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12 June 2013

Living colours - from Chinese opera to an Australian music theatre work

Bruce Crossman Image: Bruce Crossman  

Bruce Crossman's music theatre work Gentleness-Suddenness will be premiered by Lotte Latukefu (mezzo-soprano), James Cuddeford (violin), Claire Edwardes (percussion) and Michael Kieran Harvey (piano) at the Campbelltown Arts Centre in Western Sydney on 29 June 2013. The following article is an edited extract of a longer text by Crossman, in which the composer explains how experiencing live performances and engaging with artists in Tokyo and Hong Kong directly influenced his own work. (You can also read the original article here.)

As an Australian-based composer I consider complex hybridity the basis which forms my personal compositional voice. An important part of this is the culture of place, the Asian-Pacific resonance. In my compositional practice, mind and spirit give birth to 'living colours' of sound, influenced by ideas from the Asia-Pacific. In my music theatre work Gentleness-Suddenness (2010-2012), the music's emergence into wriggling living colours and raw sound production was intensified and liberated after visiting Tokyo and Hong Kong in 2010.

In Japan, the vigorousness of the calligraphic action stimulated my creativity, and so did traditional Japanese musical performance interpretation. Japanese shakuhachi player Kawamuru Taizan performed my earlier shakuhachi work, In Gentleness and Suddenness (2003) at the Asian Music Festival 2010 in Tokyo. Kawamuru's performance engaged me with its vibrant 'living 'colour' chunks; it was as if every sound was a vibrant wriggling colour given its momentary space, yet frenetically designed to climax. The rehearsal process was a special exchange between us: few spoken words but many, shared, unspoken ideas and thoughts. There was an unspoken understanding between us about music; the nature of the fabric of sound as driving the music was the point of creativity. This invaluable unspoken exchange infused the later vocal line in my music theatre work.

After the Asian Music Festival I travelled to Hong Kong, where the collision of cultures and vibrancy was stimulating during my tenure as scholar in residence at the David C. Lam Institute for East-West Studies. The residency involved collaboration with the Chinese University of Hong Kong, to explore their rich resources on Chinese opera. My interactions with Cheung Man Shan Milky at the Chinese University were crucial in locating Kunqu and Cantonese opera materials, as well as obtaining a Mandarin romanisation of the Peony for the libretto of my work.

Of vital importance was hearing the refined performance of The Lute by a Kunqu troupe from Shanghai, as well as the riotous interpretation of the Cantonese Opera The Drunken Emperor Orders to Have His Brother Executed. As Cheung noted after we had seen the latter, 'I had become alive to Chinese opera after experiencing it live'. The emphasis on energised living colour sounds leaping out into the air as an expression of raw excitement was apparent when the six Cantonese opera percussionists vibrated the Ko Shan Theatre. My experience of this emotional physicality took away any timidity I had about using sound. Later on, after my return to Australia, this visceral experience embedded itself into my music theatre work as energised metal rhythmic chunks.

In Gentleness-Suddenness, the search for cultural identity picks up on the Confucian 'living colour' principle, and the East Asian cross-art form attitude extends my own Asian-Pacific aesthetic. This project embraces a multi-art form aesthetic drawing on collaborations between the musicians, photographer, projectionist, sound-diffusionist and film maker.

The work will be premiered at the Campbelltown Arts Centre on 29 June 2013 - the production was initially developed with Annette Tesoriero and Matthew Hindson, and later Matthew Steffen of Campbelltown Arts Centre. The collaborators coming together for this project include musicians I have worked with before and established a 'living colour' understanding with, such as violinist James Cuddeford from Hong Kong, pianist Michael Kieran Harvey from Tasmania, mezzosoprano Lotte Latukefu from Wollongong and the Sydney-based percussionist Claire Edwardes. The multimedia side of the work will be developed in collaboration with photographer David Cubby and projectionist Simon Killalea, who have both developed work for the iconic Australian rock band Cold Chisel, as well as with sound diffusion by my colleague Ian Stevenson. Intercultural documentary film maker Iqbal Barkat will film the project live for later broadcast and documentation publication.

The principal idea of the production is to swirl the multilingual aspects (English and Mandarin) and intercultural sounds around the space via sound diffusion, working in synergy with photos of Kunqu intermingled with calligraphic live projections of the contemporary performers. In essence this is a multicultural reinterpretation of an ancient Asian-Pacific Genre.

AMC resources

Bruce Crossman - AMC profile
Event details 29 June (AMC Calendar)
'Australian Living Colours: Chinese Opera and an Asian-Pacific Aesthetic' - an article by Bruce Crossman about his music theatre work Gentleness-Suddenness (a pdf attachment to the work record in the AMC online catalogue).

Subjects discussed by this article:

Bruce Crossman is a Senior Lecturer in music composition at the University of Western Sydney.


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