Saw the most thrilling concert by the Kronos Quartet and Wu Man, the famed Chinese pipa player, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.
First they performed “Ghost Opera,” an original work composed by Tan Dun (1994) and a new multimedia work entitled “A Chinese Home.”
I had heard “Ghost Opera” on CD but nothing compares to the live performance. The musicians from Kronos Quartet started out playing from various sections of the small gallery theater at YBCA while Wu Man sat stage right, later moving to center stage where she performed behind a long, ghostly white veil.
“Ghost Opera” combines traditional Western-style symphonic music and Chinese pipa solos as well as Chinese opera vocalizations. There were snippets of a Chinese folk song as well as lines from Shakespeare, shouts (meant to evoke the cries of a traditional shaman), the shaking of paper, gongs, and dripping water as the musicians dipped their hands into clear bowls of water positioned around the stage.
I personally love “Ghost Opera” and find its music transcendent of any place or time, although of course it strongly evokes many Chinese musical traditions. But like many of Tan Dun’s more experimental works (for example, his score for the opera “Peony Pavilion,” which had its debut in Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall in the 1990s [available on CD as “Bitter Love”]), the music stands as its own uniquely modern composition, a hybrid that would have been impossible in any other time period.
The second half of the performance was a newer, multimedia work called “A Chinese Home,” inspired by the rebuilding of a traditional Chinese house that was shipped and re-assembled in the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts. The musicians played in four segments, each meant to evoke different periods of time in Chinese history while video images flashed on the screen behind the performers.
Personally, I found the video distracted me from the music, especially in the first segment, called “Return,” which was meant to evoke “traditional” China. The images showed contemporary scenes from rural China and minority groups living in China’s southwestern provinces. Furthermore, the handheld video was shaky and a little hard to watch. Yet the screen was so large, it was hard to ignore the video and watch the live performers, which was a shame.
The second segment was entitled “Shanghai” and featured some of the great jazz and pop music of Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s. Here Kronos Quartet and Wu Man seemed more clearly to be playing music meant to “accompany” the images, which ranged from the U.S. Deparment of War’s newsreel footage of the Japanese bombing of Shanghai in 1937 (edited by Frank Capra) as to clips from the best of Shanghai’s silent films from the 1920s and 30s. Here I didn’t even try to focus on the musicians; the images were too compelling and featured both scenes of actual suffering as well as some of the era’s most famous movie stars. The emphasis on suffering (as opposed to the hybrid quality of life in Shanghai or open-minded nature of its residents) did not account for any of the creative brilliance that was clearly evident in the music. To juxtapose the suffering of war with the brilliance of Shanghai’s culture is an artistic choice that I’ve seen a lot of recently in Chinese mainland works about Shanghai.
The third segment, “The East Is Red,” opened with a quote from Mao, and featured images of kitschy Cultural Revolution operas and ballets while the musicians played rollicking folk music that seemed to come directly from the era. There was no hint whatsoever of the suffering of the Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution or Mao era.
The final segment entitled “Made in China” had the most sophisticated, abstract video imagery of China’s fast-growing cities, featuring modern skyscrapers, billboards, Shanghai monorail, and people engaged in leisure activities from singing to sitting to shopping, but there were also hints of destruction in the image of China’s ubiquitous wrecking cranes. While the Kronos Quartet literally unleashed boxes of Chinese-made electronic toys that crawled across the stage, Wu Man plugged her pipa into an amp and synthesizer and literally rocked it like an electric guitar!
I still need time to think about this exciting program.
Meanwhile, “Ghost Opera” with its delicate and nuanced score will remain one of my most precious musical memories and I feel infinitely grateful that I was able to hear and see it performed live. Perhaps the abstract quality made it easier for me to appreciate than the almost documentary nature of the second program.
However, I also have a purely personal reason to love Tan Dun’s work. When I was a student at Nanjing University in 1988, our American coordinator for CIEE (Rich Lufrano) played for us a casette tape of music recorded by Tan Dun called “Mong Dong.” In those days, Tan Dun was not famous but rather happened to live down the hall in New York City from Rich (who was a Ph.D. student at Columbia) and they had become friends. As a result, Tan Dun had given Rich a copy of his composition. The name is made up of invented, nonsense characters, and the music included chanting, moaning, singing that evoked not only Han Chinese musical traditions but ethnic minority music that Tan Dun had heard when he had traveled in the south of China. I loved “Mong Dong.” As we listened in our unheated classroom to the crackly tape player, I was transported by the power and inventiveness of this new kind of musical composition. In those days, I never imagined that one day Tan Dun would become a famous, Oscar-winning composer nor that I would get to hear Tan Dun’s music performed live by amazing musicians like the Kronos Quartet and Wu Man as I sat in a chair mere feet from the performers. Such a life seemed very far away.
The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts also opened to concert goers its gallery exhibit by Chinese contemporary artist Song Dong “Dad and Mom, Don’t Worry About Us, We Are All Well.” The exhibit featured video displays of the artist’s family and a spectacular full-room installation of literally 10,000 items his mother had been hoarding in their house in Beijing. (For the New York Times review and photos of the installation “Waste Not,” click here .) The artist was able to get his mother to give up the items after his father died by promising to turn her possessions into a work of art. And indeed he did. From balls of ordinary twine, displays of bottle caps, neatly arranged pairs of shoes, hats, shirts, even shopping bags, Song Dong has made a beautiful tribute to his mother, his family, and to a generation of Chinese who learned never to throw anything away because of the terrible shortages they faced. (In fact, seeing the mother’s collection of styrofoam containers, I thought of my own grandmother, who had survived the Sino-Japanese War and Civil War in China when starvation and deprivation were common. Even after immigrating to the U.S., she could not bring herself to throw away newspapers, twist ties, old clothes, slippers or even styrofoam containers. These items of so-called “junk” stand as a testament to the suffering of people who have lived through war and hardship, but also the resilience of women like Song Dong’s mother and my grandmother, who saved everything and lived so thriftily so that their own children would have a better life.)
The exhibit is open until June 12. I highly recommend it.