A response to Between 8 and 9
by Andrew Fuhrmann
We are all settled. We are all waiting. The lights dim. There is an intake of breath. Then Melbourne-based musician Dr Wang Zheng-Ting begins to play. It is the sheng, a wind instrument with upright bamboo pipes that sounds like an accordion or pump organ. It is one of the world’s oldest instruments, dating back thousands of years, and yet this riffling, wheezy music has a peculiar timeless quality, so pensive and full of longing.
We are in a Chinese teahouse, sitting around eight large round tables, the audience and performers seated together, one performer at each table. Or rather this is a space that might be a teahouse. There is a legible resemblance. The tables are equipped with rotating trays and there are small tea trolleys where the performers store their musical instruments and new parts for the ever-changing sculptures installed on each of the trays.
From one of the world’s oldest instruments to one of its newest. As the last mournful notes of the sheng die away, Wang Shuai, a percussionist from the Sichuan Conservatory of Music and sitting at the table next to mine, strikes up. The hang drum is a kind of steelpan first produced in Switzerland in 2001. It is both a melody and rhythm instrument with a light but haunting pitter-patter sound, suggesting both eastern and western influences.
So this is how Between 8 and 9 begins, with two short solos. What sort of teahouse is this? What sort of meeting place? What is it which brings together these two instruments separated by so much culture and history? And what is the music between them?
From the table closest to the door, I hear a line of classical Chinese poetry. I can’t see who speaks the line, but Carolyn Connors, sitting at my table, echoes it. Now we have a feel for the flow of this dreamy new work. There is no centre, no single focal point. Lines of exchange crisscross the room, from performer to performer, implicating and involving the audience. The recitation continues:
The poem is 寻隐者不遇 or ‘Seeking but not Meeting the Master’, written by Tang Dynasty poet 贾岛 (Jia Dao, 779—843). In translation it reads:
Beneath a pine tree I ask a child.
The Master, he says, went to pick herbs.
He is alone on the mountainside, says the child,
deep in the clouds he knows not where.
Here we have a suggested landscape, a sense of place and a theatre described: not a teahouse, but a cloudzone, a place to get lost, or at least a little disorientated, a little turned around. In this place, meetings and recognitions are chance and never quite play out as expected.
Between 8 and 9 is the result of an international partnership between the Sichuan Conservatory of Music and Melbourne’s Chamber Made Opera. It was first presented in March 2017 as part of the inaugural Asia TOPA festival, with sell-out seasons in both Castlemaine and Melbourne. It can be read as an ambitious attempt to map artistic and creative affinities between two regional neighbours, an experiment in group composition, with four artists from Chengdu and four from Melbourne combining their multiple histories, influences, disciplines and creative preferences. And this mapping process is also a reflexive artistic practice. The map creates its own place, one which crosses existing practices; it creates an overlapping territory that both corresponds to and enables new collaborative inventions.
So we are in the Salon at the Recital Centre in Melbourne, one of a network of venues hosting artists from across Asia during the sprawling four-month festival. And we are in a packed teahouse, meeting new people, hearing new sounds. And we are on a clouded mountainside, a place hidden between eight and nine, the invented terrain of a unique collaboration.
We are, in any case, in a place of encounters. Two vocalists from the Conservatory, Kang Yan-Long and Zhu Hui-Qian, launch into the fragment of a romantic duet. They sing to each other from across the room, and it is as though we hear two lovers calling from on opposite sides of a deep abyss. Kang is a booming tenor with plenty of sweetness and buoyancy. Zhu’s powerful soprano stoops and climbs and climbs again. The clouds have parted for a brief moment. The lovers rejoice. Then Zhu’s voice drops away abruptly. The clouds, it seems, have again closed over, hiding each from the other’s sight. The lovers will have to wait.
There is much that is abstract and experimental in Between 8 and 9, but narrative scraps continue to surface. The lights dim and we hear the sound of crickets at evening. A large square block is placed on a circle of green material on the rotating tray at the centre of the table. Then a bluish pyramid is added. It is a cottage with a hipped roof. Eight little water lilies are added and three long sticks with magnets, arranged like a windmill pump. Is this the Master’s hermitage? And is that a mosquito we can hear? Carolyn Connors claps her hands. The whine of the mosquito stops. Then starts again. Clap. Clap. Connors is out of her seat dodging between the tables, clapping her hands. And all of a sudden it seems as if the room is being reconfigured, as if connections between the different tables are being reorganised.
Before we entered the Salon, venue staff gave each audience member a coloured card. On the back of each card is printed the name of a Chinese musical concept together with a definition provided by linguist Adrian Tien. The definitions are written in something called the Natural Semantic Metalanguage, a kind of reductive linguistic paraphrase that relies on a handful of basic concepts common to all languages. On the back of my sky blue card I find the following definition for 無聲 (wúshēng: noiseless or silent):
a. sometimes someone can’t hear anything with his/her ears [m]
b. when people think about some things,
they can hear something not with their ears [m]
c. they can hear it in another way.
The concepts and their definitions are taken from Tien’s book The Semantics of Chinese Music: Analysing Selected Chinese Musical Concepts. At first glance these definitions seem like enigmatic parables. Toward the middle of the performance, Carolyn Connors sings :
Sometimes someone can think like this:
“it is not like this:
something is moving in this place now
because of this, I can’t hear anything in this place with my ears now
maybe I can hear something in another way”
sometimes someone can think like this:
“I am doing something to something now
because of this, I can hear something in this place
if I want to hear …”
Tien is fascinated by the way in which traditional Chinese interpretations of music dwell on the inaudible or barely perceptible compositional elements: the silences, the rests and pauses and notes not played, as well as muted or indistinct sounds. The words that Connors sings here are Tien’s paraphrase of two distinct musicological meanings for 靜 (jìng: still, calm, quiet or tranquil).
One of the great fascinations of this trans-cultural experiment is the way it makes audible existing flows of influence and innovation. Here, for example, we can hear the connection between a specifically Chinese idea about music and its approximate correlative in contemporary western composition. Connors sings the words as a slow chant-like melody over the droning of trumpet and sheng, a spare and somehow lonely sound that recalls the minimalism of Laurie Anderson and Meredith Monk.
Out of the stillness the sound of Guo Si-Se’s erhu unfurls, at first solo and then with drums and a compulsive synthesizer bass line played by Madeleine Flynn, driving us relentlessly toward — an interval.
The lights go up and tea served. The earthy aroma of buckwheat imported from Chengdu wafts through the room. We are drinking – I am told – the embryo of the buckwheat: its essence. Connors plays the accordion with Tim Humphrey on trumpet while we drink and talk; it is a Chinese teahouse but it might also be a European coffee house. Now we have a chance to compare cards and discuss the musical concepts described on the back. Not that conversation leads to clarification. The reductive nature of the Natural Semantic Metalanguage gives the definitions a strange larval quality: they might be made to mean anything, if the conversation goes on long enough. They are like Zen Koans, provoking doubt and leading us further into the clouds with the promise of a revelation that is always deferred.
Conversation, conversation. As well as talking, we also have a chance to look around and to examine more closely the unique conversation pieces installed on the rotating trays. These sculptures, designed by Anna Tregloan and manipulated by the performers, are based on the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio. What is the relationship between mathematical concepts and the attempt to shape a new artistic language based on reconciling Chinese and European aesthetics? Circles, arrows and lines at various angles, printed in different colours, criss-cross the surface of the rotating trays. I am reminded of the way that mathematics cuts across cultural difference: the golden ratio is the same for all, an exact value in the one true universal language.
But these diagrams also have a purely aesthetic appeal. They could be notation for the sleekest kind of choreography, full of clean lines and acrobatic leaps. Or do the arrows tracing out a logarithmic spiral form a complex of spike marks on a tiny stage, a guide for the placing of the eight spindly magnet sticks that are constantly being rearranged? During the performance we are invited to intervene in the process of miniature scene creation and spin the tray for ourselves, the magnet sticks trembling and dipping with each new thrust.
Again, the lights dim and the show continues. Between 8 and 9 is a group creation, with all the performers working together in a collaborative process guided by Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey. Its basic dynamic is the movement between highly focused individual demonstrations and busier ensemble movements. These more restless ensemble pieces are like a tangle of impulses resolving the aural space between disparate musical ideas. This is an art of spontaneous, co-generative forms, where connections are improvisations and chance meetings. The master is out, but there is still an encounter, a conversation.
Kang Yan-Long gets to his feet and sings, his soulful, yearning voice belted over our heads as we clutch at our tea cups. We hear his voice echoed briefly through a network of speakers and microphones placed under each table, another layer of sonic interest to a work that is already compelling on multiple levels. As he finishes, there is a rustling of drums and strings and soft piping voices. It could be movement in the trees or a long inhalation, the sound of things starting over. This is that same compositional pattern: chapters of stillness and chapters of movement. Here I am reminded of the ancient Confucian contrast between 靜 (jìng) and 動 (dòng), between movement and stillness. Tranquillity is the origin of all motion, and where there is motion there must also be tranquillity. This is the inexhaustible wonder of Between 8 and 9, the emergence of new themes in the layering and interweaving of stillness and movement, a multiplicity of transformations and enthrallments.
A finale for the singers: the sopranos first, Carolyn Connors and Zhu Hui-Qian; then Kang Yan-Long. It is the sound of ghosts receding, disappearing back into indeterminate clouds of potential. A connection has been made, but not fixed. Now it is relaxed. Nothing is permanent. A final stillness settles over the audience.
No, not final. The possibility of new transformations and new combinations remains. The Chengdu Teahouse Project continues beyond this performance. There will be new encounters, new collaborations, new intimacies, and the stillness will again give way to movement. We are all settled. We are all waiting.
This essay was commissioned by Chamber Made as part of our ongoing commitment to creating dialogue about our work that extends deeply and broadly beyond the performance season.