CHINESE MYTHS CANTATA
About this work:
Commissioned by The Women's Philharmonic and Chanticleer, San Francisco, during the composer's residency as part of Meet The Composer's New Residencies program, which began in 1993. Major funding for the composition was provided by Meet The Composer, the Creative Work Fund, the San Francisco Art Commission, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, and the National Endowment for the Arts. The work is dedicated to Mr. Louis Botto, founder and Artistic Director of Chanticleer, the only full-time professional choir in the United States, for his great contributions to choral music and his dedication to the commissioning and performance of contemporary music, with the composer's deep admiration and respect.
The Cantata is scored for male choir, 2 flutes (doubling piccolos), 2 oboes, 2 B-flat clarinets (doubling E-flat and bass clarinets), 2 bassoons (2nd doubling C. Bssn), 4 French horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, Timpani, 3 percussionists, strings, and 4 Chinese traditional instruments: erhu (fiddle), yangqin (dulcimer), pipa (lute) and zheng (zither). Premier performances: June 14, 15 and 16, 1996 at the Center for the Arts Theater at Yerba Buena Gardens, San Francisco, under the direction of Maestra JoAnn Falletta, with Chanticleer, The Women's Philharmonic and the Lili Cai Chinese Dance Company participating in a staged performance.
The Cantata consists of three movements based on popular stories chosen from among the many Chinese Myths. The stories are: Pan Gu Creates Heaven and Earth, Nu Wa Creates Human Beings, and Weaving Maid and Cowherd. The cantata begins with a solo bass voice chanting "chaos" in English and Chinese. The other voices murmur a breathy motive formed by nonsense syllables (hei le wei zi yo hei-, ha) taken from Chinese folk working songs. There are asynchronous microtonal wriggles (mainly in the strings) representing dark chaos in the background, with occasional high and low sounds in the orchestra to enhance the haunted and stifled atmosphere. The music symbolizes the environment, which is in the shape of a large egg. The Pan Gu, an enormous giant, was being nurtured in the egg for more than 18,000 years, before the genesis of the universe. The music represents the slow and gradual development of the Pan Gu until the day he awoke and stretched himself, shattering his egg-shaped world into a chaos of pieces. After mammoth outbursts from the orchestra, high sounds are heard representing the pure, lighter elements that gradually rise up to become heaven. The low sounds represent the impure, heavier parts that slowly sink down to form the earth. The insistent brass section, representing Pan Gu, is supported by a motive sung by the choir. Pan Gu stood between heaven and earth and grew nine times a day for another 18,000 years in order to keep them completely separated. Now the music, led by the crescendoing brass, comes to the climax of the first movement. Pan Gu had grown extremely tall, standing between heaven and earth in order to assure that they would be securely established in their places for many more ages. Pan Gu then died, and the parts of his body divided to become the various elements of the universe: sun and moon, winds and clouds, mountains and rivers, trees and flowers...
In the wild, primitive world, there was a goddess named Nu Wa who had a human face and the body of a snake. She could transform her appearance seventy times in a single day. In the second movement, the ever-changing Nu Wa is represented by a complex body, formed by several dancers, and a compound motive played by a group of traditional Chinese instruments. Nu Wa was walking about and looking around, and suddenly felt very lonely. When she sat down by the edge of a pond, her face and body were reflected in the clear waters. She smiled and shouted, and her reflection responded by mirroring her actions. The music mirrors this scene, with groups of different instruments responding to the Nu Wa theme. Soon the goddess thought about creating living things like herself. She scooped up some mud, kneaded it with a little water, fashioned it into the shape of a human being and placed it down on the ground. As soon as the figure touched the soil, it came to life, just as the first human voice sounds from the choir. As many more humans are created, they cheer from many places, and the singers spread over the stage representing them. Nu Wa felt extremely tired from her hard work, so she thought of a way to mass produce humans. She dipped a long vine into the pond, swirled it around, and swung it through the air. When drops of mud spattered on the ground, they turned into many little people! She did this for quite some time, creating many groups of people. In the cantata, the singers encourage the audience to join in and recite the nonsense syllables "yo, yo, yo, yo", "yi, yi, yi, yi", "ye ye ye ye", "da-dei-jiong-dudududu...", or giggle and speak freely, to make a swirl of voices. The music attains another climax, this one involving the entire concert hall.
When the sound stops, the theater suddenly darkens. Projections on a screen show colorful clouds in the sky. Thus begins the third movement, Weaving Maid and Cowherd. The orchestra and the choir create an illusive and mysterious tone poem, symbolizing the beautiful clouds, woven by the Weaving Maid, the daughter of a celestial god. These clouds change colors according to the time and season of the year. On the west bank of the Silver River lived a Cowherd, who worked hard but was lonely. Guided by an enchanted cow, he snatched away the Weaving Maid's silk gown while she was bathing in the river, and convinced her to become his wife. After their marriage, the wife did weaving, the husband farmed the land and they lived a happy and loving life. When the celestial god learned of his daughter's marriage to a mortal, he ordered her brought back to heaven. When the Weaving Maid was abducted, the Cowherd gave chase to the banks of the Silver River, but the river had been raised up into the sky, along with his wife. With the cow's help, the Cowherd flew up to heaven and reached the Silver River, where the Weaving Maid was on the opposite shore. The Silver River suddenly widened and began to rage, making it impossible for anyone to cross. From then on, the Cowherd (Altair) lived in heaven on one side of the Silver River (Milky Way), and the Weaving Maid (Vega) on the other. They could only meet once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, on a bridge formed by all the magpies in the world. On stage, the Weaving Maid is set behind a remote screen and the Silver River is represented by dancers waving white silk. It is painful when people in love are kept apart. To end the cantata, the choir, standing among the audience, sings a sorrowful song, a setting of an anonymous poem from the Han Dynasty (206 B. C. - 220 A. D.):
Far, far away the Cowherd, and
Bright, sparkling, the Weaving Maid.
Lifting her dainty hands,
Weaving with the shuttles.
Yearning for her lover,
She could not concentrate to weave,
Shedding her tears like rain.
The Silver River is shallow and clear,
When can the two reunite again?
Separated by the limpid river,
Lovingly looking at each other,
They couldn't talk and meet.
(English translation by Chen Yi)
Version: Choir, orchestra, and four Chinese traditional instruments
Year composed: 1996
Ensemble type: Chorus, with or without Solo Voices:Chorus with Orchestra
Instrumentation notes: 2(Picc)22(Eb&Bcl)2(C) 4230 4 Perc Erhu Pipa Yangqin Zheng, Male Chorus, Str