Dallas — In its season-opening concert, Voices of Change, a much-lauded group dedicated to performing contemporary music, followed half of a phrase from a bride’s preparation: something old, something new.
We heard a string quartet by composer Shih-Hui Chen, Fantasia on the Theme of Plumb Blossoms. The composer, born in Taiwan, currently leads the composition department at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. The theme she borrowed from Plum Blossoms has an ancient heritage and comes from a form of Chinese music called Nanguan. It also describes the ensemble required to play it. It appears to have started in the Fujian Province in southern China and came to Taiwan via Fujianese migrants. Its character is gentle and usually at a slow tempo and originally was only played by the wealthy.
So that we could properly appreciate the source of her borrowed melody, Voices of Change brought an authentic Nanguan ensemble to play some selections from Plum Blossoms, members of Taiwan’s Lâm-hun-koh Nanguan Music and Theater Troupe. The instruments they used were paiban clappers, the lute-like pipa and sanxian, the bowed erxian (like a violin with only two strings), and the recorder-like dongxiao flute.
The clapper is the director of the ensemble, and uses some smallish rectangle wood blocks held together on one end like a fan. She started each piece and clapped on the beat to keep the tempo. This instrument is held on the knee. A slender fingerboard is mounted on a small drum and extends to about shoulder high. It is played with a bow. The Nangun erxian is slightly different than the Cantonese version.
The sanxian is a three-string instrument that is plucked. It is held like a guitar but doesn’t have similar frets. It sounds like a banjo. The pipa is a Chinese version of the lute, also held like a guitar and plucked with a pick. Both of these instruments have been around for thousands of years and are commonly played in East Asia. Some soloists, such as Wu Man, are world-famous pipa players and tour internationally.
The Plum Blossom music they played was slow and repetitive, based on the pentatonic scale, much like new age music. What struck me was the similarity of cadences to western music with the dominant yearning for the home key. The physics of the overtone series, which defines these relationships, appear to be universal.
It was difficult to discern the Plum Blossoms music we heard from the Nanguan ensemble in the string quartet piece by composer Shih-Hui Chen. It would probably take a few more hearings to ferret out the gentle Chinese melody from her thick dissonant musical language. The middle movement was as roughly aggressive as some of Bartók’s music and she made frequent use of ostinato patterns.
A second work by Shih-Hui Chen, A Plea to Lady Chang’e, added the pipa to the string quartet. Her musical style was different for this work and somewhat easier to follow. As is the tradition, the pipa player sang in the middle section of the piece.
After intermission, two female actors, Ming-I Wen and Ya-Lan Lin, joined the ensemble to perform a scene from a Nanguan opera. The instruction that was offered about what we were about to see was more than helpful—it was necessary to our enjoyment.
All of their motions were very smooth, almost slow motion, and even the smallest gestures conveyed emotions, actions and situations. They moved their feet with such small steps that they appeared to float.
The two portrayed two traditional characters: the lady and the maid. It was easy to tell the difference between the elegant lady and the saucy maid, although these characterizations were quite subtle.
We rarely hear East Asian music here, and it is very different and intriguing at the same time. After all, when Debussy heard the Javanese Gamelan orchestra at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, the path of music in the 20th century was changed forever. Shih-Hui Chen’s music, as with other Asian composers working today, offers western composers a path to incorporate more world music influences in their own compositions. We will all be richer for it.