traditions – transformations of memory

I’m somewhat incredulous/pinching myself that Machine for Contacting the Dead, a piece from 1999-2000, will be performed by Klangforum Wien conducted by Enno Poppe next March 2015 in Vienna. The concert is entitled ‘Place of Longing’ and my work is programmed together with Eva Reiter‘s fantastic piece, Irrlicht (2012) and Brian Ferneyhough’s Liber Scintillarum (2012). This is part of their Immigrants series at the Vienna Konzerthaus that asks an intriguing set of questions about transnational movement, cultural flows, identifications and alienations that take a more complex and subtle view of ‘migration’ than is often presented.

Machine for Contacting the Dead for 27 musicians was originally commissioned by the Ensemble Intercontemporain and premiered in Paris in Feb 2000 (they also commissioned and premiered Mother Tongue that ICE played a couple of weeks ago).

For the Ensemble Intercontemporain commission I was invited to make a work that reflected on a grand exhibition of archaeological treasures excavated from the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zheng dating from 433 B.C. (see article). Very little is really known about the world of this ‘China’ though naturally, the grandeur of its artefacts can be and have been co-opted for new narratives of power – a replica model of the massive set of bells from this tomb was used in a work by Tan Dun composed for the handover ceremonies when Hong Kong was passed back to China from British colonial territorial control. I’m not saying anything new here: ‘History’ can be a heavy yoke but can also become an invitation to invention (part of this is also how people contest the right to invent); ‘tradition’ is in many cases not a unitary, unbroken line of pure transmission but I think often reveals itself to be a place of not-knowing, of loss and disjuncture forcing re-invention in order to bridge the gaps. This became a focus in my compositional project in which I sought out glimpses of an imagined history of the women/concubine musicians and dancers who were buried with the nobleman – a calligraphic architecture of ‘memory traces’, broken instrumental cries, elided resonances, sighs and whispers.


I recently visited China for the very first time as a guest of the 2014 ‘Rainbow Bridge International Poets Gathering at the Slender West Lake’ in Yangzhou. The festival is co-directed by the poet Yang Lian whose poems I set in a piece called The Quickening (2005) for guqin and soprano. Lian’s vision is to bring the contemporary and international into a dialogue with Chinese traditions in a festival that claims its roots in the legendary gathering of poet-calligraphers in 353BC whose games of wine drinking and poetry composition gave rise to the ‘Orchid Pavilion’ poetry collection. The collection’s Preface essayed by Wang Xizhi is still held up as an unsurpassed benchmark for calligraphic achievement.

The city of Yangzhou is astoundingly beautiful. During the T’ang dynasty it was the centre of an Imperial-sponsored literati culture that embraced poetry, music, calligraphy, architecture, garden design, culinary arts etc. At the opening event we travelled in boats along the meandering course of the Slender West Lake whilst multiple groups of school kids and citizens gathered along the banks to recite T’ang dynasty poems. We stopped in our boats at each location where the visiting poets recited their poems to the locals in a moving exchange.

Children reciting T'ang poetry, Slender West Lake, Yangzhou

Children reciting T’ang poetry, Slender West Lake, Yangzhou (some wearing masks of the faces of poets)

This context of a brilliant historical tradition operating at an extraordinary time scale provided the framework for meetings, discussions and translation events between visiting poets Kwame Dawes, C.D. Wright, Fiona Sampson, Forrest Gander, John Burnside, Aleš Šteger, Yang Lian and Chinese poets Guanguan, Tang Xiaodu, Chen Dongdong, Song Lin amongst others. ‘History’, ‘tradition’ and ‘contemporaneity’ were the terms up for debate. Poets of course deal in the currencies of language as invented meaning and re-imagined histories – from a certain viewpoint, this might even be a definition of poetry! A paradigmatic example of the sleight of hand that has to go into any insistence on ‘history’ and ‘tradition’ as a form of unbroken purity in China is to point out that no-one knows how ancient Classical Chinese might have sounded. Rather like Latin and Ancient Greek, pronunciation is a matter of conjecture and scholars use a variety of modern Southern dialects such as Cantonese, Hakka and Hokkien or even Vietnamese to approximate or reconstruct aspects of the sounds and rhymes of the classical language. Invention then starts at the very point of recitation where sound transgresses the framework of the neat calligraphic mark and points to the necessity of new imaginings.

(this weblink might be of interest: East Asian Writing Systems)