Overtones

It may have been a while since you have listened to a 75-minute recital of music for jaw harp and mouth organ, but your wait has ended. The mouth organ featured on this CD is the sheng, a Chinese instrument of ancient roots. The player activates its sound by both exhaling and inhaling, which allows the possibility of extended, continuous tones; each note in its three-octave range has a different timbre, with the result that — as the accompanying booklet notes put it — “you might think you were listening to a wind ensemble.” In the course of his impressive international career, Wu Wei has premiered some 300 pieces for the sheng, including 10 concertos with orchestra. Wang Li is his counterpart on kouxian, the Chinese jaw harp (or Jew’s harp), whose artistry far transcends mere twang. The musicians expand their sonic palette through other skills, playing bawu (a Chinese flute) or leiqing (a bowed string instrument), for example, and rendering overtone singing. They are masters of extracting unanticipated sounds from their instruments and from their bodies. Many of their tracks are placid, though some are energized by needle-sharp rhythms and tingling articulation. It would be misguided to dismiss this as New Age meandering. Each track invites careful listening, and the album as a whole can lull one into a state of deep concentration.