This week, we hear from the one and only Margaret Leng Tan about the stunning piece Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! by Ge Gan-Ru. Watch a video of the piece from her performance at Present Music… or come see her live at the toy piano festival this year!
(photo by Michael Dames)
Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! is a poem of sorrow and anguish by the illustrious Song dynasty poet, Lu You (1125-1210). This renowned poem was written spontaneously on a wall of the Sun garden in 1155 following a chance encounter with his cousin and former wife Tang Wan, whom he was made to divorce on the decree of his tyrannical mother. (The “malevolent East Wind” in the first stanza is but a caustic metaphor for the hateful matriarch!) The girl wasted away from a broken heart while Lu You composed poems of loss and abiding love into his autumnal years. Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! speaks of her grief while clearly reflecting the torment of the poet himself.
From my toy arsenal Ge chose the toy piano, a toy table harp (which he could treat as a toy qin or zither), toy glockenspiel, and a percussion battery consisting of two claves, three cup gongs, one beaded gourd rattle, a pitched plastic hammer and a Japanese toy taiko drum. The hammer, plastic flute, and a paper accordion endowed with a two-note compass each cost one dollar in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Electronic frog and cricket boxes, along with a water warbler, completed the ensemble.
Given the limitations and idiosyncrasies of my untrained voice, Gan-ru allowed me free rein to experiment. In offering my own personal take on the Chinese operatic tradition I do not claim authenticity, but I have tried to capture something of the nasal timbre and melismatic flights of fancy so characteristic of the woman’s singing as well as the peculiar guttural texture of the declamatory male voice.
Ge Gan-ru, described in the New Grove Dictionary as ‘China’s first avant-garde composer’, came to the USA in 1983 where he established a reputation for writing music marked by an immediately recognizable individualism and a unique sound. His CD, Fall of Baghdad (Naxos), was chosen as one of the best recordings of 2009 by The New York Times.
Since 1985, Ge Gan-ru has composed for me Gu Yue (Ancient Music), inspired by traditional Chinese instruments and an unusual piano concerto, Wu (Rising to the Heights). Two decades later he created Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!, a Peking opera-inspired melodrama for my voice self-accompanied by a toy orchestra of 16 instruments.
WRONG, WRONG, WRONG! (1155 AD)
by Lu You
Hong su shou, Her hand rosy, tender,
Huang teng jiu, Pours the yellow t’eng wine,
Man cheng chun se Spring hues adorn the city,
Gong qiang liu. Willows embrace garden walls.
Dong feng e, The East Wind malevolent,
Huan qing bo. Conjugal bliss evanescent.
Yi huai chou xu, A heart sorrow-laden,
Ji nian li suo. Cruel years steeped in loneliness asunder.
Cuo, Cuo, Cuo! Oh, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!
Chun ru jiu, Spring as in days of yore,
Ren kong shou, So wan and wasted is she,
Lei hen hong yi Rivulets of tears
Jiao xiao tou. Drench her pink kerchief.
Tao hua luo, Peach blossoms falling,
Xian chi ge. Stillness pervades pond and pavilion.
Shan meng sui zai, Vows immutable as mountains,
Jin shu nan tuo. Yet how futile a lovelorn epistle.
Mo, Mo, Mo! Ah, Woe, Woe, Woe!
Translation by Margaret Leng Tan and Wan-he Ge ©2006