Commissioned by the 4th SoundBridge Contemporary Music Festival
The title of this piece is adapted from the first line of Mr. Teng Mah Seng’s (1916-1992) original nanyin composition, 《感怀》 (Ruminations). Mr. Teng is considered to be one of the founders of the Singaporean style of nanyin, and sought to produce new nanyin compositions with new lyrics reflecting contemporary concerns, while staying true to the authentic style and performance practices of traditional nanyin music, one of the oldest styles of music in Chinese history as well as in the world.
A large part of this piece is structured around electronically-altered utterances of the first four words of the lyrics, “人生如幻” (“life is an illusion”), making these words barely recognizable. While barely any trace of Teng’s original tune remains within this work, the work abstracts and exemplifies various characteristics of traditional nanyin music, such as its introspective nature, the breathing and phrasing, the focus on various phases of articulation, as well as its heterophonic texture. The music also seeks to engage with the sonic qualities of the words as spoken in authentic quanzhou dialect (which is considered to be closest to ancient Chinese), as opposed to the meaning of the text itself. The quanzhou dialect is unique in its retention of various phonemic intricacies, such as the beginning and ending consonants of words, as well as the use of complex diphthongs, making the study of enunciation of words a hugely important part of learning nanyin singing. I have also attempted to highlight this aspect of the practice of nanyin music through my own piece. The full text only reveals itself right at the end.
Life is an illusion,
I seek joy in wine,
And write a piece to release my troubles.
Even with Jiang Lang’s (ancient figure) literary talent I cannot express my rage in words,
Watching these foxes and rats abuse their authority, subverting right and wrong,
Cheating and pillaging, hypocrites in their well-groomed outfits.
I ask, when will heavenly justice prevail?
With thorns everywhere, there is no place to rest my feet,
But I can set sail anywhere.
With thorns everywhere, there is no place to pause for a break,
Yet, in the distance, I see the shade of willows, bright flowers - a village (a glimmer of hope).
(paraphrased by Jon Lin Chua)
Premiered by Qi Jie (pipa), Song Zijin (erhu), Tsai Pei-Lun (clarinet), Yoshiko Hannya (viola), and Aris Huzaimi (percussion), under the baton of Lee Kok Leong, on 23 November 2019 in the Experimental Studio of Taylor's University (KL, Malaysia)