It doesn’t happen very often, but every once in awhile one is treated to a music performance that can only be described as a singular, unique experience. Such was the case Saturday night at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind. The famed modern string outfit Kronos Quartet joined Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man on stage for an intriguing series of vignettes based on various facets of Chinese history and culture that incorporated props, a multimedia show and some minor performance elements.
The program for the evening was split into two sections with an intermission. The first part consisted of “Orion: China,” a piece written by modern composer Philip Glass that was originally performed at the 2004 Cultural Olympiad which preceded the Athens games, and a four-part suite composed by Wu in 2015 called “Four Chinese Paintings,” which was inspired by traditional Chinese folk music.
The Glass piece, “Orion: China” was initially part of a larger composition that had sections for musicians from around the world; in this context it served as something of a cultural portal for the predominantly Western audience to gain entry into an Eastern sonic experience by starting off with a piece for the pipa, a four-stringed Chinese lute whose sound is at least familiar to Western ears, backed with parts for Kronos Quartet that sounded more like Western modern classical. The “Four Paintings” suite, which Wu has said taught her how to compose for Western strings after authoring countless compositions for pipa and other Chinese instruments, launched the evening into sonic territory that came across as more completely Chinese.
But it was the second half of the program, “A Chinese Home,” that really stole the show. A concept piece commissioned by Notre Dame in 2009 (and has been performed before at DeBartolo), the four-part suite took the audience through a crash course in Chinese history of the 20th century. The first section, “Return,” emphasized the traditional Chinese culture that persisted at the turn of the century that was a continuation of millennia-old traditions. The traditional footage and video footage clearly evoked the traditional Chinese, although it was a little disconcerting that the video footage was clearly recent as opposed to actual historical footage, and seemed to suggest, intentionally or otherwise, that Chinese traditions are alive and well outside of the cities. That opening passage ended with the group holding up Buddha boxes, which played sacred funeral chants. It was a solemn moment and one that echoed the Kronos Quartet’s use of Eastern European field recordings on “Doom. A Sigh” from their 1990 release Black Angels.
The second part, “Shanghai,” emphasized that city’s role in the Western economic expansion into the Chinese mainland, using 1930s era pop songs and cinema footage that, while clearly Chinese, also bore a distinctive Western cultural influence. Wu also revealed herself as not just an instrumentalist but a talented vocalist as well, taking the fore of the stage to sing the pop songs. While those tunes started off on a major note and reflected the exuberance of the era, the final pop song portended darker times ahead, with lyrics like “No flower blooms forever.”
That was immediately followed by “The East is Red,” which depicted the victory of Mao Zedong’s Communist party over the Chinese nationalists and subsequent Cultural Revolution of the 1960s in relatively brief form, taking as its main visual cue footage from an elaborate propaganda film produced by the Communist Party. Gone were the lovers and parties of the 1930s Shanghai cinema, in their place were dancing, armed soldiers and ecstatic villagers.
The darkest and most disturbing element of the evening was the closing section, “Made in China.” Wu again went to the front of the stage, but this time with what appeared to be an electrified zither. With footage of urban crowding and development along with Chinese rock bands on stage playing in the background, Wu engaged in some serious psychedelic shredding, and towards the end, Kronos Quartet took out what appeared to be large suitcases of some sort and extracted Chinese-made toys that lit up and spun around the stage. The lights eventually went dim, leaving darkness only illuminated by the lights from the toys. Point taken - a proud and ancient civilization is now known for producing plastic toys. On stage, it was eerie how products meant to give joy to children took on such an ominous appearance in the dark. Frankly, it was darker than the funeral chants from the first passage.
Politically and historically, “A Chinese Home” was not without some problems. Is toy-making and listening to heavy metal music that much worse than the massive persecution and displacement that happened during the Cultural Revolution? And if traditional Chinese culture still persists in the countryside, why portray contemporary Chinese culture as almost wholly urban and rootless? Of course, it’s hard to encapsulate a hundred years of the history of a billion strong society into four musical passages, and Wu was able to evoke various images and musical motifs throughout the century effectively. In the end, it was a singular and unusual evening of modern classical music with some multimedia and theatrical elements added, and it showed that Kronos Quartet, with top-notch collaborators like Wu Man, continue to display the adventurous musicality they have for four decades now.