Monday, 11 May 2009


11/5/09, Barbican Hall

2 hrs. Tan Dun's Ghost Opera, written for the Kronos (at first glance a conventional string quartet, though playing amplified instruments) and Wu Man, who plays a Chinese instrument rather like a large mandolin, but with two sets of strings plucked with both hands, called the pipa. Preceded in the first half by the world premiere of a work by ??? and eight folk songs from South West China (where half the country's recognised ethnic minorities live and from which troupes of itinerant musicians and performers traditionally issued forth) arranged for the same forces.

Wu Man was a whizz, and I'm glad to have heard her. She produced sometimes astonishingly complex tunes, sometimes playing two melodies simultaneously.

A's friend Renee thought it pretentious. I thought it by turns baffling, intriguing, beautiful and silly.

At the start the band, dressed in black, came on, there was a blackout, a certain amount of scrabbling and then the lights came back up to reveal them wearing Chinese fright masks and making a "yaah" kind of noise. The masks soon came off (though I seem to recall they went back on once or twice) but the proceedings were punctutated by occasional shouts which either added to the atmosphere or sounded risible, according to taste.

At one point one of the band blew on a deep bass wind instrument the size of an alpenhorn. Renee complained that the audience tittered at what should have been a solemn moment. I wasnt clear that it was meant to be solemn, so reserve judgement.

I wonder if the music in the first half, given its "ethnic" character, sounded as exotic to many Chinese as it does to us. Who can tell? The problem with this kind of corss-cultural melange is that you have to be equally familiar with both cultural traditions to make sense of it. Otherwise one is little better than a tourist watching some folklorique performance. On that basis it was not uninteresting, though not an experience I plan to repeat.

The Tan Dun was a very complex piece, and no doubt I failed to appreciate many of its layers of complexity. As well as their instruments, played at scattered points around the stage and in the audience, the quartet and Ms Wu created sounds by banging water-filled bowls. The bowls and the playing positions were spitlit dynamically. Centre stage was a screen and behind it a platform on which Wu Man sat to play, illuminated from behind, like a shadow puppet, her silhouette thrown onto the screen.

Of the music itself I can, a couple of weeks later, remember absolutely nothing.

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