梧桐雨 2007.11.04

Always intrigued by innovative cooperative new productions this reviewer eagerly accepts invitations from friends to see new productions like 梧桐雨, 快雪時晴, 王心心’s-霓裳羽衣. But first of all, is 梧桐雨 worth it? Absolutely YES!


Can 梧桐雨 be improved? Well, also YES! in several ways.

First though, top marks for the staging, the costumes and the lighting! A!

The innovative orchestration incorporating Oriental instruments was SUPERB! It is successful and marvellous. Double A! (One might add that the reedy 笙and嗩吶 – especially for the Hu- ethnic dancing passage – was very spicy!)

Second, the acting (that is, the directing) for the singers (under the condition of singing in Western opera style) B – B+

The story, including a visit to the Moon and a sort of cathartic ending – makes TOP opera material – A+

The lyrics: slightly mixed and forced, lacking in consistency – B

The singing was thankless: singers with excellent voices and training, singing difficult passages… But as it was they could not realize what they can do with their skills – because the opportunity for dramatic, moving, heart-rending expression was not in the music! And that is due, methinks, to the lack of harmonic foundations. Relying merely on modern serial music does not make for aural drama.

I may have heard a wisp of kunqu 崑曲 here and there – but don’t remember where. Thus, one could say its inclusion failed to elicit the desired effect of surprise or nostalgia.

I do remember being delighted – and relieved (sic) – upon hearing beiguan 北管in the gezaixi 歌仔戲passages. I was not alone. Each time the poet Li Bo came on stage the theatre was charged with excitement and the audience came back to life.

Unfortunately even here, the beautiful orchestration was not in support of the beiguan drift but rather was forcing its own modern mode through it – This was harmful to the overall effect.

This music has proven that it is eminently possible – and marvelous – to interweave non-western passages into “modern classical” music. After all, modern music, especially this one being often atonal – has no roots and no gravity. This is at the same time a defect in the overall concept. And here I feel strongly that: Love or other passion – of a romantic kind as in the Song of Everlasting Sorrow 長恨歌 variety – if not delivered in traditional Chinese operatic strains (or ban 板) which have long been already identified with certain emotions, – should be written in some sort of tonal, music with a harmonic foundation – music with the potential of having dramatic dissonances and clearly harmonic resolutions (Arvo Pärt is a great example.) Only this way can an audience feel the dramatic tensions one expects to experience in a passion of such magnitude as that between the emperor Tang Minghuang and his ill-fated consort Yang guifei. Setting the music in a cold, intellectual modern music that in itself has no built-in consonance and dissonance will lack root and base; and the listener does not feel departures and returns to tranquility in the music material itself. And that was a basic flaw in the new opera, the Firmiana Tree, to my mind.

How wonderful to have had real kunqu 崑曲(anachronistic it would be, though), even real Peking opera as well as Taiwanese (perfectly wonderful to bring out Tang rhyme schemes) beiguan 北管and go’ahi 歌仔戲in modern music!! And how very rich! But one needn’t virtually cancel them out with grating modernistic dissonances that run counter to the Li Bo singing, as if to be insisting “don’t forget ladies and gents we are doing 21st century modern music here!”

The Central Asian passages for the dance was marvelous and pure. I had been several times in Tashkent, and once at a local wedding heard them perform traditional music from ancient sites: Ferghana (where Zhang Qian 張騫found horses for Han Wudi漢武帝), Khorasmia and other parts, still enticing, playing instruments like(ly the progenitors of) the erhu, the clapper, as well as a hollow reeded instrument.

The Firmiana Tree program notes tell us that sections from Japanese Gagaku 雅樂and from Dunhuang music had been incorporated : I wish these could have been more obvious. I was so very keen to hear strains from these ancient times but left the theatre rather disappointed.

Is this the first time such daring combinations had been attempted? It is the first time I am going to theatres in Taipei with such frequency now that I have moved up here. As you know all these past years I’ve been in Xinzhu and Tainan and have remained not at all au courant with the Taipei cultural scene.

I am deeply impressed by the possibility such innovative work offers, and terribly excited it has started. (BTW There is no need for a barbarian – An Lushan – to sing in German, full of such difficult, closed sounds. If anything foreign, he might sing in east-Persian – from Sogdiana – the modern Uzbekistan – or, even Korean, Mongolian or Japanese – one of the Altaic languages related to the ancient Turkic family of An Lushan’s tribe?)

Sunlight After Quick Snow 快雪時晴

This production to my mind was much more successful in music and as a stage event. Although the music was not so innovative – it served perfectly to support the dramatic story! Here is where composer and dramatists should cooperate.

Here the dramaturgy wins high marks. Travelling through time can dramatically highlight certain aspects – and here in this work we see the feminine hand behind it – the Mother Eternal and her (so far still futile) opposition to wars and killings, epoch after epoch.

The scenery with the revolving stage, and calligraphy specimens so marvelously enlarged, were all plusses.

My greatest complaint comes again to the music – where the composer for some reason closes certain phrases on what in diatonic scale harmony would be a tonic triad, turning an otherwise Chinese polyphonic phrase into a Western do-mi-sol harmony block. This is like throwing a lump of vanilla ice cream into a cup of fresh hot jasmine tea. Incongruous and somewhat shocking, such a change in basic aural structure or musical modes serves only to stop the original flow and to take the audience out into the cold.

This same syndrome surfaced the last two nights at the “Mulian Saves His Mother (from Hell)” 泉州打城戲《木連救母》 performed by the visiting folk opera troupe from Quanzhou, where a silly ‘cello line emerged beneath the Chinese erhu and sanxian and cymbal music, making curious, unfitting do- mi- sols- in an accompaniment reminiscent of Renaissance or Baroque cembalo-and-continuo plucking the dominant and tonic up and down, sometimes running an arpeggio. This is a terrible mistake, and often caused the ending of lilting, melodic Chinese phrases to come bang up against a chunky “chord”, (with often the baseline resting on the lower third!!)

It is patently clear that Chinese opera phrases (of any style, Nanguan to Peking Opera) all end as “trailing, floating energy” that continue into the silences, whereas a triad chord is an abrupt cesura to that subtle movement, a STOP sign that blocks further breathing.

That baseline truly was irritating throughout, and to me proved conclusively that Chinese theatre music does not need the base support that has been the solid foundation to Western music. (The reason I think, is that Western music since becoming harmonic with the Renaissance, used in their melodies notes that are overtones to their given base strings. Thus the base line fortifies the tonality and the modality. But this is not the case in Chinese music and composers or musicians should not make this basic confusion!!)

But for Chinese Peking opera music to be supported with a Western symphonic orchestra, I think, can be quite acceptable and, as long as the music “behaves,” in not going contrary to the style, the orchestra may help Western audiences to get used to the relative naïveté and simplicity (i.e. the lack of harmonic substance) of Chinese music, as well as its high-pitched gut- and guttural vocal environment.

The addition of the Chinese cymbals and wooden clappers used traditionally to indicate and/or start off certain gestures, movements or emotions, turned out in this orchestra to be simply marvelous! They added so much richness and historic content to this modern blend!

The Story Line of Sunlight After Quick Snow: the pointed stress on the fugitive from civil warfare fleeing to “the south” was moving, and especially poignant to all the Chinese in the audience who are not native to Taiwan. Although here for already fifty years, they and their children are still called waishengren 外省人 and many have in recent years suffered sometimes brutal slings and arrows of DPP provincialism and parochialism. The dramatic import and the music combined in this work struck home, and many in the audience wept.

Lastly, 霓裳羽衣 proved a strange disappointment in the first part. The music and the musicianship of Wang Xinxin 王心心 were, as usual, unique and superlative. But like the disruptive ‘cello accompaniment in the Quanzhou folk opera “Mulian Saves His Mother (from Hell)”, the vocal centerpiece of Wang’s performance was disturbed and disrupted by the addition of a dumb-play where Tang Minghuang’s consort Yang guifei sits at her boudoir primping herself, attended by slow-motion ladies-in-waiting. To be sure, Wang’s lyrics describe the Lady Yang getting ready for her meeting with the emperor, the details of her garments etc. – but there was no need for the stage to be set in motion with that sort of meaningless pantomiming of the lyrics.

Wang Xinxin herself has a huge presence. She alone can fill the whole stage and far beyond, and her singing is enough to keep the audience entranced throughout. The superfluous mime-passages proved to serve as competition to the music, and caused the audience much distraction as they sought to get a better view of the actors, to see the details of their dress and hairdo – and thus lose the whole-hearted concentration on the music that should have been the sole object of attention. Wang’s music and her musicianship are both subtle and yet penetrating, and should be absorbed with one’s whole being down to one’s breathing.

The second part involved singing on the part of both Tang Minghuang and Yang guifei, in a lovely sequence where the couple wrote music and instructed court musicians in the performance of this their collaborative opus, and culminated in a very charming rendition of the new instrumental piece that ended the evening on a very positive note.

It looks from these exciting experimentations that our traditional arts have every chance of surviving into the future. The above examples of Taiwan’s musicians and dramatists today will go far in bridging the gulf from our forebears to our space-age descendants. Care must be taken however, when integrating traditional music with Western music, to preserve the basic aspects, or essential qualities of Chinese music whenever it may be invoked, and never to make the mistake of dressing it in a harmonic frame. Then we have the blessing of the ancient Chinese language (usually displayed with flash-cards on both sides of the stage). This is full of nuances and virtually any phrase can evoke even more ancient references and so, with this multi-layered linguistic base, Chinese musical theatre will certainly have a most brilliant future.




上雲藝術中心2008.12.27 – 2009.03.15


宇宙能量同源 萬物本為一體
成了彼此 就有了愛與所愛


灌溉了半睡半驚醒的 夜山
紅火泥湯 望大海流著 涼著

或浮雲腫腫 灰白的蒸汽
慢慢地往山頂飄著 途中忽然
被山頂吸引住了 往下沈降
緊緊地撫抱著樹木 花草 混亂為一

木炭煙的墨 草本的紙
筆沾飽了濃墨 沾飽了清水
緊緊地擁抱著 撫擦著各種角落作愛
一層再一層的墨吻 黑上焦 焦上漆
混亂中 原來細細的裂縫 扯開了
擴大了 吼轟著
露出了心裡最深處 那無限 永恆的白 無底的傷痕



Musing Planet: Li Ancheng Inkwash Painting Exhibition

Soaring Cloud Art Center 2008.12.27 – 2009.03.15
7 Fl, 11 Dayong Road, Yancheng District, Kaohsiung


by Joan Stanley-Baker (28 Dec. 2009)

Universal energy informs all beings and all things
Once I and Thou merge, Love and life are born

Love radiates all of the lover
onto the beloved
losing its self
as the beloved is transformed
into new life absorbing the lover

like magma roiling from the bowels of the earth
spewing up roaring flowers of fire
pouring down over the night hill, half asleep half startled
incandescent flushing lava rushing seaward red cooling
scribing a new landscape of black rocks and pumice stones

or white clouds swollen in their passage
floating gently toward the peak and abruptly
caught by the mountain’s cavernous fire descend
embracing the trees their branches and leaves
rocks and grasses all mixed into one
never again to be parted
and so as wafting clouds disappear
the new mountain top
breathes deep with black and white sparkles

and so in his painting, Li Ancheng
pours himself entirely into brush ink water and paper
with ink of charcoal, paper of fibres
bamboo brush large and small of various hairs
each one of them drunk on clear fresh water

Ancheng grips the brush
love grips Ancheng
as the universe grips love
the brushtip bursts with dark ink, the seeping water
plunging down into the half sleeping half startled paper
passionately embracing, caressing various zones in wordless love
spewing bursts of ink flowers into the skies
layer on layer of ink kissing jet black on black,
when suddenly
out of chaos the thin white seam bursts
stretching growing
howling anguish
from the depth of the heart
freeing the infinite scar
of eternal white

releasing agony that has no words
a life force without bounds

Triadic Cello In Chinese Music 中國音樂裡的三和弦大提琴

Letter to Mr. 陳樹熙 of the Taipei Symphony Orchestra 2008/09.05 – never answered

Dear Mr. Chen,

I address you as conductor of the Taipei Symphony Orchestra as you had so kindly invited me to do after the White Snake performance last Sunday where, by the way, the very jazzy drumming was a most pleasant addition to the otherwise too noisy and repetitious music. The extravagant production was to my mind rather overdone in non-essentials, losing the elegance of sparseness that has usually distinguished traditional Chinese opera productions.

This letter is about importing ‘cellists to “modernize” traditional Chinese music events. It is a disaster to hear the ‘cello doing arpeggios琶音in a triadic三和音 framework to music that is not harmonic和音式 but modal調式的.

I think each of the cellists I’d heard must have had only Western music training and is ignorant of non-harmonic world such as modal Chinese music.

Sadly, it seems that no one in the Chinese groups has trained them to read the traditional gongchi 宮尺notation of Chinese music. And none of the cellists I’d heard has shown the slightest sensitivity to modalities.

On the contrary, each has tried to twist the music of Kunqu崑曲, Nanguan南管, Beiguan北管 or Jingxi京戲into harmonic music和音式節奏 by obtrusively embellishing what they must consider finales or codas結尾, in outrageous flourishes of gliding or even using descending pizzicati 撥奏曲in dominant sevenths七和音. This is because they impose a harmonic西洋和聲音樂式的 resolution in tonic triads三和音. (Resolution “由不諧和音轉變為諧和音”是17世紀以來西方音樂的主柱)

In recent years that I have listened to various forms of Chinese operas I have been driven to distraction each time by the mindless cellists making obtrusive sounds like a “continuo” (巴洛克時期提供連續低音的大提琴), seeking resolution via entirely inappropriate notes like descending in si-la-so-fa-mi, ending a sixth below the last note of the voice. (NB, in endings, the last note sung is rarely really a “tonic do” in its Chinese mode but often a re or la wafting upward in reflex fashion from the more emphatic end note of do-re— or so-la—–.)
But ending a sixth below and setting up the virtual harmonics of a major triad in our ears is completely fallacious! It is reprehensible, even punishable! How can listeners have tolerated the intolerable so silently? Even the musicians themselves?

In all Chinese operatic forms a phrase is never ended in a big post-Bach harmonic triad in a bang, but a mellifluous modal, floating note with a delicious “left-over silence” 餘韻 reverberating in the air long after the last note has died down. Much as Chinese landscape hand scrolls, where islands end in spits over the waters on the left bathed in gentle wash, and the painting continues reverberating for a few inches in quiet breathing space – at least 4 bars worth in music! Never in solid triadic bangs!

Once during a Kunqu performance I nearly rose to shout “Kill the Cello!” Afterwards I approached the leader who said “Nowadays everyone believes we should add deeper sounds to make our music more compatible with the times.”

That is like saying, “Let’s put some heavy-weight chocolate ice cream into our酸辣湯 to make it more cosmopolitan or modern!” What nonsense is this??

Do these musicians only have voices, but not ears? May listeners with ears here seek a voice?

A perplexed and distressed fan
Joan Stanley-Baker

徐小虎 Joan Stanley-Baker MLitt DPhil Oxon
牛津大學博士 中國文化大學 駐校藝術家
11191台北市 士林區陽明山大亨路六巷15號
Artist in Residence, Chinese Culture University
Emeritus Professor, Tainan National University of the Arts
#15, Lane 6 DaHeng Road,Yangmingshan,
Shilin, Taipei 11191 ROC
T +8862 2861 6873 C +886(0)928370357

Only the Unbounded Mind is Infinite
for Once We Draw a Line
We Split our World Forever

A Glimpse of the Divine 敬中谷芙二子

For Nakaya Fujiko

Beauty’s but a glimpse
of the Divine
that sparks our very being
though oft in hiding

Art is Beauty
with or free of form
It lifts the soul
to heights inspiring

True art is experience
that lightens the heart
No series of objects
that weigh down a cart

A full life flows ever
illumined in beauty
to light the world within

The void life holds still
expensive collections
to dazzle those without


Joan Stanley-Baker
18 December 2009