Ming + Bauhaus: Tan Dun’s Water Heavens

zhu(Zhujiajiao village. Credit: Alexandru Velcea)

Composer Tan Dun: Raised in rural Hunan, rusticated by the Cultural Revolution. Joined a traveling Peking Opera as a teen. Eventually, Columbia fellowship and prominence in atonal music. Today he’s avant-garde and massively popular (Grammy; Oscar for “Crouching Tiger” score). We heard an astonishing Tan Dun piece recently by the Shanghai String Quartet. Wildly varied and dramatic, noisy shamanistic ritual cries and bangs from the sounds of his childhood. Last week, his”Water Heavens,” for strings, vocals and water, opened at a new venue–called Water Heavens, too–built for him.

It incorporates monks’ normal evening chants (at a monastery on the opposite riverbank) and musicians splashing in the canal water. It’s in ‘water village’ Zhujiajiao (photo above), one of the canal- and riverside towns on the outskirts of near Shanghai, along the Qingpu River’s path to the sea–insanely beautiful, well-preserved, highly touristed, miraculously intact.

The space began as a Ming-era house. Add a “lower story reminiscent of an industrial space fashioned after German Bauhaus style… The stage is partly submerged in water, and as musicians rock their bodies and move their feet while they play, the sound of splashing water becomes part of the performance” (Shanghai Daily.com ). The river itself flows into, through, and out of the hall, which becomes another instrument.

water palace

Credit: Tandun.com

“The combination of the Chinese Ming house and German Bauhaus styles, as well as the contrasting sounds of water, iron and other natural elements, completes my architectural music wonderland,” Tan told Shanghai Daily reporter Zhang Qian.

Tan Dun’s major works include operas (“Marco Polo,””Nine Songs” –with 50 original ceramic instruments created for the piece), the Beijing Olympics ceremonies music, and a symphony for the 1997 transfer of Hong Kong using tomb bells cast about 2,500 years ago. Theatrical, often watery, combining Western canonical and Henanese folk. The sounds of nature, a Taoist influence. China’s reanimation of extinguished religious life is subtle (hiking holy mountains for “exercise”; secret often Korean Christian missionary potlucks, popular among youth) but it’s there.

“My ultimate goal for Water Heavens,” he said of the piece, which has scheduled an open-ended run, “is to create a space where music can be seen and the architecture can be heard.”

(The architects were from Japan’s Isozaki Studio, with offices in Beijing and Barcelona.)

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Resident in NJ: Shanghai Quartet

shanghai quartet

Dazzled by a Shanghai Quartet concert, A Night in Ancient and New China — more about what that means in a sec. Proud it’s our “quartet-in-residence” at Montclair State, the university down the block. (“Resident” artists in Beijing and Shanghai too…OK, we’ll share.)

shanghai quartet the men

Their playing gets called “pitiless,” “ferocious,” “charged,” “aggressive.” We heard the intense premiere of a new “Raise the Red Lantern“(1991)  film score (trailer here; it’s got everything: historic setting, sex and violence, Gong Li) revised by the composer Zhao Jiping’s son. (The father also scored “Farewell My Concubine.”) That was China new. Ancient: traditional folk pieces featuring pippa (lute) virtuoso Wu Man, pictured at top — two members knew her, as children in a Beijing music boarding school. She played Kazakh folk tunes, apparently popular in the ’60s; ancient Central Asian nomads are believed to be the original source of the pippa. You hear hoof beats, feel the openness of the steppe, as in Mongolian folk music (China’s bluegrass — having its moment when we lived in Beijing).

The Shanghai Quartet cross genres and geographies. My favorite piece was a shamanistic Tan Dun composition, “Ghost Opera (Chamber Version)” — more on Tan (his latest work puts musicians knee-deep in an ancient canal) soon. Meantime, have a listen or a watch:

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Soulful Mongolian Horsehead Fiddle

Mongolian horse head fiddle

We saw Arga Bileg perform — a Mongolian orchestra fused with piano jazz — at the Asia Society last night. The orchestra included three horse head fiddles (above), a magical instrument that emits a horse’s cry.

Legend says a shepherd once received a flying horse he rode each night to his lover. But a jealous rival cut off the horse’s wings. After  it died, in his grief, the shepherd made the first horsehead fiddle in its honor, and all day and night, played poignant songs about — not the lover he wouldn’t be able to see, but his horse. Another fiddle legend says a wicked overlord killed a little boy’s favorite white horse. The white horse’s spirit then appears in the boy’s dream, telling him, ‘Make an instrument out of my body so we’ll always be together.’ And he does.

In both stories, the fiddle sound box is stretched with horse’s skin, its strings are made from horse hair, and horse bones become the fiddle neck. And of course, the scroll is the beloved horse’s head. I’m not an expert, but there are such lutes, of trapezoidal sound box, all around Central Asian steppes – Tuvan, Kazakh, Kyrgyz.

Our guide in Innner Mongolia played it, and also played horse head fiddle on mP3. Talk about great driving music. It is hauntingly beautiful. But only last night did I hear horsehead fiddle accompanied by throat singing. That’s when the singer attains two tones at once – a sound that seems to come from another planet. Imagine that under an uninterrupted bowl of stars on the empty steppes.

In China, we heard another artist perform Mongolian fusion: Sa Ding Ding, a half-Mongolian pop star they call “the Bjork of Asia.’ She acvtually shared the bill with the Black Eyed Peas at a U.S.-China friendship concert the embassy sponsored. She also sings in Tibetan and Sanskrit.

Sa Ding Ding, Chinese ethnic pop influenced by Tibetan Buddhism.

Mongolian folk rock is kind of hip in Beijing. (Someone called it “Chinagrass” i.e. bluegrass, in English). We heard some at an outdoor Beijing indie music festival. Hanggai may be the biggest group; apparently they were Beijing punk rockers who heard throat singing one day, sparking an interest in their (mostly lost) Mongolian heritage.  Now Mongo-rock is part of the scene. Like the folk music we heard in Mongolia, like the Mongolian-jazz fusion we heard last night, Hanggai is also often mournful, open-sky plaintive. This is Hanggai. And this is their best known song, I believe an updated folk song, “Xiger, Xiger.” It’s also here. Like many Mongolian songs we’ve heard, it alternates between fast and slow. When the tempo picks up, a horse begins to gallop.

There is loss and longing here. After witnessing the desecration of the grasslands in Inner Mongolia, the ever-worsening disappearance of language and culture as resource-rich area is mined and settled and overtaken, it’s impossible not to read that into this music.

Being global, it wasn’t only Mongolians in NYC giving a hollering standing ovation to Arga Bileg last night, but a typically varied NYC audience, appreciating the sounds of one of history’s greatest peoples, keeping its culture alive.

NOTE: Thanks for the horse head fiddle pic to an English teacher in Mongolia called “Jim” who writes the Wandering the World blog.  The instrument is found elsewhere (like E. Europe); in Mongolian it’s called morin khuur. In Chinese, matouqin – 马头琴.

Sax Man

By Kenny
Throughout the years learning an instrument, everyone wants to perform something. They want to show off what they learned. That’s why they created the recital. At British School of Beijing, there was a recital Thursday night. I had been practicing for the recital for months. I had to give up rugby (against my own will). I practiced and practiced with many hard struggles on the way there (like breaking my finger and delaying my practicing for 3 weeks). Even disobeying the doctor who said I couldn’t play — for the love of the saxophone, even though it might’ve hurt a little bit to play. But I still did it for the love of the instrument. I performed twice. Once alone with a piano accompaniment, and once with the orchestra (a big band).

The day before the concert I went in the first 2 periods of the day and started practicing and thought, ‘Oh no, I’m screwed, I can’t keep up with the piano, he’s going too fast, I don’t know when to start, I’m gonna embarrass myself.’

With an hour to the performance I’m practicing insanely hard with the piano. Playing with a piano’s really hard. When the concert started the flute, piano, trumpet ensemble played. first My friend and I were in the dressing room when in the trumpet ensemble played. I said to him, “Aren’t you in the trumpet ensemble?” He runs over and looks. Luckily for him he had a solo later in the orchestra.

Ten acts later was my solo performance on the tenor sax, with the piano, a piece called “Dark Light” (composed by Mike Nock). I hear the piano, I start going…I see friends in the theater watching me. In the middle, I see a mistake: I had arranged the pages in the wrong order, instead of 1,2,3,4 it went 1,2,4,3. I had to flip a page and go back. Luckily it was only 2 seconds. It went very well.

I had one more performance, the wind orchestra. We start with “Funkytown.” Everyone was liking the song. Since I’m a tenor sax I was playing the bass part. Towards the end of the song I had a solo. It went really well. There are 3 saxophones in that piece, me and 2 friends. Our band’s very big. There are maybe 11 clarinets, 13 trumpets and 7 flutes. The next piece was the theme from “The Simpsons.” That went well but I always get lost at one part. Luckily I got lost for about 8 seconds but I know where to catch up. That’s when my solo is. Our final piece was “Firework” by Katie Perry. It starts out with the clarinets, then saxophones and then flutes and trumpets come in.

I felt really good and it was definitely worth it. The sound was beautiful.

Earlier in the day, to get ready, my music teacher Ms. Joyce Liu, from Guanxi province, says, “Kenny, you need more practice. Come here another hour to play.” After an hour I still can’t do it, but I’ve gotten better. But I’m still falling behind a little & I’m really worried. To get my mind off it I dyed my hair blue, stuck my hair up, and put on some sunglasses and a backwards hat and made my way down to the house music competition.

At the local barbershop, my new faux-hawk

My house, the blue house, Romans, (color like Ravenclaw) were in 3rd place. We needed to win this to get close to winning the house cup. The Key Stage 3 (middle school) Romans team, about 20 of us, start out by singing a song from The Avengers movie, which makes us sound like a team. There’s a lot of tension, we’re all standing in a straight line in a military position. In a few seconds “Party Rock Anthem” goes on. We all start doing a shuffle in a messy order. Then we started dancing, clapping our hands, jumping up and down as the music goes on. Then comes a friend onto the stage wearing a box on his head, dancing. We got
a huge round of applause and the judges started clapping. Our next solo artist was a student piano player who’d played on CCTV and gotten interviewed. Luckily, she was in the Romans house. She played a beautiful classical piece that almost made me cry. The final score…We won the cup for the third year in a row!

Revealing Student Journalism

Final papers, read aloud over pizza, for appreciation, not critique. “Spoken-word performance”-style, over 4 hours with food & drink (my normal U.S. seminar length, unheard of here). Some students needed help projecting their voices. Great work again, some ‘Reporter’s Journey’-type experience stories, and interrogations/explorations of trends and youth countercultures that reveal some of the fissures in China today.

Betty lived in tight quarters for a story

A graduate degree from a top Beijing university won’t get you your own flat. Betty’s final showed life in bunkbeds, 7 to a small apartment (1 bathroom) after grad school.

Li Xueman explored troubling junkets for journalism students

Alina’s story shows Christianity’s pull for youths, being spread by Korean missionaries at “house churches” with singing and guitar, and cozy potluck dinners. Other hot trends: becoming a body guard at Israeli-run training camps; hating doctors (doctors have begun to bear the brunt of patients’ anger at a sick healthcare system–some doctors have even been violently attacked in hospitals). Another Israeli motif came up in Lei Hou’s story on the chutzpah of an instructor who’s brought Krav Maga, a technique born in an Eastern European Jewish ghetto, to china, home of martial arts. China maybe didn’t need another martial art! But Krav Maga is simpler, quick to learn, effective, and requires no meditation.

Patients are venting anger on doctors, already hard pressed by the same troubled system, Tracy writes.

One student went in search of where her e-waste goes. But a neighborhood once was home to recyclers (peddlers whose kids climbed on old electronics leaking poison) is gone…Is e-waste is down thanks to buy-back programs? It’s not clear.

Wang Fei looks at the allure of becoming a mogul’s body guard

A piece on MayDay, the Taiwanese pop sensation with 10 million online fans, shows how even after 2 decades, they’re still inspiring China’s young people with ballads about “nobodies who overcome obstacles.”
And one student describes a series of luxurious junkets she took, organized by the Propaganda Ministry for j-school students. It’s a clear-eyed look inside a media system where “only the rich and powerful have a say.” She concludes: “This will cripple our nation.”

Editors Take Note: Amazing Youth-Culture Stories

Carlotta, who lived in Cuba, fluent in 3 languages, covered migrant street musicians.


Writers Workshop today, my grad students shared final pieces. Wow:
–Black-market drivers’ licenses, China’s deadly, open secret. Great police sources.
–Part-time heavy metal rockers, because being full-time counterculture is a luxury in a nation where the single child is obliged to care for parents, and if married, two sets of parents. Subtle, fascinating. Written by Qu Song, who’s here:

China’s rockers must meet family obligations while pursuing music.


Of note: one of China’s first (if not the first) rock band was out of this university, Beijing Foreign Studies U., mid-’80s.
–My Buddhist Week-end. A student experiences Buddhism during a retreat at a nearby temple, nearly destroyed in the Cultural Revolution, reopened 7 years ago and thriving, especially attracting young Chinese. Written by Celina, who’s a true skeptic, so it feels like something when she reads about lighting incense at the end.

–The rise of China’s English interpreters. Though demand is exploding, and there’s a sense their lives are glitter and glam, it’s really the opposite. They’re the bridge, the middlemen China’s boom would be impossible without. Yet they’re treated like — well — crap, mostly. Dong does a masterful job on it.

Dong covers the woes of simultaneous interpreters, lynchpins in China’s high-flying business deals.


–Young intellectual elites, desperate to leave China. We’ve heard about the Party children granted the privilege of study abroad. But not so much about the highly-educated yet ordinary Chinese youth, an intellectual elite, who are tired of the bribery to get ahead, the need for constant flattery, the uncertainty if you’re not well-born, the lack of rules. Chen Lin boldly dissects the trend of those desperate to go somewhere else by focusing on young Chinese expats and would-be expats to Australia.

Cheng Lin (L) and Pu Ge (R) during our last-class workshop


We also heard fabulous stories on the lomography cult, how electronica sets Beijing youth free, on Chinese young people going to live in Seoul as K-Pop groupies, on the African minority community and the discrimination they experience in Guangzhou’s so-called “Chocolate Districts,” on young graduates seeking the “Iron Bowl” (government jobs).

Jean explained how Beijing electronica parties every night (+ a festival each summer) set young people free.


Sophia did a profile of an impoverished rural girl with 3 years of schooling who heard on TV (at age 21) about a Beijing boarding school for rural girls, applied, got in, was the star, got a college scholarship, and how is the head teacher there, inspiring young women to follow her. We heard from Ashley about the hard life of China’s geriatric care aides, untrained, unlicensed, yet relied on by working families–including her own–who can’t give their elders round-the-clock care.

Rhine, a member of the Lomo subculture, covered it beautifully.


I am so goddamn proud of them. I teared up. Hate to have to go…

One group of about 20 down, two more to go.

Dr. Ho, David’s Qi, and Ezra Pound

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, 15,000'


Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (15,000′) is holy to the Naxi (“nashi”) people, whose priest lives up there, with a tourist chairlift. The Naxi, a matriarchal Chinese minority related to Tibetans, traditionally worship the spirits of rocks, rivers, and especially this mountain, which grows some 500 healing herbs, many unknown elsewhere (also: 300 different rhododendrons).

In this botanical wonderland east of the Himalayas, in China’s southwest Yunnan province, David had a consultation with the famous village healer, Dr. Ho, a figure of great cross-cultural interest. “I was raised by Christian missionaries,” Ho told the Daily Telegraph, (in one of many news stories). “But there were many other religions, too – Muslim, Buddhism, Confucianism and Naxi.”

Tibetan monastery near Baisha, Lijiang

In 1986, Bruce Chatwin wrote a travel piece in the Times which made Ho, and his clinic in Baisha, a tiny mountain village at 8,000′, something of an international legend. Chatwin was fascinated (as we were, as everyone would be) with the Naxi: “Their religion is a combination of Tibetan Lamaism, Chinese Taoism and a far, far older shamanistic belief: in the spirits of cloud and wind and pine,” Chatwin wrote.

Shamanism didn’t go over well with the Red Guards. Ho lost everything (but his herbal–a 19th-century edition of The Book of Flowers–buried safely under his floorboards) to attacks and round-ups during the Cultural Revolution. His books were burned and he was thrown in prison.

Times are way better now. He treats visitors from everywhere for donations, and locals for free. We went initially hoping to find something for altitude sickness. We were welcomed into his cluttered home office, attached to a storage room with big jugs of powdered herbs, roots, and mountain flowers. He sat David down and began a consultation concerning his habits, aches and pains, and lifestyle and well-being.

Dr. Ho's herbal medicine storeroom

David would prefer to start this blog post this way:

“What I love is, in Baisha (Dr. Ho’s village, part of Lijiang), among innumerable Buddhas, shawls, tablecloths, time pieces, wandering dogs and free-range chickens, there is but one Dr. Ho. Perhaps 2 — his son, who is practicing to replace him. Though not anytime soon. The post has to give a sense of the stupid souvenirs. The dumb-ass stuff. And also that Dr. Ho has become part of the whole tourist trade.
That should be the beginning.” (David says).

“And include Tibetans throwing fireworks, not for the New Year but to get people away from the stalls of their competition. Write about the cobblestones, the dustiness of it, the bright sun, & almost overlooking Dr. Ho. And the woman before us who seemed to have a good consultation. And say that if you can’t afford to visit him for a consultation, you can reach him online for his teas (and the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Chinese Herbal Medicine Clinic) at jdsmchmcl@yahoo.com.cn.”

David continues: “He asked about my work, and detected from feeling my pulse that I had lower back problems and neck problems. He asked about my prostate and wondered if I had hemorrhoids (no). His check-up agreed with my known problems. He noted that unlike many Americans, I wasn’t obese. He checked alternating wrists 3 or 4 times and said my qi was pretty good. His skin was baby soft. He attributed it to his Healthy Tea, which he gave me wrapped in paper.”

"Healthy Tea"

“The donation we made was about $30, about the same as my co-payment in the U.S., and I got more face-time and bedside manner. The tea’s herbal mustiness reminds me of every health food shop I’ve ever been in. My qi may be balanced, but I got the sense he was going to outlive me.”

(Now 90, Dr. Ho is prepared to pass the baton to his son, Dr. Ho II, who chatted us up at the clinic. He said the Mayo Clinic has correspondence with Ho regarding a leukemia case.)

This story has several layers.

Unlike our David, Bruce Chatwin didn’t visit Dr. Ho for a medical consultation, but to learn about Ho’s teacher, Joseph Rock, an eccentric Austrian-American self-taught botanist who lived in Lijiang, funded by the National Geographic Society, 1920s-’40s, cataloging wild plants and traveling colonial-mandarin style with caravans of servants. Rock’s National Geographic articles inspired readers far from China, like the author of Lost Horizons — (who never left London). It coined the term Shangri La (probably a corruption of Shambhala, the mythical Tantric heaven-on-earth).

Naxi dance for donations

Ho’s mountain, and Lijiang (spelled “Li Chiang”) also turn up in Ezra Pound’s Cantos:

And over Li Chiang, the snow range is turquoise Rock’s world that he saved us for memory a thin trace in high air
Canto CXIII

Herbs of Lijiang

This northwest part of Yunan province — China’s ‘wild’ southwest, bordering Burma–is called “remote but accessible” (and Lijiang is “the best preserved ancient town in China”).

Lijiang canal

Lijiang cafe

A major road will soon cut through (we saw massive construction). The three vast gorges that rivers carved here, at the edge of the Tibetan plateau–the mighty Mekong, Yangtze and the Nu–are twice the depth (on average) of the Grand Canyon. (In the pic, we’re hiking a popular route on the Yangtze, Tiger Leaping Gorge.) The highest mountains exceed 20,000′. It can’t be a surprise that species, that traditional medicines, thrive here which exist nowhere else on earth.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Corn drying, Baisha

I wrote earlier, from Sichuan nextdoor, that this area’s a “biodiversity hotspot“. There are rare mammals — leopards (but the ones for sale are only dyed dog skins). And separated by the peaks and river valleys, a dozen unrelated ethnic groups like the Naxi still speaking so many different languages, still wearing traditional clothing. Although the women dancing in the picture above were doing it for tourist donations. Several Naxi orchestras perform ancient music for tourists, as well.

Naxi Orchestra

“Uneasy symbiosis” ? Our tourist presence helps preserve the old cultures, deeply embedded in this astonishing landscape, which might otherwise disappear as young people move to cities. Logging caused massive flooding, so when it was banned, tourism became the biggest game in town. During Lunar New Year week, millions of newly middle-class Chinese families were out enjoying tourism just like us. (I kept thinking, it’s not their fault they are so numerous, that wherever they flock, and like us they go where it’s beautiful and culturally rich, that it becomes a swarm…a sea of humanity…a crush…a horde.)

Blissfully empty alley

David says he doesn’t mind letting me end things. Here: I hope the evolution our tourism inspires is as balanced — at the very least — as David’s qi.