From the time I was a child growing up in Vancouver, I have been mesmerized and excited by the loud percussive music of the Lion Dance which is always performed as part of Chinese New Year celebrations. Each year, our father would take us to Pender Street to witness the exciting ritual. The gongs, drums, loud firecrackers, as well as the energetic moves by the martial arts practitioners under the weighty lion’s head, stirred me then and continue to do so now.
Of course, I had no way of knowing that those early exposures to Chinese ritual and music would become part of my musical language. Eventually I began to collect some Asian instruments because I found them beautiful.
In 1973, our father decided to take our whole family back to our village in China for the first time. Ours was one of the first groups of western Chinese allowed into China – a trip filled with indelible memories. We were a part of a group of several families who went back to our ancestral villages.
I purchased my sheng on that first trip. It is a most unusual-looking instrument. The seventeen pipes of the sheng, a reed instrument, rise from a semi-circular cup-shaped base. The player exhales and inhales through a mouthpiece creating reedy-sounding chord clusters as well as individual notes.
On that same trip, I found my guqin (a fretless zither, the most intimate of instruments – it is said that its most delicate tone is the sound of your pulse on the string!) hanging in the window of a Chinese musical instrument store in Shanghai. A crowd of Chinese people all dressed in Mao jackets (Mao was still alive), crushed into the little store, curious about what I, a foreigner (foreigners were unheard of at the time) who curiously looked somewhat like themselves, was doing, banging loudly on Chinese opera gongs to find ‘just the right ones’ to carry back with me. My enthusiastic noise-making caused much amusement.
These and other instruments have followed me from China to California, where I made my home for ten years, and now to Toronto. The inspiration of Asian instruments and music (dense chord clusters, bent tones, unusual glissandi effects, musical gestures that convey the contrast and balance of Yin and Yang) can be heard, dramatically brought to life in my Imaginary Opera which Esprit is performing on Sunday, January 24 in Toronto. If you attend, you will be hearing my very own Chinese bender gongs brought back from that trip in Pursuing The Dragon, the last movement of my piece.
Although there are no singers in my composition, it is theatrical and highly dramatic. In each movement, I provide evocative music and invite the listener to conjure up his/her own imagined opera scenario.
The excitement of Vancouver’s Chinese lion dance exists in the wild finale of Imaginary Opera.
Esprit chats with Canadian Composer Alexina Louie about her work, Imaginary Opera – to be performed on Sunday January 24, 2016.
Louie’s Imaginary Opera integrates the composer’s Eastern and Western approaches to music through both intense and quiet, mysterious dramatic musical events reflecting contrast and balance as in the principles of Yin and Yang.