Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The First Emperor

The opera" The first emperor"'s plot evolves around one thing- "the national anthem" of Qin, the first united dynasty of China. In this post, I would like to focus solely on "Qinqiang", an ancient Chinese musical style, which is used in the opera along with western style liberatti.

Qinqiang, is the representative folk Chinese opera of the northwest Province of Shaanxi, China. The area was called "Qin" thousands of years ago. The word "Qinqiang" itself means "the tune of Qin". The genre uses an percussion object called" Bangzi", which resembles a woodblock as an accompanying instruments. Qinqiang stories tell about mostly, wars, resistance against invaders and suppression. They are often really straightforward, humorous, and sincere.

It has a living value, because it's not thoroughly analyzable in its forms, which admit of the utmost variation both structurally and tonally, in spite of all the rules that are laid down. Most importantly, the individuality is respected. It seems to me that, though the Tan Dun as the composer, know the rules governing the combinations of neumes, the organic basis of each theme, the relations of movements between themes, the order, number and relative importance of themes and meters and the larger and smaller divisions of the music, in actually composition, he is guided much more by a subconscious knowing ledge of all these principles.
The place of rules in their effect upon Tan's melodic composition, may be compared with that of the rules of harmony and counterpoint in western music. In each case it is necessary to relegate the rules to the subconscious in actual composition.

Some critics stated that "there's not a single memorable song"; the songs seemed random, almost unharmonized to them. I disagree. I think Tan really understands the freedom of Qinqiang music(or ancient Chinese music in general). The presence of harmonic unrest and repose lies in many of his compositions in this opera, with a large number of both primary and secondary neumes maybe substituted one for the other, while the flow of the melody, even where not strictly following the the neume forms, contains a contour of rising, falling and level lines that agree with the original idea of the combination of movement units. It is also evident that his limitless choice of tones and "positions" of movements in applying a tonal superstructure to neumes, and use of all types of scales.

The songs in the opera reflect Chinese ideas in art principles: "Perfect music first shapes itself accordig to a human standard; then it follow the lines of the divine, then it proceeds in harmony with the five virtues; then it passes into spontaneity." (translated from "Zhuangzi", a Chinese Classic literature Manuscript".

From the time of the great philosopher Confucius(551-479 BC, 300 hundred years before Qin Dynasty ), music took a new extension and was considered one of the Six Fundamental Factors in Education(respect, music, sportsmanship, charioteering, literature and mathematics). This place of honor for Music had a great influence in China for many centuries. Confucius, who lived at a period of warring states, felt that it was only through music that one could find peace and unity. This was the"supreme harmony" he had in his mind. There should be harmony at home, harmony between families, and harmony between the emperor and the people.

Music was also indissolubly bound up with the morality of the people. In the Western world, music was also an essential part of Greek education. Solon held that music would give the Athenian youth moral sturdiness and an ordered mind. When a country is troubled, , the music of it is disturbed and tormented. When a country is decadent, its music is sad and anxious. Plato actually gave the same opinion as Confucius that music affected considerably the constitution of the State.

Well, I wonder if the Chinese music nowadays reflect the state and position of China, as described in Confucius' theories.I suppose the present and future of Chinese music lies entirely in the hands of Chinese. In this age when time and space are no longer obstacles to a freer communication of ideas and intermingling of cultures, and when everything is being revalued, the best points of one culture should be appreciated and absorbed by another. Among Chinese musicians today, there are conservatives and liberals. There are those who want to retain ancient Chinese in its purest form, considering Western music a menace, and there are those who consider that Western music is the only thing, because they are dissatisfied with a music that has not developed beyond the stage of pure melody into beauties and complexities of harmony and counterpoint. And of course, there are those, like Tan, who aim at choosing the middle path of maintaining the best and incorporating the new, which I think, is a point of view that will supersede the others.

Chinese music, as known, tend to be composed purely of melody, rhythm and form,without any harmony or counterpoint. The nearest approach to counterpoint is the blending together of two versions of the same melody resembling, in a way "Florid descant" of western music, a form used mainly between the 12th and 16th centuries, which was later gradually displaced by counterpoint as the development of music advanced. For this reason,, Western music with its superior development along harmonic, contrapuntal and orchestral lines, with definite sciences in these directions, is exerting a marked influence in chinese music scene. Take myself for example, I learned to play piano and jazz drums since I was a child, and it wasn't until I went to college that I picked up "Guqin"(a chinese zither like musical instrument.)It was because nearly all the schools in china teach only western music. Another reason is perhaps that the
existence of any art or conscious system of musical composition among the Chinese has either been denied or wholly unrecognized during modern political and literary movements in China, such as the"culture revolution".

I am hoping that, one day, there may be a national Chinese school of music, in the sense that school means a distinctive syle of expression. It will exclude all those who, over-weighted with a Western musical education, are almost completely unable to express themselves in any but a purely western idiom and style. Those who have little, or no practical acquaintance with Chinese instruments miss some of the most characteristic expressions of style in Chinese music and are hasty and unwise in advocating a wholesale adoption of western musical instruments in spite of several points of superiority in the latter. I believe, as Vaughan Williams once said," Any school of National Music must be fashioned on the basis of the raw material of its own national song."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

In the Heights

The musical “In the Heights” is characteristically classical in structure, adhering to traditional unities of time, place and action, while maintaining a fast, almost non-stop pace. The story bursts with naturalistic reality and the musical and dance performances offers views a direct and powerful encounter with the play writer's thinking in a Nuyorican’s world view. It’s a stark universe peopled with characters who represent “types”: family, freedom, proud, doubt.

After the theater lights dim, without an immediate overture, the onstage actions started, showing Graffiti Pete spray-painting on to the awning of a bodega owned by Usnavi, as a foreshadowing. Then the first song “In the Heights” kick-starts the plot and communicates the spirit of the score and the staging, and together with dances, shows Usnavi opening his bodega and talking to the major characters and neighbors. This song sets the tone for the whole show and starts the “storytelling” process by attracting audience’s attention right away.

As the play progresses, the characters reveals their problems, motivations and inner desires one by one: Nina struggles at college, so are Nina’s parents at their business. Usnavi likes Vanessa. Vanessa wants to escape to a studio in the West village. Each confession was a song. The story unfolds primarily in three lines simultaneously: the first line revolves around the relationships between Nina, her parents and Benny. Despite the biased conflicts, they always have hope for the ones they loved. The second line reveals the subtle love tension between Usnavi and Vanessa; neither one would admit his/her affection towards the other. The third line focuses on Abuela Claudia, and her emotion towards winning the $96,000 lottery.

The climax is reached in the end of Act I when the “blackout” happens and fireworks explodes in the sky. In the darkness, everyone starts to reflect and truly express him/herself. Noticeably, at the moment of great dramatic intensity came the dance performances, accompanied by breathtaking lighting effects. The falling actions began when Abuela dies. In grief of her, everyone finds his/her own destination. Usnavi pursues his dream of going back to Dominican Republican to start a new business, Nina decides to go back to Stanford with her whole family’s support and Vanessa finds her way to her dream apartment with the help from Usnavi and the salon owner Daniela. Though, worries still exist: the new couples, Nina and Benny, Usnavi and Vanessa, now face having long distance relationships. In the end, a powerful closing song “Finale” wraps up the show’s plot, unveiling Usnavi’s final realization, upon his seeing the graffiti mural of Abuela, that deep in his heart, his roots are in this barrio.

Latino immigrants’ struggles for identity in New York City are expressed throughout the play, addressing cultural and social conflicts and assimilations. Usnavi and Nina as second-generation immigrants, grow up in an all-Latino barrio in New York City in a mixed American-Hispanic culture. Yet they, along with Nina’s parents and Abuela, the first-generation immigrants, are still in the process of adapting to a new way of life. They are struggling to find their identities and adjust themselves to new forms of cultures and social interactions; Nina tries hard to fit in Stanford, while Usnavi wants to go back to Dominican Republic to escape from the difficulties.

Culture is the sum of the ways of believing, thinking, feeling and behaving, which make up a person’s life. “To be a man” is an important consideration for many male individual, but what constitutes “being a man” in one society is different from what constitutes it in another. For instance, in the culture of Puerto Rico, being a man means having a keen sense of one’s inner worth as an individual, exercising authority firmly over wife and children in a home; respect proper respect from people younger than oneself; manifesting fidelity to deep family loyalties and a preference of family over others. That is exactly how Kevin, Nina’s dictatorial father is portrayed. He sold the business without telling other family members, as a firm exercise of authority, for which it would be praised in former environment, now is just a ridicule.

If culture consists of patterns of interaction, society is the actual interaction; it is the people acting according to commonly accepted values, norms, objectives and meanings. The United States is(ideally), an open class society with equal opportunity for everyone to advance to that position to which his ability and effort entitle him. The central value of the culture is the value of the individual and this culture set out to release the individual from all bonds of class, family, or race which would hinder him from developing him/herself fully and reaching the level which he deserved, that is, the phenomenon of advancement through education, business success and so on. In a Puerto Rican society, however, this is not the case: people are born into their class and has no expectation of changing. This contrast is brought up when Kevin sings that his father used to slap him for not wanting to be a farmer. Therefore, it explains when Kevin enters an open class society with upward mobility, he becomes aware that he and his family have the chance of being accepted by others as an equal in earning a better living and supporting Nina’s education.

After all, this musical “In the Heights” has a traditional and effective dramatic structure. Its address of social and cultural issues was an inseparable part of its plot and character portrayal. What is more important, it gives all audiences an opportunity of self-reflect.