Ho Wai-On 何蕙安 aka Ann-Kay Lin

John David Morley to Me

John David Morley was an English writer and novelist, the youngest child of the artist and sculpter Patricia Morley (née Booth), and grandson of Victor Booth, who was a piano professor at the Royal Academy of Music.  He had written ten novels, including the bestseller Pictures from the Water Trade.  

(N.B. The AV numbers refer to the materials included in the Audio/Video folder, access this from the "Creative PhD" link on the side bar.)


An autobiographical narrative – what a refreshing way in to a PhD!


At some point we would clearly have to move on to the how-it's-done analysis, the academic nuts and bolts, but I was happy to have the early narrative continue for as long as it did.


At the heart of the Cantonese opera performance in Hong Kong is, first of all, the child I imagine absorbing it. The impact on all the child's senses is powerful, inconceivable to a sensation-addled child fifty years later. Perhaps some of her impressions are comparable to those I experienced as a child in London in the 1950s, but I can only pull this off by bundling all my childhood memories of music hall, circus and pantomime into a single performance at a single venue, tagging on for good measure the cymbal-clashing Chinese funerals we used to watch and hear pass by our house in Singapore just a couple of years previously. So in the explicit intention to provide a reader-friendly thesis by laying out a story-of-my-life bait you completely caught your fish; this one, at least.


I need to imagine the child spectator in the opera as she is an indispensable protagonist in the script of my response to your thesis. What is going on around the stage, in the theatre, in the surrounding streets? All this is her context. There are dark corners in this context you choose not to explore. All this matters because of the appeal of the Cantonese opera to a mass audience, to the people who have come in off those streets without booking weeks in advance. This atmosphere is difficult for Westerners to imagine unless they go back to the pits of 17th century theatres such as The Globe in London, La Fenice in Venice or the opera houses in 18th C. Rome and Naples where the so-called groundlings, vociferous spectator mobs and fans of the pop-star-icon castrati competed to make heard their contributions to the spectacle on stage. In Asia they still do.


In Japan today, even the frigid and stylised world of Noh on stage at the most posh of venues, the Kanze Kaikan in Kyoto, is surrounded by an audience that strolls in and out to get refreshments. Kabuki performances are punctuated throughout by the shouts of the cognoscenti in the stalls in an atmosphere not so different from the spectator participation in sumo spectacles. These performances are not taking place in quarantine from the audience, in some sacrosanct germ-free culture space. It's absolutely the business of the audience to make itself heard and felt in ways that would not be found acceptable in modern theatres in the West but clearly were and perhaps still are in Cantonese opera, too. On p.285 you surmise about a “device (that) might be used for capturing the attention of an unruly, unsophisticated audience so that they behave better during a performance: to prevent them from getting up to go to the toilet, buying all sorts of food that cannot be eaten quietly from those who sell it during a performance, walking to near downstage where there is usually a temporary stall that sells theatrical swords and other props to buy as toys for their children (performers probably rely a little on this to earn a crust), and at least to be quieter not to converse loudly.”


Voilà!


I dwell on this because the subject I now broach hardly figures in your thesis, whereas in my reading of your writing it figures large. A Marxist might call it the economic infrastructure of your comparative view of cultures, which has two poles. They meet in the sentence I quote here. “Cantonese opera of my childhood was for the lower strata of society.....my creative practice has been...for the concert halls and festivals as I do not have much knowledge of popular culture.


In Hong Kong as a child and a young adult there seems to have been a familiarity and identification with and perhaps a fondness for lower-strata culture for which I find no evidence in the far longer part of your life you have spent in London. You need help from your electro-acoustic supervisor with bits of the libretto requiring more familiarity with lower-strata society idiom than you feel you possess. Your remoteness from pop music culture is such that on your list of popular music you begin with the guitar concerto of Rodriguez and arias from Tannhäuser. From even the soft-core pop-culture fan's point of view this is already outer space. (Ho Wai-On's reply to this para. see further down in blue)


The sound of the spoken voice (AV15, the single line of text at the beginning of the recorded section) is melodious and pleasing, 'refined', and – idiosyncratic. These vowels persisted in the British colonies long after they had disappeared from England except in enclaves of the aristocracy. My sister Margaret learned to speak like this as a pupil at an English boarding-school in the Malayan highlands in the early 1950s and it has remained with her until this day.


On my travels around Asia during the last two decades of the 20th century my attention was drawn to the phenomenon of an idiosyncratic vowel retention in just the places you would expect it – clubs and upper-strata society watering holes in former colonies where English remained in use as a lingua franca, whether as the main or as an alternative language. To my ears, it is a rarefied, almost courtly sound, as obsolete as the language of the emperor sounded to the Japanese when for the first time ever they heard his voice. That was on the occasion of his acceptance of defeat speech broadcast on the radio in August 1945.


I suggest that your cross-cultural thesis might be illuminated for you personally if you became aware of the cross-class seam that runs all the way through it. In more ways than you may realise, the person you were in Hong Kong and the person you became in the UK are also different in respect of how you may have been differently configured by your respective lower/upper-strata social alignments.                                                                                                        (Ho Wai-On's reply to the above and 4th from the above paras:

A reason for my staying in the circle of the middle classes since arriving in the UK is for safety. The skinheads that attacked me on the street, children who spat out racial abuse at me, total strangers who said stupid things to me... are not from the middle classes. Middle class respectability and the advantage of having a better education prevent such behaviours, even if the person might be a nasty piece of work. As a small child I knew the dark side of the lower strata of society, I don't romanticise what I know but strive to get away.

For some years I listened to pop music daily — Elvis, the Beatles, Rolling Stones... — but the songs are too short and do not build up big climaxes like Western Classical music.  What I really like is Western Classical music, ballet, fine arts and literature which have unfortunately not widely reached the working class. This is another reason why the people I know are largely middle class, such as you and your family.)


I'd also like to draw attention to an economic aspect, which doesn't belong to your brief but is relevant to it. Is an individual paying for the consumption of culture goods out of their own pocket? Or putting the question another way: to what extent is the creation and production of culture goods dependent on subsidies?


Without subsidies of performance arts, in particular, requiring ensembles of singers, players and all the rest, some theatre and all opera would never have got off the ground. They came into being thanks to the patronage of secular and ecclesiastic authorities, a function inherited by the modern state. The RSC took on the mantle of the Globe Theatre and its commercial successors, but Shakespeare & Co were given a start by the original royal patronage extended to a troupe of players known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Maybe in its early history Cantonese opera more or less earned its keep with its takings from the groundlings flocking to its doors, but at some point it seems likely that without private or public patronage such an expensive enterprise couldn't have stayed or will not be able to stay in business in future.


The financial endorsement of the groundlings, whether at the Globe in 17th C. London or at whatever time opera came into being in the province of Canton, is important because it is this ticket-buying out of their own pocket which gives the groundlings a say in what they can expect for their money.


It may have been the accession of a king of Scotland to the throne of England that gave Shakespeare the ideas for themes and setting of Macbeth, but it would have been with an eye to the tastes of the groundlings that as a direct sequel to Duncan's murder he came up with the porter's bawdy drinking speech. The themes of the Da Ponte libretti will have suited audiences from the upper strata of Habsburg society, but without the impresario Schikaneder staging an opera for the groundlings in the lower-strata milieu on the outskirts of Vienna Die Zauberflöte would hardly have taken the form it did. Mozart remarks in a letter that the audience didn't much care for the solemnity of the parts inspired by the themes of free masonry close to the hearts of composer and librettist (Schikaneder) while popular themes were picked up and whistled in the streets. This is still the same prong on which HK Wai On and UK Wai-On are impaled.


On several occasions you remind us of the audience expectations in Canton; for example that the audience wants to hear familiar music, or that they enjoy it when lots of members of the troupe come onstage for the crowd/chorus scenes. There's a medieval German phrase that encapsulates this trade-off. Wes Brot ich eß, des Lied ich sing. I sing the song of those whose bread I eat.


In your thesis you write of the “difficulties” of the task you have undertaken. Understandably, for there are tensions between the elements of the quben you are attempting to weld. Early into Part 2, when you introduce the concept of quben as a quasi libretto cum script, you specify that “a librettist selects existing tunes to write new lyrics to tell the story of the drama.” Later on in the thesis, you tell us “I submit original and alternative music for each act and suggest....the creation of new versions.”


While these are not necessarily contradictory positions, they are positions it is not going to be easy to reconcile – hence the difficulties of which you speak. It is not going to be easy to reconcile the child who loved Cantonese opera and who paid to get in with coins out of her own pocket with the scholarship student in London who would go on to establish a creative practice for the (subsidised) concert halls and festivals as she did not have “much knowledge of popular culture.”


The UK musician does in fact jettison the traditional practice of composing opera she had endorsed as a card-carrying young fan in HK. As a fully trained musician familiar with a broad spectrum of musical currents across many cultures, she will have recognised that without fundamental reforms to the rules of composition of her beloved Cantonese opera it would not survive into the 21st century except as a subsidised national-museum-prestige-art such as Noh, Kabuki , the Bolshoi or the Comédie Francaise.


By your own account, one reason you abandoned the standard practice of the quben librettist was that you didn't have sufficient expertise and knowledge of the repertoire to select the existing tunes. On the other hand, there were occasions you apparently did follow this practice. “The melody for the soprano came from writing down by ear the melodic shape of a short tune from...Sassy Princess Blunt Husband,” using it as raw material modified to suit the text.


Your discussion of the tone values of Chinese standard language and dialects does underscore dramatically a cornerstone of composition in the Cantonese opera for which there is nothing remotely equivalent in the Western canon. Quite fascinating was the section on the restrictions such tonal values impose on Chinese drama as such. I see you enmeshed in these language tonal values, which in turn limit both the musical and emotional register, creating for someone with an ear liberated by professional exposure to Western music not just difficulties but impossibilities.


If so much of the original has had to be discarded I wonder if getting laboriously into the quben business was worth what came out of it. Perhaps this was the only way to reach this particular solution, but in reaching it there was a sense of strain due to a degree of artificiality I felt about the endeavour. The younger generation needs to define itself by its opposition to the older. The Hegelian exposition of thesis, antithesis and synthesis, memorably taken up and applied by Marx, does describe the logical foundation on which much of our cognitive learning intuitively rests. I would suspect evolution has a hand in this.


All your conclusions regarding the form the synthesis should take – internet opera (the medium is the message), the drastically cut attention spans which will dictate acceptable length, the need for IT expertise and familiarity with electro acoustics in order to be able to move freely in this brave new world – all this flows on logically once the synthesis has been shored up by having gutted the premises of the thesis. 


Behind these abstractions I continue to bear in mind an ongoing hidden struggle between the child people's- opera-fan in HK and the musician in her UK music college milieu, working from her sponsored festival platforms. It will have been a struggle between different identity claims. It will indeed have been, as your thesis impresses on me, the story of your life, and a great deal of work, to say the least.


Admirable though I find the notion of a creative prototype for use by others, putting a reservoir of material at their disposal, and so on, the particular seam you have chosen to mine for your PhD strikes me as so specialist that I have doubts about its wider suitability as a model for others. It will serve as a base for discussion and it has earned you a PhD, but the practical applications of suggestions your thesis has to offer seem to me less likely to happen. I shall be delighted if I'm proven wrong.                                                                            (Ho Wai-On's reply to the above para:

My very first supervisor said nobody would look at or use my PhD, and I fired him. Well, you, a respected writer has read it, though you did not think anyone will use it so, that supervisor should at least eat half his hat! )


All this I found most interesting reading. It has taken me quite some time to take on board the coordinates of the  unfamiliar world of quben and to feel somewhat more at home there, but now that is done I feel ready to set out on the voyage into the AudioVideo folder. In my next letter, whenever that is, I shall tell you about the impressions I have received there.


And now for the blare of the groundlings on Bank Holiday Monday!


2 June 2017



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John David Morley's Response:

Ho Wai-On's Creative Autobiographical PhD

with Ho Wai-On's replies in blue


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