Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Kronos Quartet and Wu Man - Tan Dun: Ghost Opera

Most Westerners familiar with Tan Dun, China's most prominent composer, know him through his Academy Award winning score for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", or through his works commissioned for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Fewer are likely to have heard his more personal and artistically adventurous works, which bridge Eastern and Western traditions while exploring a musical language of Tan Dun's very own. One of the most fascinating of these is Ghost Opera, which puts a (post)modernist spin on an ancient and somewhat polarizing genre - the Chinese opera.

Commissioned in 1994 for the Kronos Quartet and pipa player Wu Man, the five movement Ghost Opera is fairly short (35 minutes) but packed with challenging material that will defy any listener's expectations. Opening the first movement is the sound of water splashing in a great glass bowl, followed by a beautiful and haunting quotation of Bach's C# minor prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2. Just as we're beginning to get comfortable, a shrill note in the upper register of the violin rudely interrupts the serene Bach, and the chilling voice of a monk spirit enters the act. Things move quickly now from strange to bizarre, as a variety of male and female spirit-voices shout wordless incantations over abstract and menacing string gestures. The second movement begins as a high energy dance, with driving string parts and more shouting from the spirits, but in the end winds up showcasing Wu Man's virtuosic pipa skills over a bare texture. The third movement, lacking vocalizations, blends the Bach heard previously with a Chinese folk song, "Little Cabbage", to gorgeous effect. Its sheer melodic accessibility is countered by the next movement, which is almost totally rhythmic, featuring unsteady percussion on a variety of stones and metallic cymbals, and later, percussive string strumming. As the piece mounts in intensity, the spirits return with more excited clammoring than ever, and ultimately a gong hit marks the beginning of the final movement, the most understated and "ghostly" one of them all.

Tan Dun notes:
"My whole village was crazy. We had a professional crying team available for hire at funerals and deaths...a shamanistic choir to set the mournful tone. In Hunan, where I grew up, people believed they would be rewarded after death for their sufferings. Death was the "white happiness," and musical rituals launched the spirit into the territory of the new life. Instruments were improvised: pots and pans, kitchen tools, and bells. The celebration of the remote was grounded in everyday life.

The tradition of the "ghost opera" is thousands of years old. The performer of "ghost opera" has a dialogue with his past and future life — a dialogue between past and future, spirit and nature."
As stated before, Chinese opera is a polarizing genre. Many people find it difficult to appreciate, and attendence to live performances has been on the decline since the second half of the 20th century (see the Wikipedia entry on Beijing Opera). Ghost Opera, aside from being a rumination on modern spirituality, is an attempt to rejuvenate this unusual and uniquely beautiful art form.


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