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Music Draws Blood: A Monodrama of East and West

  • Author(s): Chen, HsingAn
  • Advisor(s): Winter, Robert S
  • et al.
Abstract

The cross-fertilization and convergence between Eastern and Western cultures ranks as one of the most influential developments of the twentieth century. Surprisingly, few serious efforts have been made to integrate Chinese and Western traditions and styles into the same production and aesthetic space. My performance project, whose background and gestation this dissertation addresses, attempted to do just that.

My search for a Chinese source of inspiration ended when Prof. Chi Li of our Department of Ethnomusicology brought to my attention the only surviving collection of early Chinese texts with music: seventeen poems set to music by the celebrated Chinese poet and composer of the Song dynasty, Jiang Kui (ca. 1155-1221). My "Prelude" describes Kui's elusive love experiences with two remarkable sisters whose virtuosity on the pipa was a pivotal element in their relationships. With the assistance of Prof. Peter Kazaras (UCLA's Director of Opera) and my advisor, Prof. Winter, we identified three Western arias that could provide both dramatic contrast and continuity: Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck's "Divinités du Styx" (Ye Divinities of Styx) from Alceste (1767); Giuseppe Verdi's "Una macchia e qui tuttora" from Macbeth (1847); and Dido's Lament from Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (1688). The blending of these two seemingly disparate styles using the style of Nian bai, a recitative-like delivery used in traditional Chinese Kun qu opera, created a structure that derives its dramatic integrity and strength from these unlikely pairings.

Chapter 1 elaborates on "The Chinese Context" of Jiang Kui, while Chapter 2 discusses "The Western Connections" through Gluck, Verdi, and Purcell. Chapter 3 details the extraordinary power and significance of costume, makeup, facial expression, bodily movement, and use of the water sleeve adapted from Kun qu opera. Chapter 4 discusses not only our decision to employ a Chinese instrumental ensemble but the challenges confronted by Prof. Chi Li in orchestrating, arranging, and even composing under the inspiration of historical practices. My "Postlude" reacts to the overwhelmingly positive feedback we received from the premiere by outlining possible next steps in the evolution of this project, including opportunities for presentation in China.

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