A “modern improvisation on old materials”: Peony Pavilion, the masterpiece of traditional Chinese Kunqu opera, renewed and revived by a new adaptation of text and music. A drama of love and death, reality and illusion which merges virtuoso acting, avant-garde Western opera, electronic music, ceremonial dance, ritual, martial arts, and poetry in a unique theatrical experience to dazzle all the senses. Presented by Madame Hua Wenyi, one of the greatest actresses of the Chinese theatre, and a group of young Chinese and American performers.
Bridal Du: Soprano
Liu Mengmei: Tenor
Sister Ston (Chinese Kun-Opera or Peking-Opera actress)
Chorus: Baritones, plus all musicians
The Judge: Electronic Midi Horn, Xun and Dizi
The Clerk: Electronic Midi Horn, and Sona (or Kiri, or Taeponso)
The Flower Spirit: Pipa
Zhao: Sampler (or Computer)
Sun: Percussion: bangu drum (Chinese Opera Drum), Chinese cymb. (6′), small gong (8′ with pitch bending), large bass drum, water gong (12′-14′), ratchet
Li: Percussion: drum set (pedal bass drum, 4 tom toms, hi-hat, snare drum, cymb.), udo drum (a ceramic drum with 2 sound holes), maraca, guiro, Chinese cymb. (6′), brush, bow, flexitone, 4 small Chinese bells (or finger bells), 2 cowbells (large and small)
Bridal Du, daughter of Du Baoyan, the provinicial governor of Nan-an, falls asleep in the garden, intoxicated by the springtime. She dreams of meeting a handsome young man. Upon waking, she pines for this dream lover, and languishes with lovesickness. Eventually she dies of her longings, and is buried in the garden. Three years later, the young scholar Liu Mengmei finds a portrait of Bridal Du while in the garden, and falls in love with her picture. Faithful to her dream even in death, Bridal Du steps out of the painting; as a wandering ghost she pursues her dream lover. Liu Mengmei helps bring her back to life, and she becomes his wife.
“One stroke and a thousand colors” – Composer Tan Dun talks to director Peter Sellars about composing the music for Peony Pavilion
Peter Sellars: In the tradition of Chinese opera, the music is not written down. There are certain formulas and then the performers themselves are controlling the formulas. Can you talk about the “patterns” in your composition?
Tan Dun: That is the part in my music that “re-continues” from the tradition of the kun opera; the patterns that I designed continue the oral music tradition. In the tradition of kun opera music, not everything is notated on paper. It reaches its full potential only with the working relationship between the musicians—how they communicate with each other during the performance. Why not continue the oral tradition today? It is fantastic to have these patterns as bridges between the major sections of the composition. They not only physically link each section, and cushion each theatrical structure, but they also create a chain that puts all of the performance/participants in touch spiritually. So we “re-continue” in this tradition of using improvisational patterns. Although these patterns are improvisational, they are also extremely controlled. Even though I’m the composer, I would love to, like in the old times, participate in the performance. When Monteverdi wrote an opera, he himself probably played something in the band. I would love to do that, too, but I also can take advantage of today’s technology, so I thought, why don’t I record my own improvisations according to the theatrical structure? I recorded several patterns and notated things in a certain graphic way, indicating pitch and dynamics to allow an improvisational but controlled process.Read More
PS: It looks really unusual on music paper.
TD: It’s like a painting. It sounds like a painting, but also you cannot avoid notating it like a painting. To me, the patterns are like a spiritual chain. Like I said, it is “re-continuing” from the kunqu tradition.
PS: Could you talk about how the patterns work in the kunqu tradition—a subject is mentioned and then there is a musical response…
TD: Yes, there are several kinds of traditions in the kun theatre. They have orally passed down these patterns through history; these patterns through history; these patterns were not written down but the musicians know how to play them. It’s like a big Madison Avenue shopping mall— when you need something, you go search through those patterns to find the right music for the emergency of the spiritual need at a given moment in the play. They have thousands of patterns—patterns for “floating” and something for chasing, or for happy moments, or for a ceremony. But how are these elements organized? How are they put together? The musicians working together on the improvisational patterns must work at a high artistic level. Everyone has their own interpretations. For example, the patterns that I designed will work in a similar way to the traditional kun opera patterns, because when different people play along with my pre-recorded vocal improvisations of each pattern, the results will be totally different. When you first talked to me about this project, for the first two months I had no idea, really. Then, after two months, I had ideas changing every day, going back and forth, impossible to settle as one kind of thing. But the ideas always appeared in parallel: here is Monteverdi singing with his Baroque fiddles, and here is Tang Xianzu singing with his pipa, perhaps. Then, on one side, Hua Wenyi is talking to Peter Sellars about mailing something new, and on the other side, the young operatic singer, “I just want to try something new.” It’s an older generation and younger generation; it’s Monteverdi and Tang Xianzu. It’s kun opera, Peking opera, Kabuki. Everything is parallel, a circle, a mosaic image: out of many, but as one!
PS: Monteverdi and Tang Xianzu are located at a certain moment in time, and one feels that connection. But also, it goes backwards in time. Tang Xianzu was writing at the end of the Ming Dynasty, which is a very special period, but set play in the Sung Dynasty. You also reach backwards in time musically. Would you talk a little bit about the parallel between the Sung Dynasty and medieval music –that tone, that texture, and what that world is?
TD: I have to tell you, sometimes when I do something, it is just by instinct. I’m driven by a ghost. Sometimes I don’t know what I am doing, but when I am finished, when I hear the sound, then I figure out what I did. It’s like the Daoist people always say: “Everything is on track.” You don’t know what you are doing, but everything has been designed; it is on track.
What’s interesting is the music before our contemporary age (I mean music before the Baroque period). Music before that point, I think, has a much similar character. There are basic qualities of spirit in common among all kinds of music—it doesn’t matter if you are from east or west, north or south. Music from the last 50 years emphasizes too much from its own geographic and cultural point of view, and sees the world and people just from its own point of view; it’s becoming more and more out of touch. It is on the track. You cannot get rid of it. I don’t want to use “crossover” as a word to describe what’s happening now, but the result is very interesting. “Crossover,” if you have to use this term, allows for a bigger choice of resources, but meanwhile also makes “personality” more and more difficult. The most important thing is finding your own expression or language.
In Chinese, the word art is two words—Ar-t. Ar- means “magical games” and –t means “spiritual fantasy.” In Chinese, the two never separate, and the perfect combination of both is called art. So, I like this language more than when we say “art” in English. That’s actually one way to do it. On the surface, it seems like we have a long way to go in dealing with the balance of the language, the style of language, the balance of style, the counterpointing of different ages, the counterpointing of different languages, the counterpointing of different theatrical traditions, the reunification of all kinds of things –all this should be blended entirely as one new kind of style, a new language. It is so fresh, but meanwhile it is so exciting and so challenging.
PS: What’s interesting to me is that, for you, it is not crossover because you are not going form anywhere to anywhere—you live there. I mean, the score actually represents all the things in your life, so it’s not that you have to go hunting for something like an anthropologist.
TD: Yes, because I’m living in New York, a hell plus a heaven. I said I don’t want to use the word “crossover,” but sometimes my inner gut is all crossover. You know, sometimes I feel my liver is on the left side and my heart is at bottom of my stomach. It doesn’t matter, because that is the way I experience today. Anyway, to me it doesn’t matter what you are doing, whatever thing you are dealing with, modern or old, or different languages, because actually nothing is repeating. I understand that what I am doing is not writing medieval opera, because I can’t. Nobody can say they can do the same as Hildegard von Bingen or Tang Xianzu. Actually, what I am doing musically is really trying to communicate. It is very much from my own response, a direct response from my own imagination, from my own eye and attitude, to see this piece of art. So this is why it comes up in my score like a mosaic. There are many parallels to those resources from Tang Xianzu, Monteverdi, early medieval music and Chinese Sung Dynasty music, paintings and languages, western opera and Chinese opera, and today’s young people’s music, like pop, rap, rock, jazz, and art music. Maybe 10 years ago people would treat those kinds of things as a contradiction. I don’t think it will be a contradiction any more. It works just the same when you are dealing with life. So to me, the materials we are handling are counterpointing from different ages of the media. It is not a funky big game. It is serious. There is something happening within me. I don’t want to call it a new language, but it is really, really hearing me inside. I find that is natural to respond to these kinds of words from Tang Xianzu. The good thing is that I also find in your staging that there is a new language there. It is parallel with music. Those things work perfectly together.
PS: What is so beautiful is the way you take this Chinese vocal technique as a way to extend western vocal technique, and at the same time, you arrive at a point where you don’t know which is which.
TD: When you go to western opera and eastern opera, you might find it very boring. This is because they are handling their voices in one way only. Today any single artist in the world, physically or non-physically, they are carrying with them all kinds of experiences, but speak out for one goal, one structure, and one style of his/her own. Peter, how many languages do you speak? French, English, Chinese. But why, when you express yourself musically, do you have to limit yourself to one kind of expression? I feel that this is impossible – in my expression, at least. When I read a sentence of Tang Xianzu, the melodic lines come out automatically, combining these things together: kun accent with deep Italian medieval things and also with the haunting sound of Tibetan monks. I did not try artificially to make it perfect—it just comes out; it is a gift. Of course, it is no longer just kun opera or Italian or Tibetan anymore.
PS: And with these fantastic beyond-Baroque ornaments…
TD: To me, I just find the whole thing is like going backwards. If you go backwards, you feel things more avant garde and much deeper; I don’t know why. I also believe that a million years ago, music communication on different continents between different races was based more on basic human instincts. I think my musical expression is really constructed on my basic instincts. It just floats up like that.
PS: What is so striking is that, in your music for Peony Pavilion, there is melody after melody after melody. I mean, do you know many pieces that have been written in the last 50 years with this much melody?
TD: You know why—because there a kind of poison in the head of all composers. It is exactly like James Levine telling me how orchestra people are afraid to play pianissimo; they don’t believe how quite they can play. Composers are afraid to draw only melodic lines on paper. They are afraid of just one line going on and on. I don’t know why they are afraid. This is why I said, look at Monteverdi or kun opera and how avant garde that is. Incredible! To me, line and linear relationship in my mind or in my thinking is much more important than multiple layers or harmonic or counterpoint construction. It is like a lot of early Chinese painting and calligraphy: one stroke and thousands of counterpoints are there already. You listen to one stroke of Hua Wenyi’s singing and a thousand of colors are there. One thing that is very tragic is that a lot of musicians don’t believe that one line of their playing already includes many, many colors and many, many counterpoints and harmonies. Of course, this is in my tradition—in calligraphy, in music, in painting. I think I was quite confident, and driven by tradition as well, to approach this opera as if I were holding a pencil and drawing one endless line. In this piece, I never just treat melody as an element, but as something very complex or multi-dimensional. To me, it is a line, a line directly from the heart; it is an endless going on. That’s what you feel when you read Cyril Birch’s translation of Tang Xianzu’s text. You feel it is one line driving you endlessly towards an unlimited timespace. Endlessly enchanting. Flowing passion. With this text, there is no other choice. As a composer, one side of the work is very technical, setting music to the words, sound to sound. But meanwhile, it is like singing. Composing is singing. Composing is improvising. And improving is composing. Improvising is the most natural condition of your composing. If you do not know how to improvise, how can you invent your own structure, techniques, and sensational colors?
PS: It is so amazing to watch you coach the singers and, for that matter, the instrumentalists; so much more appears than what’s on the paper.
TD: Most composers, including myself, in many, many circumstances are slaves to the notation system, we often try to find a way to make music sound exactly like the notation. But what’s the meaning of doing that? All the notation developed so far—and I’m sure in next couple of thousand years, it will still exist in this way—has the permanent shortcomings of written music. Music is such a living thing, directly from your heart. You can write down anything directly from your heart on paper. To me, I always think that notation reflects just half of your heart voice. This is why, we finished the score, when I rehearse with orchestra, when I coach singers, I am sort of adding another 50%. I am sure Mozart and Monteverdi did the same thing, It is just that today, we have forgotten this. I think this is something we have to pay attention to. This is why we need good conductors for old and new music!
PS: One of the most spectacular parts of the score is this immense shaman ceremony. It really evokes a time when music was purely functional, where music really is this contact between life and death, and is working; it is not a leisure activity, it is something else…
TD: The ritual part that Shi Jiehua does is the key. When I started composing the music and included Shi Jiehua as an important character in the second part. I had to find a way t for it to be convincing that this character is there as a bridge, linking the current life and the life beyond, the other world. I think the ritual part is a key point. I was trying to use all the memories of my early childhood Daoist ceremonies to find a kind of image of a person who is a shaman—a person who is between real life and another real life, which is death. To the Chinese, when you are living, it is a live life, and when you are dead, another life starts, another world. This is obvious in Tang Xianzu’s play.
PS: Would you say something about working with the kunqu music and musicians, because you really have worked a lot with them.
TD: You know, to me, the way I worked with kunqu performers is the same way I worked with musicians from Metropolitan Opera. I don’t think that there is any difference. The only difference is the difference that people themselves see; to me, there is no difference. To me, the gestures, the lines, the way you modernize the passion to deal with the historical materials—it is the same way. It is closely associated with your basic instincts—the way I talk to them about line, about the shape, about the pronunciation and punctuation, and also about how important it is to find your most truthful feelings. A lot of musicians are not calm, deep down. When you read something or play something, you are not really calm deep down, you are somehow too busy in your mind. It is like somebody loves you and you don’t know. Actually, there is so much love in this material and you just don’t know. If you knew it, you might let yourself embrace this material. This is what I was trying to explain to them. This object can only be alive if you feel it and love it, and later you find you have become something else, and have also become loved by it. This is the way I worked with all the kunqu performers, and not only because I trained in the Chinese theater. I think I shared many many things with them, much more on a human basis. Just calm down. It is meditation. Emphasize feeling. Deeply driven by feeling, you will suddenly see the music’s shape. What is the meaning of a line? It is a whole life.[/expand ]
“Chinese Opera has never looked or sounded so modern.”
–Georgia Rower, San Jose Mercury News, March 8, 1999