From Beijing to San Francisco: production process
It has been four months since I got really into this new work at my residency. It is so cool, the more I work on this project, the more I like it. It has really made me push the envelope and brought my different interests and talents into a live performance, as well as finding hidden talents that I did not realize I had. I have learned a lot of new things. In this project, I composed and arranged the music, wrote an English poem and did the English narration, directing, staging, lighting, costume design and a lot more.
1. The English poem
I was a writer in China and had published several books in Chinese. In fact, I think my personality, interests and way of thinking are more those of a writer than a musician, yet it is as a musician that most people in this country know me. After I moved to the States 12 years ago, my strength in language became a weakness. I preferred to give up and not mention my history as a writer. I abandoned my readers in China and stopped writing. Little did I imagine that one day I would be able to write an English poem and perform it myself in front of an English speaking audience! It happened by accident. I just wrote a few lines to give some friends an idea of what I wanted to do in this new work. But they kept treating my draft script as a poem, showed a lot of interest and encouraged me to write more. My enthusiasm for writing came back, and in the first two months the only thing I did to develop the project was to concentrate on writing and editing my poem. I forget now how many versions it has been through.
I am a content oriented person. For me, novelty and innovation must serve the content, and not exist just for the sake of experimentation or to look cool. After the content is fixed, the other parts of the production become easier and more natural to develop.
2. Composing the music
In this new work, my musical arrangement includes new compositions, improvisation and excerpts from famous traditional guqin pieces.
I never thought I would need to learn composition until this project. Because the theme and the work are new, I thought I needed a composer to write the music I would play.
But after talking to several composers I realized this would be impossible.
To compose for the guqin, one must know the instrument and how to play it. As far as I know, no composer can play the guqin, and guqin players like me usually don’t compose. Even if a composer does write a piece of music, it might not be playable on a guqin; even if the phrasing can be played, a guqin player still needs to work out the fingering. Guqin playing technique is too difficult to explain to a composer in a short time. Also, I didn’t know whether their music would fit my work, or whether it would be playable on a guqin. Wouldn’t it be easier for me to try the opposite approach? I never learned composition; even I had, the theory wouldn’t work for the guqin. So I started to read more guqin theory books and guqin handbooks, and studied how ancient guqin pieces were composed. I used the guqin way to compose, not Western composition theory. After I finished the first phase of my composition, I found that composition was a lot of fun. I started to enjoy it. So in this work, you will hear my own compositions.
The guqin repertory has 3000 living pieces that are without doubt a very important contribution to world music. They definitely need to be introduced to an audience, especially a new and modern Western audience. I picked some famous classical guqin pieces over 700 years old for a preview. I hope the audience will enjoy them.
I used my compositions and guqin classics as a framework, but left a lot of space for improvisation, because I think for a mature musician improvisation is one of the highest artistic approaches. It provides a lot of freedom and flexibility, and enables interaction with the audience and an instant response. Different moods, different times and different audiences will give me different inspiration. So my music will never be exactly the same over the four days of the festival.
3. Other aspects
After working with the poem and the music, I felt strongly that the other aspects of the project needed to fit the mood of my music and poem, otherwise the entire piece might be ruined. So I started to observe and study sound, lighting, staging and costume. When I was in China this fall, I went to an international sound and lighting expo. It was very helpful and I learned a lot. I got some inspiration and ideas and designed the lighting, staging and costumes myself.
I would like to thank CounterPulse, Meet the Composer,The Patsy Lu Fund and Open Meadows and all my other funders for their generous financial support to make this new work happen.
Many thanks to world leading guqin master Professor Li Xiangting for coming over from China to support his student’s first new work and give a special performance during the festival. Li Laoshi, you will always be my respected teacher.
I thank my student Kwan Wong, who is my project assistant and taking care of project logistics, making it easier for me to concentrate on the artistic side. In this project, the audience will see three generations of guqin players performing on the same stage. We will show not only how a traditional Chinese art form has been passed down, but also how traditional Chinese values – the teacher/student relationship – are passed down.
I also want to thank Sanford Tom, Lindy Mark, Julian Joseph, Christopher Evans and Yan Lange their help and support. You are always my truest qin friends, you are always there when I need help but always disappear when I want to share my success, my honors, flowers and applause with you. I cannot forget to thank Henry Kaiser, Cheryl Leonard and Xiaopei He Gelb. What a treat it is to have the opportunity to work with such wonderful artists as you!
I especially want to thank all the crew and staff at CounterPulse, who are working very hard to make the Performing Diaspora Program happen: Jessica, Roko, Andrew, Lily, Ryan and others whose names I might not remember.
There are a lot of new things for me in this project. I have learned a lot and enjoyed it a lot, and have met many fabulous artists and other brilliant people to see their work and hear their feedback. These are real gains I have already made through this project.