Established in 1986 as Taiwan’s first professional percussion ensemble, Ju Percussion Group (朱宗慶打擊樂團) has been actively seeking new ways to push the boundaries of percussion music through crossover collaborations and incorporation of dramatic elements. Its latest work, Mulan (木蘭), combines an original score by composer Hung Chien-hui (洪千惠) with drama created by director Lee Hsiao-ping (李小平) to tell the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan (花木蘭), a young woman who disguises herself as a man to join the army.
While the original tale eulogizes patriotism and Confucian morality through the actions of Hua Mulan, who defends the country and brings honor to her family, Ju Percussion’s rendition looks solely and curiously at its heroine and chooses to explore the inner layers of a woman facing life’s challenges by combining percussion music with a Peking operatic form.
Though at first glance Mulan appears to be a new version of the group’s 2010 production of the same title, director Lee asserts that this year’s performance is an original work that strives toward a much higher degree of integration between the music and Chinese opera than its predecessor.
“The challenge I give myself this time is that anything which cannot be expressed through percussion music must be scratched off,” he says.
The director points out that in the new production, the music steps out of the role of accompaniment and becomes a narrative lead, while operatic expressions help to push the storyline forward. This is achieved, for example, by using different instruments to portray the times Hua Mulan lived in, when the tumultuous sounds of war constantly threatened to overwhelm the idyllic melody of village life. Also onstage, musicians sometimes stand forward to represent characters in the story, maneuvering percussion not only as instruments but as props.
The character of Mulan is played by not one but two performers. The young heroine’s nuanced emotions and inner thoughts are laid bare and portrayed with considerable artistry by Peking opera performer Ju Sheng-li (朱勝麗) and xylophone player Wu Pei-ching (吳珮菁).
The main goal of the collaboration between music and opera is to find a unique sound rooted in tradition.
“I think over the years, Ju Percussion has tried to find a cultural root, a tradition to have dialogues with. And Peking opera is a medium through which it is able to acquire distinctive cultural characteristics,” Lee says.
Hung, one of the ensemble’s founding members, echoes Lee’s observation.
“If you don’t have your own cultural character, you will always be playing other people’s works,” says the composer.
Hung says that the ensemble’s attempt to seek a new musical expression through a traditional operatic form started five years ago when they put together a percussion orchestra inspired by Chinese opera heroine Mu Kuei-ying (穆桂英). But the initial effort and the later Mulan production in 2010 saw a direct transplantation of operatic form into the percussion performance, causing much strain on the musicians’ part.
“It takes an opera performer 20 years to hone his or her skill. There is really no crash course in Chinese opera,” she says.
The new version sees percussion music returning to the center. Though the musicians are not as agile as trained opera performers, they adapt operatic movements to their banging and clanging of the instruments. Hung has also devised unconventional ways of playing percussion to imitate the sounds of string instruments such as the erhu (二胡).
Under the guidance of Lee, who has worked extensively in opera, the ensemble’s percussionists have undergone intense training since last August in order to familiarize their bodies with operatic movements and singing. Though it is a challenge to the musicians to adapt themselves to a different style of performance, Lee believes it is also simply a matter of knowing what is possible to guide the performers to express genuine emotions on the stage.
“We can’t skip the basics. It helps the musicians to deliver a similar emotional depth and intensity both musically and in operatic form,” the director says.