of Los Angeles, the Kronos Quartet, the ensemble Continuum (New York), the Canadian Electronic Ensemble, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation, and Japan National Theater. Commissioned pieces include concert music and opera to a long-term music installation in a public park. Among her recordings are compositions created at IRCAM (the computer music center in Paris) and a work for a choir of forty Japanese Buddhist monks on a Native American poem.

String Quartet no. 2, “The Flag Project”
Huang Ruo (born 1976)

The Flag Project was written for string quartet with four pairs of Tibetan finger cymbals and was inspired by Buddhist prayer flags. Each of its three movements evokes the way a prayer flag moves. A prayer flag is a colorful panel of rectangular cloth often found strung along mountain ridges and peaks high in the Himalayas to bless the surrounding land and creatures. Unknown in other branches of Buddhism, prayer flags are believed to have originated with Bön, the Himalayan religious tradition that predates Buddhism.

— Michael Haas

Huang Ruo was born on Hainan Island, China, in 1976, the year marking the end of the Cultural Revolution. His father began teaching him composition and piano when he was six. As China steadily opened up to the West, he received both traditional and Western educations at the Shanghai Conservatory, which he entered at the age of twelve. With the demise of the Cultural Revolution, his education expanded from Bach, Mozart, and Stravinsky to include the Beatles, rock and roll, heavy metal, and jazz. After winning the Henry Mancini Award at the 1995 International Film and Music Festival in Switzerland, he moved to the United States, where he has earned degrees from the Oberlin Conservatory and the Juilliard School. Currently he is a faculty member at SUNY Purchase.

If We Live In Forgetfulness, We Die In A Dream
Jason Kao Hwang (born 1957)

The composer writes: “The title is taken from Thich Nhat Hanh’s quotation of an ancient Zen master. It resonates with the fundamental progression of this music. The vibrant birth of each sound inevitably decays into silence, a perpetual continuum of life and death that our mercurial consciousness struggles to grasp. This existence, the flow of music, contends with dreams, aspirations, forgetfulness, anger, and love in a wordless language that moves incessantly between metaphor, prayer, and song. The voices within the string quartet unite and diverge within the internal complexity of each simple moment, as both essence and image. This totality occurs faster and with more subtlety than human perception. With faith, we listen and we travel through one lifetime knowing that ‘if we live in forgetfulness, we die in a dream.’”

Jason Kao Hwang’s Stories Before Within (Innova 2008), featuring his jazz quartet EDGE, was chosen as one of the Top Ten CDs of 2008 by Coda, the Canadian jazz magazine. His chamber opera The Floating Box, A Story in Chinatown was named one of the “Top Ten Opera Recordings of 2005” by Opera News. Commitment, The Complete Recordings, 1981–1983, was voted “2010 Reissued Recording of the Year” by All About Jazz/New York. Hwang’s octet Burning Bridge, commissioned by Chamber Music America/New Jazz Works, premiered at the Chicago World Music Festival and was heard live at the Freer in 2010. Spontaneous River, his orchestra of string improvisers, performed at Vision Festival XIV and released Symphony of Souls in 2011.

String Quartet in Four Parts
John Cage (1912–1992)

John Cage was a radical thinker whose embrace of the artistic process and “chance” elements exercised a lasting influence on musical composition as well as on visual art, writing, theater, and dance. String Quartet in Four Parts is one of his last non-aleatoric works, and through it Cage intended to praise silence without actually using it. Rather than literally referring to Indian music, the Quartet explores Indian philosophy and meditation. The four parts were inspired by the Indian view of the seasons, with the first movement representing Summer/Preservation; the second Autumn/ Destruction; the third Winter/Quiescence; and the fourth Spring/Creation. Cage was also inspired by the nine “permanent emotions” in Indian art, the first eight of which tend toward Tranquility, which is the general affect of this quartet. Quoting the Indian art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy, Cage often claimed that there were only two reasons for making music: “The imitation of nature in her manner of operation, or the sobering and quieting of the mind making it susceptible to divine influences.”

— Stephanie Griffin


The Momenta Quartet has premiered more than fifty works in the past seven years and has collaborated with more than eighty living composers. Since 2004 Momenta has performed in more than a hundred concerts, including numerous venues in New York City, such as Roulette, The Stone, Le Poisson Rouge, Issue Project Room, Tonic, BargeMusic, Symphony Space, Americas Society, Asia Society, the Austrian Cultural Forum, and the Rubin Museum. Now in its ninth year in residence at Temple University, Momenta has also performed and lectured at Cornell, Columbia, Yeshiva, and Hawaii Pacific universities; Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore, and Haverford colleges; the Mannes School of Music; and the Boston Conservatory. The Quartet has also performed in England, Singapore, and Indonesia.

Emilie-Anne Gendron
Emilie-Anne Gendron, violin, is a member of the Sejong Soloists and the Toomai String Quintet and is on the roster of the Marlboro Music Festival and the touring Musicians from Marlboro. She won the Stulberg String Competition and took second prize and the audience prize at the 2009 Sion-Valais International Violin Competition. Gendron holds degrees in music from the Juilliard School and in classics from Columbia University.

Adda Kridler
Adda Kridler, violin, debuted with the Knox County Symphony at age seven. She completed her master’s degree at the New England Conservatory after graduating cum laude from Harvard University. Concertmaster of Miami’s Firebird Chamber Orchestra and CounterPoint in Washington, D.C., Kridler has served as visiting professor at Ball State University and performs with Project 440. She has made solo appearances with the Charleston Symphony, on the Charlotte Chamber Music Series, and at the Piccolo Spoleto Festival.

Stephanie Griffin
Stephanie Griffin, viola, has performed internationally as a soloist and as a member of chamber and avant-jazz ensembles. She is a regular guest with Continuum and is a member of the Argento Chamber Ensemble, Carl Maguire’s Floriculture, Gordon Beeferman’s Other Life Forms, Adam Rudolph’s Go Organic Orchestra, the Riverside Symphony, and the Princeton Symphony, where she serves as principal violist. She holds a doctor of musical arts degree from Juilliard.

Michael Haas
Michael Haas, cello, has appeared in chamber music ensembles at Alice Tully Hall and the Kennedy Center and as a guest at the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, collaborating with Claude Frank, Ida Kavafian, Steven Tenenbom, and Lowell Liebermann. He holds degrees from the Curtis Institute and the Juilliard School. He has recently performed at the Yellow Barn, Tanglewood, and Taos music festivals.

John Gurrin
John Gurrin, video artist, studied film-making at McGill University in Montreal and at Syracuse University. His video and interactive computer art have been shown at the Venice Biennale, the National Museum of Singapore, and the Austrian Cultural Forum. He has collaborated with the heavy metal band Metallica as a sound designer. Gurrin serves as a full-time faculty member of the film school at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Biographies provided by the artists (September 2012)


This podcast was made possible through support from the Thaw Charitable Trust and was presented in conjunction with Nine Deaths, Two Births: Xu Bing’s Phoenix Project. Audio preservation and editing of this recording were supported by funds from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee.

This concert was presented as part of the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series.

Podcast, texts, and slideshow coordinated by Michael Wilpers, Manager of Public Programs.

Thanks to Andy Finch and SuMo Productions for audio recording, SuMo Productions for audio editing, Nancy Eickel for text editing, Torie Castiello Ketcham for web design, Stephen Allee for curatorial review, and especially the artists for granting permission for this podcast of their performance at the Freer Gallery.

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