John Oliver: Purple Lotus Bud excerpt – music for guzheng and string quartet

This is a beautiful work for guzheng and string quartet. You can follow along on John Oliver’s score for this excerpt and see how the instrument sounds are layered to produce the depth and colours in this piece.

Purple Lotus Bud by John Oliver, performed by Mei Han and the Borealis String Quartet. From the CD OUTSIDE THE WALL, Zadiscs. Used with permission. Available at all online retailers. Information:

“This is the opening section to my composition Purple Lotus Bud, widely viewed as the first major work written for the guzheng and string quartet. It features a remixing/recomposition of the traditional composition for guzheng called “Pink Lotus in Many Modes.” The opening features the characteristic bending tones of the guzheng accompanied by pure (just) intonation music for the string quartet that lands on pure dominant seventh chords in many cadences. Many string quartet techniques are featured, including harmonics, moving the bow to different playing positions, pizzicato and more. The complete program note is reprinted from the score below.

Purple Lotus Bud (2004) Chinese guzheng, 2 violins, viola, cello Duration: 17:00

This is the first original composition ever written for zheng and string quartet. I thank Mei Han for thinking of this combination of instruments and for giving me the honour to write the work, and the Borealis Quartet for taking on the challenge of creating this new work. The music plays with the difference in sound between ancient Chinese music based on a five-note pentatonic scale, and the dominant seventh chord, which I consider to be the pivotal sound of European art music as most people experience it (i.e. in the standard repertoire). The music begins with a cross-cultural rewriting of the ancient zheng composition Pink Lotus in Many Modes and continues with contrasting transformations that emerge. The yin and yang principle pervades.

I wanted to create a new music that merges east and west, rather than having them “meet,” which is the usual way to describe this cultural mix. To achieve this goal, I analyzed Pink Lotus in Many Modes and took its skeleton as the basis for the first section of the music. This became the creative spring- board (starting point) for the rest of the music. I wanted to “get at the DNA” of ancient Chinese music, and cross-pollinate with my own western music training to create a new music. This is the musical equivalent of a “mixed marriage,” where the children are neither caucasian, nor asian, but truly a mixture of both.

I was born and raised in Vancouver. I listened to classical European music alongside the (Mississippi river) Delta Blues, bluegrass, folk music, and rock and roll. North American culture already contains a strong mixture of European and African music in “the blues,” which is the song-form of the African- American slaves. This music has an unstable or moving musical interval of the major/minor third that resembles the unstable minor third found in Pink Lotus.

The title of my work, Purple Lotus Bud, reflects a mixture of the “pink” of the ancient Chinese composition, and “the blues” of North America. If you mix the colour blue with pink, you get purple. And rather than the flower, I focus on the bud of the flower. And so my work is like a mixed blue and pink lotus plant that is about to burst forth from its bud to the flower. I am writing “new world music” that merges different musics of the world into a new sound.”

~ John Oliver