Monday, February 11, 2008
Music behind the great firewall of China
In that classic 1968 film The Graduate Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) is given some of the most famous advice in cinema history:
Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you - just one word.
Ben: Yes sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Ben: Yes I am.
Mr. McGuire: 'Plastics.'
Ben: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
Ben: Yes I will.
Mr. McGuire: Shh! Enough said. That's a deal.
Right now that conversation is being repeated with a slight twist:
Agent: I just want to say one word to you - just one word.
Musician: Yes sir.
Agent: Are you listening?
Musician: Yes I am.
Agent: 'China' ...
Orchestras are listening, composers from Gustav Mahler to Damon Albarn have been listening for years, Google are listening, and even Jordi Savall is listening. I'm quite sure Terry Riley and the Kronos Quartet don't need to listen to their agent, but their latest CD is on-message anyway. The Cusp of Magic (sleeve below) features Wu Man playing a Chinese relative of the lute called the pipa, an instrument which first appeared during the Quin dynasty (220BC-206BC) at the time the earliest sections of the Great Wall were built. Wu Man was born in Hangzhou in the Yangtze Delta in China and studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, where she became the first recipient of a master's degree in pipa.
Wu Man has a deservedly high profile on the world music scene, and her fans include Bill Clinton and Philip Glass. It was Philip Glass who once said that world music is the new classical, and who also provided the soundtrack for one of the most powerful criticisms of Chinese human rights abuse in recent years. Wu Man now lives in San Diego and she appeared at the opening of the 2007 Special Olympics in Shanghai together with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan. There are clearly some admirable things happening with classical music in China and Wu Man's advocacy of the country's musical heritage is very welcome.
But at this point politics and music collide. The article that you are currently reading about Wu Man's new CD is not available to internet users in either Beijing where she studied, or in Shanghai where she played at the Special Olympics last year. The results below from a test on WebSitePulse show the domain http://www.overgrownpath.com/ is blocked by the the government controlled great firewall of China in both cities, as is The Rest is Noise, although both blogs are available in Hong Kong (which has special administrative region status and is where my header photo comes from). But Wu Man's own website is available across the whole of China, together with the Kronos Quartet's and arbritrarily Sequenza21.
But this is a music website isn't it? So back to the music and The Cusp of Magic. The pipa is not the only unfamiliar sound in the mix and a synthesizer, peyote rattle and numerous childrens toys add to a work that defies categorisation. The Cusp of Magic was commissioned by the Kronos Quartet to mark Terry Riley's 70th birthday and it contains some beautiful writing and some startling ideas. But it is very different to Riley's early signature compositions such as In C and the episodic nature of the material does make the bigger picture difficult to see at times. If the technique isn't exactly minimalist the CD is, with less than 43 minutes of music on a full price release. Like the huge country behind the great firewall you can't ignore The Cusp of Magic. But also just like China it is more mystery than magic.
Now, I just want to say one other word to you which the great firewall of China won't like - Tibet.
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