Singapore Arts Festival Blog


Postmodern Chinese Music? by junzpow
June 7, 2011, 1:00 am
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MUSIC REVIEW: Soul Capture by T’ang Quartet and Hu Xiao-Ou (31 May and 1 June)

Upon entering the SOTA Concert Hall, one encounters a landscape of quasi-Savannah stage design with withered branches and wooden logs. Imminently, the musicians dressed in hippie outback gear play a contemporary rendition of ethnic Chinese folk songs remixed in an avant-garde style. Sporadic screen images interrupt the cacophony of extreme high glissandos and repetitious spiccato. This is the music by Hu Xiao-Ou, who has divided the work into six movements, depicting various imageries of ancient China, with titles like ‘A Drinking Song of Sacrifice’ and ‘Birds, Masks and Qing’.

Within an obvious cellular structure, one hears an array of electronic and percussive timbres, with the latter performed with keen gungho by Chek, the second violinist and Lionel, the violist. Yet, the pre-emptive onset of the climax at the end of the second movement appears as a short-circuit against the several variations of ancient Chinese tunes to come in the later movements. Perhaps the use of a single six-note motif to unite all six movements could be deemed as economical, but this also brought musical interest to an auricular abyss. The random interjections of mountain songs and women counting or chanting in the Sichuan dialect more than hindered the teleological path of the music.

Unless one finds this Singapore Arts Festival commission to be postmodern given its juxtaposition of the East and the West, the Classical feel of sturm und drang and the utilisation of homophony and counterpoint, reminiscent of Baroque techniques, reveal the deeply-rooted Western training of the Chinese composer. What convinced me most (more so on the first evening than the second) was the cellist’s solo showcase in the fourth movement, entitled ‘Rotating Totem’. Leslie’s command of the instrument impressed upon the audiences with his extremely high shrills as well as the uber-frantic strums like the performative gait of a Chinese pipa. Otherwise, I must say that I found the yellow lights shining across the entire stage floor as the only uncanny moment of this cultural-historical revival.

In an earlier interview with the composer and performers, the former revealed that the artefacts at Jin Sha, Chengdu, Sichuan ‘belong to nobody’ and thus have allowed for vast inspirations to recreate an aesthetic experience very much similar to that of soul capturing. Thereafter, Hu Xiao-Ou’s decisions to use Sichuan cymbals (as opposed to Beijing cymbals) as well as on-location recordings were strongly influenced by the cultural emplacement of his music. The Singaporeans’ visit to the archaeological site itself instigated awe and awakening of what it meant to be Chinese; as much as Jin Sha being mysterious and abstract, the world premieres were delivered with distinctive imagination amidst a reservoir of extended techniques and choreographic dexterity. Like what Yuying, the first violinist, had mentioned, this project is an attempt at giving meaning to a part of history which was ‘rediscovered but not understood’. Whether the quartet has succeeded, this reviewer remained ambivalent.

Jun Zubillaga-Pow