The Chai Found Music Workshop (采風樂坊) has spent years pushing the boundaries of traditional Chinese music. It is not alone in this, but it is unusual among local groups in emphasizing the academic rather than folk music aspects of this endeavor. Its most recent work, The Journey of the Monkey King (西遊記), combines an original new score by composer Huang Cheng-ming (黃正銘) with drama and action created by director Li Shao-ping (李小平) to tell the classic Chinese story of the monkey king’s journey with Tripitaka to India to obtain sacred Buddhist texts.
Huang, who is also the artistic director of Chai Found Music Workshop, has been actively seeking new ways to create opportunities for the presentation of contemporary Chinese music compositions. In 2005, the group achieved considerable acclaim for its production of Ambush! — An Instrumental Musical (十面埋伏), which presented stories from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三國演義) using a traditional string and woodwind ensemble, augmented by drums, dance and multimedia.
The Journey of the Monkey King takes this a step further, striving to a higher degree of integration between the music and action. This is achieved by having musicians suddenly standing forward to represent characters in the story, and by the use of unconventional instruments such as bamboo starves used for percussion. The staff is the monkey king’s signature weapon, and while it was necessary to have it feature as a prop, Li said he didn’t want to have performers simply swirling a staff as part of a dance sequence. “In traditional Chinese opera performances, such staff twirling is an acrobatic feat in itself. We would simply not be up to scratch,” Li said. The performers on stage are primarily musicians, not trained dancers, and Li acknowledged that in choreographing the movements on stage, he had to take account of this. “The performers may not be as agile as trained opera performers, but they have an intimate understanding of the music, and as long as they can feel the movement of the music as they move, they will not be any less graceful,” Li said.
WHAT: The Journey of the Monkey King by Chai Found Music Workshop
WHEN: Today and tomorrow at 7:30pm and tomorrow at 2:30pm
WHERE: National Theater, Taipei City
TICKETS: NT$300 to NT$2,000, available through NTCH ticketing or online at www.artsticket.com.tw
Most of the action on stage is not as physically demanding as one might expect from professional dancers, but the producers have achieved a remarkable job in creating seamless transitions between music and movement. Speaking about choreographing the work, Li, who has worked extensively in opera, said that it was simply a case of knowing what was possible.
The new production starts off with an interpretation of the main characters in the novel Journey to the West (西遊記), a development from the narrative presentation seen in Ambush. “This was part of the appeal of Journey to the West,” Huang said. “For Ambush, there was an historical element that restricted what we could do, but with Monkey King, which is basically a fantasy, the potential for innovation was greater.”
In an early movement in which the monkey king is introduced, a juggler working with a glass ball accompanies the music, presenting in a visual form the infinite mutations of the monkey king’s mind, following on from a movement in which performers move about the stage in monkey-like fashion, adding a sense of playfulness to the musical portrait of the monkey king.
The music itself, which is a contemporary take on traditional Chinese orchestral music, draws on the ensemble’s strong command of traditional instruments such as the guzheng (古箏), a kind of zither, the pipa (琵琶), a kind of lute, erhu (二胡), flute and yangqi (揚琴), a kind of dulcimer. Drums, cymbals and other traditional percussion instruments also play a part. Given that Chai Found Music Workshop is as much at home with contemporary music as with traditional music, having participated in events such as the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival and Berlin’s MaerzMusik Festival, the music is difficult to categorize, drifting from traditional folk melodies into complex atonal forms and at moments of high action, creating a wall of noise that any rock group would be proud of.