Between a gamelan workshop in Bali and leading 2 tours to China, I finished the scene from “Fiery Jade- Cai Yan” I have been working on since spring. It is about 22 minutes in length now; about right as I envision the overall opera; and working on it has allowed me to invent many of the important musical ideas that would be needed to complete the entire three-act opera.
At my last post, I had completed the first half of the scene, in which our (Late Han Dynasty Chinese ) heroine, 18 year-old Cai Yan, is trying to mourn her deceased husband but is abused beyond endurance by her mother-in-law (also a grieving widow). At the end she leaves her mother-in-law’s house to return to her own mother’s house, to join her mother in grieving for her murdered father. (Lots of lost men…The ends of dynasties are really bad times to try to stay alive…)
As she enters her mother’s house, her mind is angry with her experience with her mother-in-law but she is trying to focus on her deceased father and his Confucian self-improvement practice involving the scholarly and ritual instrument called “Guqin” a 7 stringed zither. The music is thus a jangle of dissonant plucked string sounds- performed in my score by harp and pizzicato cello. Gradually there emerges the five note scale of classical China and the seven open strings of the Guqin: C-D-F-G-A-C-D. Other dissonant pitches keep encroaching, as though her mind is still too jangled to play properly and she despairs of this as she addresses her deceased father through his spirit tablet on the family alter. She sits down to contemplate the instrument, and hears in her mind the sound of the Guqin and the “Xiao”- a bamboo flute frequently played with the Guqin. Finally she carefully begins to play, trying several times a piece that she had learned from her father called “Plums Drop.” Each time dissonant wrong notes encroach, causing her once again to despair.
Her mother then approaches, playing the “wooden fish” (Muyu or temple block) of the Buddhists who have recently entered China and who’s message of the illusion of worldly suffering has appealed to many in pain. She sings to her daughter recommending the abandonment of the world in favor of meditation, using the Muyu as a meditation tool. Her music uses a modified North Indian raga, an homage to Buddhism’s origins. This contrasts well with the Chinese pentatonic scale of the Guqin’s melodies and Cai Yan’s previous aria.
These then alternate with each other as the two women dialog about how to deal with their sorrows. As their dialog reaches a climax, the “Three Stars” enter (previously they sang the role of the mother-in-law) and now represent the household servants announcing the violent entry into the city of northern nomadic armies and we hear distant drums. Cai Yan and her mother now repeat their dialogue (or singing past each other!) about how to deal with suffering, but now with the extreme urgency of the situation. As the drums reach their maximum volume, an oboe enters sounding a wild military call, representing, for the first time in the opera, the northern nomadic culture, whose music will be the dominant sound of the next act, and the stage goes to black…
Again, even though the text is not present, I wonder if you can follow the story line just listening to the MIDI playback version. Click the link below for the 12 minute scene.