Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Music talks

I was invited to the Chinese Embassy last Thursday, to meet the new Cultural Counsellor, Mr Wu Xun, and a delegation of artists they've brought over. It's a shame that Ke Yasha's not here any more - I'd developed quite a relationship with him over the last couple of years. Still, Wu Xun seems to have style - he got the visiting singers to do a bit of karaoke, and a wonderful pipa player, Wu Yuxia, played for us.

The pipa is like a vertical lute, but has the ability to sound like a rock guitar if needed. I'd not heard it much before a couple of weeks ago, when I saw Wu Man perform with the Kronos quartet - and suddenly here it was again, and again being played by an astonishing performer. As happens with musicians, a Scottish flautist who was there, called Eddie, got excited and offered a reel or two in return. And this led to them playing together. I'm never quite sure how musicians do this - least of all ones who have no language in common at all (though I guess we managed something similar with Zhang Ruihong). Eddie and Yuxia sat opposite one another, watching each other intently - there was almost an erotic charge between them, rooted in rhythm. And, just because of the instruments and their approach to playing, every moment glistened with cultural melding. Eddie told me it was possible because Scottish folk, like Chinese music, uses a pentatonic scale.

The next night, I was at the Barbican for Peter's production of John Adams' new opera, The Flowering Tree. It's another cultural melding through music - an Indian folk tale re-told in contemporary mode, with American singers, Indonesian dancers, and the best Chorus I have ever heard - the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela. I get to meet John afterwards, and to congratulate him on another incredible achievement. But all he can think about is the fact that his glasses flew off while he was conducting the final bar, causing the opera to end rather abruptly. "What would have happened if they'd gone earlier?" he keeps saying.

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