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Tea & Broken Silence

Ideal Audience DVD 9DS32

This is an important DVD, but a rather confusing compilation of a documentary about Tan Dun's opera Tea together with another documentary, an account of The Nieuw Ensemble's exploration of contemporary music in China.

Navigation is not easy, and in the latter, the sub-titles to the Dutch dialogue so scrappy as to be useless; just beginnings of phrases - they need to be done again before being offered to the public.

Nonetheless, we found viewing this long disc (176 minutes) compelling, taking us gradually into a world of music mostly unfamiliar, with numerous memorable images of life and musical life in rural mountainous surroundings and in the crowded cities. Lots of insights on the way. I am deferring a full review whilst we explore whether the DVD of the opera itself (available from Amazon.com) are playable in Europe?

Meanwhile, here below is our report for Seen&Heard of The Nieuw Ensemble's visit with the same repertoire to the Huddersfield Festival (1999).

Peter Grahame Woolf


- - At a stroke, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 1999 had confronted the dilemma of today, the impossibility of compartmentalising all the musics which now flourish, and the anachronism of old classifications on the cusp of the Millennium. Next day, in this bastion of 'serious' cutting-edge contemporary music, we watched video projections and listened to a Big Band, chased by Chinese pipa and zheng, all vying for attention!

Huddersfield 99 will be remembered in the future for its in-depth presentation of China's new music, very timely now just as China is entering the World Trade Organisation. After the collapse of the Cultural Revolution, a small number of students had an opportunity to study composition at Beijing Central Conservatoire. They rapidly assimilated everything from Debussy via Bartók and Stravinsky, to Ligeti and Boulez, and initiated an unprecedented creative flow of compositions, which linked Western and traditional Chinese music in a powerful and unselfconscious amalgam, and many of the composers emigrated to America and Europe.

The Beijing Conservatoire's Chinese Traditional Instrument Ensemble played traditional music in the first half of their programme at Huddersfield Town Hall, followed by UK premieres of works by Qin Wenchen, Guo Wenjing, Tang Jiaping and Tan Dun, who is the best known in UK. These extended the range of the instruments to marvellous effect, giving a whole new palate of wonderful sounds, elucidated further at a morning illustrated talk by Sheffield ethnomusicologist Jonathan Stock. It will take time to learn to name the instruments and remember those of the composers and to sort out their individualities. We were particularly taken by the erhu, whose bow is uniquely threaded between the two strings in indissoluble marriage.

Huddersfield brought together a network of interest in the new Chinese music, which has avoided contamination by the lingua franca of international contemporary music. A leading Dutch group came with some of the rich fruits of their collaboration with Chinese composers who have emerged since the collapse of the Cultural Revolution. The Nieuw Ensemble came from Holland with a programme of recent music by Xu Shuya, Mo Wuping, Tan Dun and Guo Wenjing, one of this year's featured composers. In 1988 its artistic director Joel Bons had taken an initiative, which led to seven of the new generation of Chinese composers coming to Amsterdam for concerts of music, commissioned for the ensemble's unique line-up. For Xu Shuya's Vacuite/Constanze the ensemble's regular mandolin, guitar, harp, piano, strings and percussion were joined by pipa and zheng . In Guo Wenjing's Drama. their three virtuoso percussionists explored thirty ways to play Chinese cymbals, and the ensemble finished with a substantial excerpt from his Wolf Club Village opera, with tenor Michael Bennett enacting powerfully a madman who believed himself surrounded by wolves. Some of that music is included in a highly recommendable CD, which will also be reviewed fully for MotW, New Music from China (Zebra001). The Beijing group's virtuoso flautist, Dai Yun, joined the Arditti Quartet for Guo Wenjing's intriguing, if over-long, quintet for bamboo flutes and string quartet.