top of page

shan shui
for nonet


piccolo, alto flute, clarinet in B♭, 2 horns in F, piano, violin, viola, double bass  


17' 50"

Year of composition:


Commissioned by:

Lontano, the composition of shan shui was supported by a Research Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust


Lontano/ conducted by Odaline de la Martinez

Arts & Humanities Festival 2017, Great Hall, King's College London, London, 19 October 2017

Published by:

Recorded by:

Lontano/ conducted by Odaline de la Martinez, of gold and shadows, vol. 2, LORELT, LNT142

It has been said that the shan shui (‘mountain– water’) style of Chinese painting goes against the common definition of what a painting is – it refutes colour, light and shadow and personal brushwork. As the contemporary Chinese painter Zhang Hongtu explains: ‘Shan shui painting is not an open window for the viewer’s eye; it is an object for the viewer’s mind. [It] ismore like a vehicle of philosophy.’

My shan shui (mountain – water) outlines a dream-like form that relies on a small variety of gestures. While sometimes behaving like traditional musical ‘motives’, these can also unfold without the expectations of classical development, instead recalling the calligraphic brushstrokes of ancient Chinese painting. This way of composing was inspired by the pictorial language of Guo Xi’s Early Spring, a late 11th-century silk scroll regarded as the epitome of Northern Song monumental landscape. The entire piece consists of a slowly unfolding processional ascent that falls into three segments of increasingly shorter duration, the first one extending for nearly two thirds of the work (as if
time had stopped) and the last consisting of just a couple of evanescent phrases. While pictorially inspired elements provided the material for the piece and its framing devices, the composition’s phraseology attempts to ‘translate’ the stylised movements of the samurai and their concubines in the opening procession of Kenji Mizoguchi’s film Utamaro and his Five Women (1946).



The quiet assurance, unique poetry and exquisite technical accomplishment of her most recent work are recognised with the nomination of shan shui for the Royal Philharmonic Society’s 2018 award for Chamber-Scale Composition.


John Fallas


Buddhism is a tradition, on the one hand, of exuberant and sensuous imagery, and, on the other, of meditative experiences where space, time and materiality dissolve. Silvina’s music reflects both these strands: the intensely sensual and passionate, and the transparent, spacious and otherworldly. At times she may be inspired by the words of ancient texts and legends, as in a thousand golden bells in the breeze, at others by the dreamlike Buddhist–Taoist vision of the world that underlies shan shui. The shimmering textures of her writing for strings, harps and flutes, and the rich, glowing sonorities of horns and trumpets, create a magical world of appearances which, like life, may be called an illusion, but can also become a gateway to reality.

Francesca Fremantle

Lontano, conducted by Odaline de la Martinez

bottom of page