Glenroy Auditorium, The Dunedin Centre, 1 Harrop Street, Dunedin

16/10/2014 - 16/10/2014

NZ School of Music Concert Hall, Wellington

22/10/2014 - 22/10/2014

Dunedin Arts Festival 2014

Production Details


Arts Festival Dunedin is proud to bring you the world première of Gao Shan Liu Shui – High Mountain Flowing Water. This beautiful show comes direct from China and is a China/New Zealand collaboration that brings together Chinese artists who are masters of their chosen instruments.

Wu Na, one of China’s most accomplished young players of the guqin, plucks this ancient seven string instrument with a touch that awakens its great subtlety and refinement. Her collaborator is Gao Ping, a new generation composer and pianist, who has carved a formidable reputation in New Zealand as an exciting and energetic force in contemporary music making.

Joining forces with Kunqu opera star Dong Fei and live video artist Jon He, under the guidance of New Zealand Director Sara Brodie, the troupe combine their innovative approaches to treat audiences to an exquisite tableau of captivating eastern music theatre telling an ancient story of friendship and loyalty.

The Festival is delighted to have facilitated this production with the Confucius Institute and is excited to host the world première here before a season at Te Papa.

Glenroy Auditorium
The Dunedin Centre, 1 Harrop Street
Thurs 16 October, 8pm

Details and booking


Echoes an ideal of supreme communion and friendship

Review by Jonathan W. Marshall 17th Oct 2014

High Mountain, Flowing Water [Gao Shan Liu Shui] is a central work of Chinese Classical music, the original said to have been composed around 220 BC by Yu Boya, for the bridgeless Chinese zither or qin (sometimes known as the guqin or “old qin” to signify its ancient lineage). The now codified version of this piece is in fact much later, and may be heard here.

The piece is associated with a story from Boya’s life, that the cultured gentleman met a simple woodcutter Zhong Zhi, who, because he lived in nature, amongst the mountain woods and beside streams and rivers, immediately understood and appreciated Boya’s work. Upon Zhi’s death, Boya is said to have smashed his qin, claiming that no one would ever truly appreciate his music again.

Chinese-New Zealand composer Gao Ping and New Zealand stage director Sara Brodie have taken this piece and reworked it as a contemporary multimedia performance. Although hints and even snippets of the now traditional musical piece are included, the performance overall is closer to the work of Japanese composer and artist Tōru Takemitsu, who took Classical Japanese musics and aesthetics, and radically reconfigured them, often by fragmenting earlier works or materials, and then setting these scattered acoustic elements alongside each other within a sparse musical space. Takemitsu’s composition for the film Kwaidan, 1964, are probably the best example of this (see here).

Compared to Takemitsu (whose influence Ping acknowledges), Ping’s own piano playing within this performance is relatively gentle and light, with a tendency towards impressionistic ripples and semi-improvised configurations suggestive of new harmonies. Although there is some parallel here with what is known as microtonalism (Morton Feldman, Harry Partch, etc), Ping’s playing is far more reminiscent of the vaguely disturbed but sometimes almost lyrical pieces of George Crumb, whose works Ping has performed (sample here).

Ping has set his new composition to poetic recitation and singing, delivered in the kunqu style, or an 18th century form of Chinese dance drama and opera from which the later style of Beijing opera (jīngjù) was partly derived.

The combination of kunqu and qin is apt, as kunqu may be distinguished from the more populist form of jīngjù by the more formal language and tendency to quote poetry which features in kunqu. Kunqu works were both patronised by and in some cases composed by members of the intellectual classes of the Chinese Imperial system. It is a form of refined contemplation, and of consideration of philosophic conundrums and of what the natural order (or disorder) might tell us. It is therefore the perfect vessel for this story, and kunqu performer Dong Fei is exceptional in his mannered gestures, refined elegance, and measured, soaring and extended vocal delivery. 

The program gives no credit for the sung text, but given its highly poetic nature, it is most likely adapted from Chinese Classical poetry, either from the kunqu repertoire itself, or another source. In either case, the text gives a beautifully abstract, melancholy, and open-ended feel to the production. As with the projected visuals (by John He), the subtitled sung text (in Chinese) sketches poetic images of the heart, landscape, loss, and beauty, which the audience rests on. The vocals are drawn up in soaring tones then rounded off and closed in a lingering note. We pause, and then the next passage is delivered. 

Fei’s gestures, generally one for each vocal passage, create arcs of hands and water sleeves (the rippling cloth which extends out past the hands in costume for many Chinese dance-drama forms, as in kunqu and jīngjù). At one particularly striking moment, Fei whips his sleeves violently into the ground, over and over again, repeatedly circling to bring the full force of his lithe form into his sweeping arms as they rise and then flick down again, deep, low and hard. 

As the music builds, we appreciate that Fei has become the qin, and that it is he, physically, who is being wracked upon this field of grief. Earlier Fei had reflected that the qin player is the audience to the body of the instrument. Here this becomes tragically realised, as the perfect relation between player and listener is irrevocably lost. 

The projected imagery is also discreet and apt, drawing on the Chinese Classical scroll painting which intellectuals once prided themselves on executing, as well as the arts of calligraphy. As in the credits for Kwaidan (see above), jets of ink move across the projection screen as though released into water, these airy streams evoking the waterfalls that surround the characters, almost imperceptibly moving with the transition of the characters’ contemplations into the words we see written and hear sung, and the throws of emotion which these evocations produce.

As for qin virtuoso Wu Na, who doubles with Ping in performing the music, the pair partner extremely well. Although Chinese Classical composition is increasingly notated, generally material is partially improvised around clearly established themes and frameworks. Given the absence of any scores on stage, and the visibly close rapport between all three performers, this would appear to be the case here. 

The guqin is often associated with string bending techniques, and simple, spare playing which alternates with great ripples of rapid-fire ornamentation by the left hand.

Na is by contrast extremely restrained. Such approaches do appear intermittently, but the focus is largely upon a much more minimalist sound. As is commonplace today, the qin has microphones placed close against the body, and so the sound of the slap of strings against the wood, or of ‘dead notes’, plucked whilst pushed down so tightly that they barely resonate, become highly emphasised in performance. 

Like Ping, Na explores these types of extended technique, often playing very close to the end of the instrument, where the strings have less give, and come out sharper and higher, or caressing the strings with a steel rod to give a rolling, elegant sound. Ping, for his part, reaches into the piano to pluck the strings directly. Overall, their style is close to that of contemporary post-classical improvisation or post-Coltrane jazz. 

It is unsurprising then that the tendency within qin composition for quite a strong rhythmic structure is accentuated here. One passage towards the middle of the piece almost comes across as disturbed blues, with a heavy riff on qin and piano. Nevertheless, the rhythms are not without complexity, actual rhythmic accents and beats often being a product of the relationship between the two instruments and their interweaving, rather than any one instrument acting as a kind of bass or drum for a principal melodic player. There is a kind of funk here, with the absence of the sounded beat in one instrument often being picked up or partially augmented by another. 

This is of course what gives the music, and indeed the performance as a whole, its delicacy and beauty. The production is true collaboration in the sense that each element answers or completes the rhythms, emotions, effects or images of the other forms. Even so, the work has a great deal of space to breathe within it. The concatenation of multiple formal elements does not have the effect of grand spectacle or heavily emphasised melodrama, but rather of a much slower, more expansive place within which existential considerations might be enjoyed. 

The story of Boya dates from China’s Warring States Period, when multiple forces seeking control of the divided empire created havoc across the land, with regimes, villages, and the lives of many, constantly being interrupted or even extinguished. Boya’s tale thus offers a model of an unselfish oasis in the midst of such conflict, an all too rare moment of beauty where individuals of very different backgrounds attained supreme communion and friendship. The form of Ping’s new production itself echoes this ideal, and presents us with a model which we might do well to adopt not only within contemporary arts, but also life.


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