for Xuefei Yang
1. The Blue Kite
2. Life on a String
3. Raise the Red Lantern
5. Farewell my Concubine
In 1978 the Beijing Film Academy opened its doors to a new group of students, having been shut down for a decade during the Cultural Revolution. These students, known as the Fifth Generation, became the first group of Chinese filmmakers to receive world recognition. Raise the Red Lantern (2003/04) is a set of pieces for guitar based on films made by these directors in the 1980s and 90s.
The Blue Kite, named after a 1993 film by Tian Zhuangzhuang, is about domestic tragedy in the Mao period. In the film, a young boy’s kite becomes a symbol of freedom and hope during difficult times. The music depicts the flight of the kite in the wind – always changing speed, always changing direction: moving in an erratic and unpredictable way as the boy tries to control it.
Chen Kaige’s philosophical work, Life on a String (1991) is about a blind storyteller and his young disciple. As a young boy, the blind storyteller was given a sanxian (Chinese banjo) and told of a sacred prescription for a cure for blindness trapped within it. But it is only after the thousandth string is broken that the instrument will open up and reveal its medicinal secret. After years of performance, the thousandth string is finally broken and the prescription revealed. The prescription is blank and the old blind man’s faith is shattered. The story is retold in the music as the guitarist gradually moves from using all six strings at the beginning of the piece to just one in the final section.
In Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (1991), the new fourth wife of a rich man competes with the other three wives for the master’s favour. At first the new wife fits in well, but as time passes her cocooned life becomes fraught with complications and difficulties. This movement is an adaptation of Mahler’s Von der Jugend from Das Lied von der Erde; the four-part structure of the film is reflected in the structure of Mahler’s song.
Yellow Earth (1984) is a beautifully choreographed film by Chen Kaige, set in a feudal village. It is about a young girl about to be married off to an old man. When a soldier comes to visit the village to collect folk songs for the Red Army, he tells her of the great freedom the women of the South enjoy – they fight equally alongside their male comrades and duties are shared. Asking him to take her along, he demurs until he can get proper permission. But Cuiqiao can’t wait that long, so she takes the matter into her own hands. Throughout the film Cuiqiao is too shy to sing to the soldier, despite the fact that she has a beautiful voice. She sings a wonderful song in her private moments; the soldier never hears it. The piece is based on this secret song.
Farewell my Concubine is named after Chen Kaige’s 1991 film about the Beijing opera. The music draws very closely on material from the old style opera on which the film is based. In the opera, the King of Chu is completely surrounded by his enemy, all his men have deserted him. However, concubine Yu is faithful to the King unto death. She finally commits suicide at the end of a thrilling sword dance.
Stephen Goss, 2004