Music For China, Soundstreams’ latest audible experiment, and the finale of their season last week, was nothing if not surprising. Both subtle and ostentatious, the night was a strange, pleasantly disorienting experience.
This performance was designed not only to bring the music of the Eastern and Western globe together but expose the audience to traditional Chinese instruments which “inhabit a sound world that is thousands of years old, but still vital and resilient enough to resonate in the 21st century,” as Soundstreams Artistic Director, Lawrence Cherney states. To bring it all together, they recruited the Chai Found Music Workshop (a group of Taiwanese musicians with a knack for peculiar hybrid-performances), nearly a dozen locally-known talents, and seven composers from various backgrounds. The result was an auditory experience so out of the ordinary that it’s bizarre nature overshadows the exceptional talent on stage in front of you.
From slow and ominous beginnings that create the feeling that you’re in a horror movie, to a sultry moment of peace brought on by the solo works of the CFMW’s Chen-Ming Huang on the erhu, you become the unsuspecting patron of a sudden booming orchestral melody, replete with unfamiliar intricacies. You are then quickly pulled back into the eerie place in which you began; picture wandering alone down a dark, decrepit hallway accented only by a subtle blue glow. By the time the ensemble rests their instruments, you’ve become so comfortable in this world that your ears reject silence and yearn for the sounds that started off feeling so uncomfortable. The sensation was repeated throughout the evening’s performances.
Music For China is currently touring in Asia and may never again be recreated here, and much like a dream you know you’ve had but can’t place, it’s hard to say exactly what happened. The gist is that the night was grand and at times terrifying. I’m a fan of bizarre, scary and wondrous film, but I’m hard-pressed to match the intensity of these compositions as the score to anything I’ve ever seen. Perhaps Naked Lunch, but not quite.
It’s not everyday that one gets the opportunity to be mesmerized by witnessing a conductor guide three musicians in one of the most disjointed songs you can imagine by moving her hands fluously through the air, but this was one. I found myself wondering if it was “traditional to play instruments non-traditionally in China” after Jiuan-Reng Yeh slapped the back of her zheng (or “laying guitar”) like a bongo drum. Similarly, when Canadian-born flutist, Leslie Newman, stopped between solos and yelped squeamishly as the rest of the ensemble played on, I wasn’t sure if I was hearing things; but realized about halfway in that the sounds actually worked with this composition. In written description these details may not sound like the bee’s knees, but in practice there’s a wonderful journey to be had in musical endeavors such as Music For China.
A special nod should also go out the fourth piece of the evening, Theseus, composed by R. Murray Shafer. Put in brief, listening to this performance was akin to corkscrewing through a tunnel of all of your worst thoughts backed by weeping violins. Except it’s anything but disturbing. It’s magical and epic.
Soundstreams has been putting on unique performances for 30 years now, and our brief experience of the past few months has been nothing-short of stunning. At Provocative Penguin, we’ve had three different authors cover their last three eclectic events who have pretty much said the same thing “I didn’t know what I was walking into”. At $25 a ticket, these nights which may seem high brow in description, are accessible for culture-lovers of all stripes and ages. Except kids. Kids are impatient. Leave them at home.
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Look out for PP’s feature on them before the next season starts in October!