Mortals must age, plans go awry, dreams end too soon.
Love too deep, a shallow grave may hold, 'neath westering sun
The Peony Pavilion - Chapter33: Secret Plans
By Tang Xianzu
The poem carved on my flute spoke of the inevitability of growing old; the passing of time. For a brief moment, the winter sun caught a pear missed at harvest on the tree. Sitting in my kitchen in Surrey looking out over the skeleton of Spring, the once plump fruit, glistening with dew looked like the first bud before the blossom. But as the sunlight passed it revealed itself as the forgotten fruit of summer, shrivelled on the branch. I was practicing in my kitchen because of the view and because it's cold in the music room. I don't mind the cold, but the instrument I'm playing does. Playing my normal silver flute, extremes of temperature or humidity don't really concern me, however the flute I was practicing on was made of wood. Bamboo to be precise. I didn't want the wood to split.
There is something about the simplicity of a bamboo flute that connects with the past. A simple wooden cylinder with a few holes (8 in this case) is one of the oldest instruments known to man. When I think of the past of the modern Boehm flute, my performing predecessors come to mind instantly, as the concert flute that you would recognise was invented in the middle of the 19th century. The simple wooden flute however goes back to the earliest records of man; the players, the millions of flute players creating melodies from a few notes over thousands of years is something we can only imagine. Every culture I can think of has their version of a flute. Irish whistles to Japanese shakuhachi, Indian bansuri to Peruvian pipes. If music is the universal language, then the flute is it's voice.
The instrument I'm playing is from Shanghai and is probably the most famous of all the Chinese flutes, the Dizi (Roughly pronounced Dee-it-zuh). The eight holes consist of 6 finger holes, 1 embouchure hole (The one you blow over) and one between them all which is covered with a thin membrane of the soft internal part of bamboo. It looks a little like a cigarette paper but is even thinner and is called the Dimo. This vibrates when you play creating the distinctive buzzing timbre. I often grow tired of oboe and bassoon players moaning about reeds all of the time, but quite frankly, cutting the dimo to size and getting it in the right place is an art in itself, so I am slightly more sympathetic.
I've had various instruments over the years for use in the LSOs film work. If you really have nothing better to do, you can hear me playing dizi on the film Around the World in 80 days with Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But seriously, only if you have nothing to do...it's a terrible film. The flute I was practicing on and in fact, all of flutes I own have Chinese characters painted or carved on them...and I don't mean Jackie Chan. They are often fragments of Chinese poetry, so on a film session years ago I asked Chi what the script on my (very cheap from Camden Market) flute said. I hoped that it would be something to do with the summer breeze, or flower blossom, the passing of time or perhaps a wise proverb echoing through the ages.
"Can you read it?" I asked. It was quite roughly stamped on the headjoint.
"Yes, of course." Chi replied.
"Great! What does it say?" I asked, at last about to discover the true destiny of my flute.
"Made in Hong Kong."
In Beijing, jet lag renders all night as day. The smoke alarm on the ceiling pulses a red ring of light every few seconds and in my dreamlike state, it becomes the ring around a planet in my mind. The air conditioning unit thrums in the background and every now and then the dull ping of the lift drifts under the door as another traveller, lacking heavy sleep goes back to the bar. A late night call to my daughter briefly merges into sleep, but dreams end too soon. I hear a dizi in the distance playing a melody. As I open my eyes, the sound remains. I draw the curtains and look down from the 11th floor to see a man busking outside the tube station below. I'm not dreaming, he really is there. I decide to take this as a good omen. The rest of the orchestra has already left for Shanghai for a day off and it's just a group of five of us left in the hotel. As I descend to breakfast, I suddenly realise that hotels around the world are usually peaceful, half empty places, except when an orchestra arrives and takes over. I sit in relative peace but unfortunately the silence created by the orchestral void means I can hear the music being played through the speakers. It's the same as it's been since we arrived; a continuous loop of the first 40 bars of the 2nd Movt of the Mozart Flute and Harp concerto. It's been driving me mad. On an average leisurely breakfast, you can easily hear the same bit 25 times and I find myself humming it involuntarily for days. Today, the busker outside is winding an uneasy counterpoint, creating a musical landscape that Charles Ives would be proud of; however it's not the East/West fusion I was aiming for and so I quickly go back upstairs to get ready.
Poetry is the reason I was learning how to play the dizi and the reason I'm now sitting in my hotel room in Beijing about to give the world premiere performance of a new piece written for me by Raymond Yiu. We've been away from home for the best part of two weeks and there is a chance that my pear tree now has buds forming, but the view from my room is less than poetic. What I can see through the smog is a five lane roundabout suspended above a motorway that goes through the centre. The dream and reality are often far from each other. In Britain and around the world, William Shakespeare is being celebrated for his 400th anniversary but over here in China, their great poet from the same era, Tang Xianzu is being celebrated in much the same way. In a private concert for our sponsor Reignwood, we have put together a programme celebrating the two writers where East meets West. Tang Xianzu was well known for poetry about dreams, and one of Shakespeare's most famous plays deals with the dreams of midsummer.
The piece that Ray has written is titled, And Nights Bright Days, a line from Shakespeare's sonnet 43. It's a beautiful work inspired partly by the poetry of dreams and longing, (an excerpt at the start of this piece) but it also has a haunting and deeply sad quality - the work is written in memory of Ray's friend Andrew Lindup, who was tragically killed during its composition. It really is an honour to play it.
As I walk out onto the stage of the Reignwood theatre, I stand alone. It's a lonely place for a lonely piece. The pressure of a world premiere as a solo instrumentalist with the composer in the stalls is hard enough. The fact that I'm playing a Chinese flute to an almost exclusively Chinese audience makes me pause, the warmth of the bamboo at my lips. It's like taking coals to Newcastle or more suitably, importing tea to China. Out of the corner of my eye I can see my colleagues standing in the wings, waiting to see what's going to happen, intrigued. Up until now I've been quite coy and kept the dizi out of the LSO gaze, but now here I am, no turning back. I play and as the final note dies away, three hundred camera phones point in my direction approvingly. The sound that I make on the dizi is quite different to the sound of the professional player who entertains us at dinner. He plays with the Peking opera and the intense, distilled sound of his performance fits perfectly with the timbre of the singers and instruments that form their distinctive sound. I had taken their instrument and played it in a different style in a brand new piece - I'm not sure I'd have had the correct sound if I had been trying to play along with my Chinese colleague though! But my intention was never to imitate but using Ray's brilliant new piece, to create a fusion of styles. East meets West. One of the guests at the banquet afterwards came to speak to me.
"Did you enjoy the piece?" I asked
"Yes very much. It was interesting to hear a foreigner playing dizi. I've never heard that before."
"Oh, right. Well, how was it for you?"
"It sounded different, but at it's centre there were dreams and echoes of China."
I expect he writes the poems for the flute manufacturers.
Finally back in my room at the end of the day, I spoke to my family again. Jet lag is still allowing early morning phone calls.
"How did the Chinese flute piece go?" asks my daughter.
"Great! Like a dream darling."
"Good...are you coming home soon dad?"
"Yes, soon. Very soon..."
How would, I say, mine eyes be blessed made
By looking on thee in the living day.
When in dead night thy fair imperfect shade
Through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay?
All days are nights to see till I see thee,
And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me
Fragment from Sonnet 43 by William Shakespeare
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