The following is about the materials included in the Audio/Video folder, access this from the "Creative PhD" link on the side bar.
I once read a remark of Birtwhistle’s about music being a sound that was always going on, but which you heard only when you opened the door. My guess is he made this comparison from the writer of music’s POV rather than from the listener’s. Some action, or perhaps: suspension of inaction: such as opening a door, probably needs to be assumed to explain the creation of a piece of music, or poetry, or whatever. Very striking is the notion about a sound that is always going on, unheard until heard, a sentence one might expect from a Buddhist writer. It’s the kind of thing I would find in keeping with Nagarjuna, whose the goer does not go has pursued me since I came across it twenty years ago. More on that subject much later.
The title you give what you call your music video is You Are Not Alone. Your declared intention is not to write an opera, under whatever name, but to provide materials for a Cross-cultural combined arts Prototype etcetera, which is not an immediately appealing title for anything, even something in a jar of conserving fluid. Let me just say that You Are Not Alone would make a good title for what for the time being I guess we just describe as a work in progress.
Whatever the genre under which you classify it, my hunch is that you are treading softly here, testing the water a little bit, or maybe a lot, before risking a splash and going all in, which accords with my retrospectively amended intuitive memory of you at our one (??) meeting at the Old Cottage.
My hunch is you would like to finish the work in progress some day and present it as a complete stand-alone piece of music-and-words drama. This is the hunch I have after lifting the veils of what I interpret as an element of obfuscation surrounding your PhD. Certainly I would encourage you to do that, should you be so inclined. For the time being we have to cobble it together for ourselves and guess what direction to go in along the paper trail you leave – still leaving us to imagine where the trail might lead.
I’ll begin with the bit I can approach best, or at least more confidently than the music: the words. I would like to quote the section that struck me on first reading and which, like the music excerpts I have heard, has remained with me the longest, the You are not alone sequence from Act 11.
Many friends, including old friends and those I thought were good friends, did not visit me during my battle with cancer… Perhaps people were afraid? Perhaps it’s human nature, not wanting to be in places where there can’t be much fun? Perhaps the demands of life make us not want to get involved…? Perhaps this was a good thing after all – it forced me to be strong… seeing weakness in others. Ha! The cancer patient is the one to sympathise and understand…friends, old friends and good friends…
No infection – you need no protection. Yet where are you, my friend? Have you flown? And am I left to moan, alone, all alone?
My demeanour is courageous, my condition, not contagious, yet where are you, old friend? Have you flown? And am I left to groan, alone, all alone?
It’s quite outrageous – I’m not contagious. Yet where are you, my good friend? Have you flown? And am I left to moan, alone, all alone?
I sustain a smile in company; my demeanour is courageous; my condition, not contagious, yet you who spoke of love have flown. I am left to groan and moan, alone, all alone.
Who rings the bell? It’s me, it’s me. But no-one comes – They flee, they flee, and flee, from me. Am I left to moan and groan, alone, all alone?
If I show too much need, no one comes – they flee from my need, my need, leaving me to groan and moan, alone, all alone.
Though I can’t infect you, no mask will protect you from the gloom that stalks my room. You, my friend, my old friend, my good friend, and you who spoke of love, did I not see your need, your need?
There is already music in this, brought out in the beautiful speaking of it, with such sensitively placed pauses and emphases, by Deborah Foote (AV16 in the folder). It’s a fine piece of writing, finely judged: a poem: and what makes it a poem is that the fine judgments don’t itrude, aren’t seen as such, it all just seems to fall effortlessly into place.
The internal rhymes, for example. Having read about the tonal values of such importance in the Chinese language in general and Cantonese opera in particular, I am guessing you will have sought out corollaries to satisfy you and your thesis. An internal rhyming scheme provides one such. That the rhyming words vary reinforces the effect. Most effective is the repetition and variation of the two epithets used for friends, platitudes. They are good and old friends and depending on the way Deborah places her emphases they may not be friends at all. Inflections such as irony, sarcasm, timidity, anger and scorn all contribute importantly even in some of the titles, eg. The best cancer to have or Radio Fun. The trademark internal rhyme echoes continue throughout. The libretto is peppered with puns, which also pop up in titles, as in Operation Blind Date. The mating/sexual innuendoes are disturbing in this context, the mere notions mooted in Still desirable? may even come as a shock. All this rings true and solid right through.
Here and there (Who rings the bell? It’s me, it’s me) shades of Emily Dickinson hover over the lines. Another ghost doesn’t just hover, he lands and leaves a Kilroy mark at the point where I have underscored the words They flee, they flee, and flee, from me. The involuntary reminder of Thomas Wyatt’s poem points up so many fascinating comparisons that you may want to investigate and read the poem in full, of which I will here quote only the first (and in my opinion best) verse.
They flee from me, that sometime did me seek
With naked foot stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.
Fine writing is as about fine details, such as your use of the word “yet”. In modern usage, it comes after something in opposition to what follows it. The word also carries a now slightly archaic flavour of “still“, as in “not yet done”. This moves you a subtle half tone off the more common modern meaning “but”. Or the triple repetition of “flee”, with the all-important “and” reinforcing a sense of urgency. And no less important is that you sustain the passage throughout. It does not falter, putting me in mind of a musical analogy: the crescendo.
AV16 offers half a dozen ways of doing alternative backdrops, what you call surround sounds, to a few phrases from this sequence. To my mind, these were too much of a kind, insufficiently differentiated. As an alternative to the horn I wonder if you have considered the shakuhachi. You offer much more differentiation with the YANA series numbered 4 to 5c. I thought 4 was good and 5a featuring soprano solo even better. I was less taken with the drums and wind instruments in 5b, and the accompaniment in 5c was too much of a good thing, obscuring and indeed suffocating the spare beauty I found so transparent and moving in the soprano solo rendering.
How does AV2 Magic Banyan fit into the grander design of the WIP? It's a charming piece and gives a persuasive narrative of moving images telling a story familiar to us all, but….have I missed a connection here?
Dracula at No.6 succeeded completely for me, I think in part because of my personal experience, on a number of separate occasions, with the noises made by life-saving equipment. I was reminded of the quite amazing variety of noises off I heard in intensive care units, the static of a radio between the stations as someone twiddled the tuner, the clatter of coffee cups and the really burdensome chatter of staff drinking them – and the key theme of the sounds associated with the instruments monitoring the patient's condition. Sonic pings reach a crescendo and fall back again, leaving us with one isolated ping repeated at longer intervals as, so I sensed, we approached life termination as the piece ends, realizing the inevitability of both.
Intriguing your comments about the music being like bats (like bats? the sound bats make? but do we hear bats? I think the bats are in their own ultrasonic world humans cannot access without specialized listening equipment, but maybe that’s just your point), before adding “in reality more like bird song. “ I didn’t get that, either, but it’s what’s going through the composer’s mind that matters. Likewise the comparison with Cantonese opera female singers. From the video clips I can hear what you mean, chirruping I guess, but without sympathy, as a result of completely lacking a sense of familiarity which would allow me to identify.
Purists (I think of Wittgenstein’s resistance to the idea that music is or says anything other than itself, trashing as irrelevant the interpolation of human feelings into the equation, which for me is nonsense) seem to object to the free associations all non-purists have, and I think cannot but have, when they listen to music. If we ruled the listener’s feelings out of the equation we could scrap film music for a start.
Providing the segue to Revolving clockwork figures. You do this well. If you’ve seen Fellini’s Casanova you can hardly not recall the sequence of Casanova having or attempting to have sex with the clockwork toy woman, which is what I saw when I listened to your music. Ah, the gift of free association! Where would we be without it?
Getting to know you at AV10 is another case (5c was the first) of quite dense instrumental accompaniment, which I think works here simply because there’s a lot going on, as the title would lead one to expect.
Your commentary on Radio Fun at AV11 includes the observation about the music “mimicking Cantonese speech”, an observation I am content to leave with you and your fellow Cantonese speakers. For me the association was again with film music, this time for Kubrick’s Space Odyssey. In all these titles and much of the music you show wit, which I guess is a rarer quality in music than in words.
I have to say that I looked at some of the Cantonese opera clips but didn’t, in fact couldn’t, watch any of them all the way through. All the clips at around 10 minutes are way longer than any of your own samples on offer here. If I were a supervisor on you PhD panel I would suspect you of “padding”, the same point I felt needed making about your thesis as a whole. But I can now hear, as I could not before, that you indeed have good grounds for the cross-cultural claims you have been making. The point I made about the tonal values of the Chinese/ Cantonese language having provided the pretext that delivered the internal rhyme scheme is one persuasive and most important ground. And if I remember rightly, YANA was to some extent indebted to musical clues you found in a Cantonese opera. Beyond the facile statement that here, there and everywhere one hears memories of a musical sensibility that is “Chinese” I have nothing more substantive to offer. (Ho Wai-On's reply to the above para. :
I am now convinced that the Cantonese opera of my childhood, due to its unique HK dialect/colloquial language of the time, and as the microcosm of that part of the society closely linked with it, cannot be appreciated by Westerners. I have not come across any who can — unlike Japanese Kabuki, Noh and Gagaku that are appreciated or at least respected. It's necessary to have the life experience so as to appreciate it — hence my including the autobiographical element in my thesis. Though, as you have observed, I do not like talking about the dark side of my childhood.
As for your comment on "padding", the longer Cantonese opera examples represent the pinnacle of HK Cantonese opera of the time — it would be disrespectful of me not to present them whole. However, they may not appeal to those who have not experienced/loved the live performances of these top performers, and especially those who are not from the same background. Those who love them would listen and watch these again and again, and consider them to be unsurpassable.)
All these bits and bobs are scattered around and the exegesis and commentaries are in still other places, making it not so easy to keep track of what belongs where, and what one may have overlooked. I have placed all the YANA material in Act 11, i.e. the 4 to 5c pieces (total of four) and Deborah’s “voice-over” on AV 15. I have been particularly curious to learn if we already have a musical rendering of this text in full, as naturally it’s the one I would be particularly keen to hear. But either it hasn’t been written yet or I must have overlooked (overheard) it, which I find difficult to believe. So please set my mind at rest as to the musical or otherwise fate of this as yet finest passage I have come across in the entire libretto.
While the Heroine gestalt is absolutely clear, I’m not so clear about her male counterpart. If you stick with the Cantonese matrix, there surely has to be a degree of potential attachment, love or hate, attraction or repulsion, but at least the makings of an emotional relationship between Heroine and Hero. I don’t yet see in the ensemble any male figure who can match up to this role requirement. It hasn’t escaped me that no male voice has figured in the audio. Not impossible to elaborate a consultant to fill this male role, but not easy, either, given the circumstances in the hospital where Heroine undergoes her operation. He may naturally be the cause of fear and loathing in the Heroine, but love?
However, we must have a substance, a human character and a narrative to embody that line yet you who spoke of love have flown. We must see and hear that person, who might of course be a woman rather than a man. A visitor who comes to the ward and perhaps is shocked by the patient they find there? And whose visits peter out after a while, for reasons already quite clear, leaving Heroine in the lurch? This still unbodied character is the major weakness in the libretto as it stands, and the success of the whole undertaking, no less, depends on your finding a solution to it.
The most promising avenue I can see would be opened up by rejecting the Cantonese matrix, yet again, pairing Heroine with a female visitor-friend she has to break with in the wake of her realization that after the operation she has become someone her visitor-friend no longer recognizes as the woman she loved. This would be an invigorating modernization of the Cantonese template, to say the least. And you could give it a further twist up the spiral by likewise transforming the top consultant / surgeon whose attention the patients vie for into a woman.
My final suggestion would be along the lines of what we might conceive as an opera with a working title + nod in the direction of Stravinsky to get us on track: The Patient’s Progress. For perhaps the experience of cancer and of being subjected to all the indignities to which a hospital patient is exposed teaches the Heroine something about the values of common humanity she has hitherto underestimated in the comfort zone of her life. We can even think of her as having been in some way, in the company of fellow sufferers, redeemed by an understanding of what common humanity in practice means. Without intruding, I would like to suggest that you might discover in this idea an approximation to the halfway house in which you personally have lived, located between HK and UK, between familiarity with the lower strata in the one and lack of such familiarity in the other.
This, imho, is your story.
(13 July 2017)
John David Morley to Me
John David Morley was an English writer and novelist, the youngest child of the artist and sculptor 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.
John David Morley's critical comments:
with Ho Wai-On's replies (in blue)