High Mountain Flowing Water – theatre, poetry and music

Dong Fei - dancer | Gao Ping - piano | Wu Na - Qin | Evan Li - photographer

The Confucius Institute, Victoria University, Wellington, presents:
High Mountain Flowing Water (Gao Shan Liu Shui)

An ancient Chinese tale with guqin, piano and Kunqu opera
Music-drama settings of poetry ancient and modern

Gao Ping – piano
Dong Fei – actor/singer/dancer
Wu Na – guqin (qin)

Director: Sara Brodie
Visual design: Jon He
Text arrangement: Luo Hui
Production curated by Jack Body

Massey Concert Hall, Wellington

Wednesday, 22nd October, 2014

Encounters with exotic art-forms and performance-styles which are unfamiliar can have profound consequences – one thinks, for instance of the effect upon the composer Claude Debussy of the Paris International Exhibition of 1889 with its displays of art and music from places like Java, in particular the sounds made by the gamelan orchestra. Earlier the prints of Japanese artists such as Hokusai had reached Europe and inspired a whole generation of French and English painters to emulate the characteristics of Japanese art, an influence that extended to the art-nouveau movement of the early twentieth century. It was the sheer novelty and force of an encounter with a new tradition which both delighted creative people and caused simultaneous havoc with Euro-centrist sensibilities – and the process dealt a long-overdue body-blow to the hegemony of those over-familiar western traditions, a revitalization whose effects are still felt in artists’ work everywhere today.

Of course, even in the here-and-now one doesn’t have to be a creative artist to be shaken up by encounters with other cultures and their art-forms. In fact, such occasions can return the humblest of beholders to the tremulous realms of formative experience, no matter how seasoned or experienced a “normal” event-goer she or he might be. So it was with me at the Massey University Concert Hall on this particular evening, sitting amid the steeply-raked rows in darkness as if suspended mid-air, watching and listening to the work of the three on-stage performers, presenting an ancient Chinese tale “High Mountain Flowing Water”. The chiaroscuro of darkness and light powerfully focused my attentions upon the performers, and transformed my sensibilities at certain moments into those of a child’s, enabling the full force of delight and wonderment to flood through my opened doors and windows and set me awash with that precious excitement of reimagined reality, cut adrift from all expectation save for the unexpected.

For this was something quite out of the ordinary – a retelling of an ancient legend concerning a musician and a woodcutter, and what passes between them via the musician’s playing of the guqin (or, simply “qin”), an ancient Chinese 7-string zither-like instrument. It’s really an exploration of transference of understanding and empathy, using acts of music-making and -listening as metaphors for the process. Taking part in this theatrical retelling of a musical friendship, which the accompanying program note called “the shared spirit of understanding” was pianist Gao Ping, whose music is well-known to New Zealand audiences, having for a while been resident in this country, alongside Wu Na, an acknowledged “young master” of the qin, on which she was performing for the first time in New Zealand with this production.

With these two musicians was an actor/dancer/singer Dong Fei, an exponent of Chinese Kunqu opera, and who specializes in the traditional “Nan Dan” kind of operatic roles – those in which a male actor performs female characters. A sometimes collaborator with Wu Na in productions in China, he too was making his New Zealand debut with this presentation. His fully theatrical and exquisitely-appointed role, that of characterizing through speech, song and movement the full force of rapport between the cultured musician and the simple, intuitive woodcutter, made a profound impact of contrast with the austere, relatively neutral figures of both musicians, who spoke almost entirely through the sounds of their instruments.

The production was directed by Sara Brodie, whose stage-work I had encountered a matter of days previously in an entirely different theatrical context, that of “Don Giovanni” at Wellington’s St.James Theatre. “High Mountain Flowing Water” was certainly a different world, more in scale with works I had seen her direct in similarly confined places (Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Victoria University Memorial Theatre, and “Kreutzer Sonata” at Bats’ Theatre, for example), but still removed in a sense of style, gesture, language, music and overall ambience. Of course, the very human emotions displayed by the characters in the Chinese story had something of that universality with which one could readily connect, even if certain of the nuances remained, to an extent, behind a mask. As with learning a new language, literal meaning goes only so far – deeper currents of expression take longer to explore and even longer to understand.

What mattered most was that I was, along with others I spoke to afterwards, entranced by what I saw and heard. I’ve already mentioned the hypnotic effect of the lighting, which used simplicity and suggestiveness to direct our attention towards the significant places at which the drama unfolded, note by note, gesture by gesture, movement by movement, and silence by silence. From the very beginning a sense of ritual was all-pervading – a performer (Gao Ping) entering and making the motions of washing hands, after which came the sounding of a soft bell as a kind of summons or invocation, as much a sense of an unseen presence as anything else. Gao Ping the sat at the piano and played Ravel-like figurations which led beautifully into the first section of the work, Landscape, featuring three poems whose words described the scene and introduced its main players.

The English words of the poems were projected onto a screen as Gao Ping played – delicate and evocative at first, the music occasionally stepped outside its ritualistic mode, plunging for a short time into agitation and anxiety before recovering its poise and introducing a costumed figure turning around in the darkness as if free-falling in space, then transfixing us with his “Xiao Dan” (young female) falsetto voice, singing the poem’s words, which firstly describe the ambient world of the music-making and -listening rituals performed by the two friends – “Beyond the bamboo, the plane trees are dry….” the vocalizing haunting, with sharp timbres and a wide vibrato. This was Dong Fei, whose appearance was the stuff of dreams, a kind of exotic angel come down to earth, his arms fluttering like wings with the movements augmented by wondrously long sleeves, to almost hallucinatory effect.

Dong Fei spoke in his normal voice the words of the second poem (I confess, for me not as interestingly as with his “Xiao Dan” tones!), which characterized the stillness of the outside world and the tremulousness of the rapport between the seven strings of the gaqin, and the readiness of the ears and the heart of the player to explore the timeless quality of music-making – “The heart quiets the sound – in it, no difference between now and then….”. With the entry of the qin-player Wu Na, the dramatis personae lineup was completed – the words of the poem filled out the symbolism – “The qin player sits, resembling the qin: the listener the strings….” We sensed a moment of readiness, and it came with the first notes of the qin, making us even more aware of the concentrated focus of the player and the stillness of both singer/dancer and pianist/listener, as the instrument played its spacious, meditative music.

And so the stage was set for the extraordinary unfolding, via music from both qin and piano, and music with poetry from the singer/dancer, conveying the story – firstly the communion of playing and listening – “Not until today do I hear music….”, followed by the realization of the musician that his quintessential artistic partner has died – “My heart gone, without a trace / Tears pour down like rain….”, and most affectingly, the wordless (but still graphic) breaking of the qin and its strings, a gesture of existentialist despair, which an epilogue attempts to interpret in a more cosmic context of continuation.

My notes, scribbled in the dark, the phrases criss-crossed and overscored, tell me only of fragments of impressions along the way of this journey, frustrating to now try and decipher. What I remember are things like the gentle dance-like music from the qin in the “Not until today do I hear music” sequence, an ancient melody Liu Shui (Flowing Water) supposedly composed by the actual musician of the legend, Bo Ya himself. As a counterpoint to this the singer either turned dancer or vice versa, alternating the haunting “Xiao Dan” singing tones with sinuous movements sillhouetted against a screen. Gao Ping at the piano then joined with Wu Na’s conjuring of exquisite delicacies from her instrument, the intermingling sounds expressing that “famous first encounter” between musician and woodcutter.

I remember, too, the pianist doing different kinds of timbal adjustment to his instrument’s sounds, such as “dampening” his bass notes in conjunction with those of the qin, the tones resonating as much as initially sounding at first, but then changing character, as each instrument’s player allowed excitability to creep into the dialogue, exuberance growing from the communication in the most organic way. A more consciously symbolic act was that of dancer Dong Fei slowly, almost ceremonially “unwrapping” his body from a kind of winding sheet, beginning his circling peregrinations on one side of the stage and crossing to the other side, leaving behind a tremulously-quivering vertical wall of unwound fabric, a poised, beautifully-controlled sequence!

The instrumental combination really showed its range and mettle over the sequence “The One Who Knows My Name”, which described and delineated the growing joy and exuberance of both player and listener at their musical communion. With Dong Fei using his haunting “Xiao Dan” voice to recite the “Nothing, not this body, nor even the clouds” verses, the instrumentalists embarked on an extraordinarily varied exchange, beginning with soft, sitar-like slides from the qin and answering resonances from the piano, playing a measure behind (like a living echo – very effective!), then developing from these sounds a “walking” motif, underscored by more “doctored” bass notes from the piano. Slowly, the rhythms grew in strength and confidence, Wu Na’s playing becoming fiercely exultant, and Giao Ping’s response mirroring the fierce joy of the mood.

How dramatic and impulse-arresting a moment it was when everything stopped! – the piano sounded a few resonant notes, and the qin spoke in a disembodied kind of voice, with the use of a metallic stick applied to the strings, itself a kind of symbolic act of severing the human touch from the music-making. Dong Fei’s ordinary voice actually needed a bit more projection, here, more “quiet” emphasis, perhaps more gestural support for the hushed tones – but the projected on-screen words helped tell the story and convey the tragedy of the musician’s shock and despair – “My heart gone, without a trace – Tears pour down like rain…” – as did the desperate, grating sounds made by the metal on the strings of the instrument.

Portentous and agitated piano sounds summoned the dancer, moving like a disembodied spirit through the air, feet seemingly transformed into wings! The movements suggested to me a kind of injured bird coming to earth, accompanied by disoriented, aimless musical sounds, moving those long sleeves firstly as great feathered extensions, then as quivering, protective shields, displaying pitiful tremolandi of grief, all of which was caught and bound up in a frenzied whirling, as the music shouted and screamed aggressively, the instruments struck and beaten rather than played. This was the breaking of the qin, the silencing of the voice, the end of the perfect union, leaving only darkness.

Had we in the audience been left with nothing more at that point, our spirits would have taken some time to recover – however, from out of the gloom came the qin’s soft notes, echoing fragments of memory, reviving the fallen dancer/singer, who listened to the gently resounding qin notes and then, in a kind of Sprechgesang consisting almost entirely of glissandi, uttered the words of the final poem: – “Dressed in green silk, plucking in vain, I let my sorrow flow….” – the qin player continued to quietly “sound” the instrument strings as the singer’s “Xiao Dan” voice continued to the end – “….Never think that, after High Mountain Flowing Water, all bosom friends must part…” The darkness slowly enfolded the qin player, and, eventually, the music – here was closure, enough to cover and soothe the rawness of the life-wounds, both real and imagined.

It seemed to me that the spaces, the lighting, the screening of text translations, the placement of figures and of instruments, and the various movements were all used to work to the presentation’s best advantage. The overall pacing and ambience of the story drew us unerringly into a world wrought of both delicate sensibility and powerful emotion. I for one felt “captured” by what I saw and heard, right through to the story’s concluding silences.

I hope these poor, uninformed words can convey something to the reader of the unique character of my experience of “High Mountain Flowing Water”, as well as express my appreciation of the efforts of director Sara Brodie and the incredible “trio” of performers, Wu Na, Gao Ping and Dong Fei, who worked with her to produce something so distinctive and special.


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