May 2000 Film Music CD Reviews Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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EDITOR'S CHOICE - New Collection May 2000


Collection: The Film Music of Zhao JIPING    Electric Shadows includingFarewell My Concubine and Raise the Red LanternChina Symphony Orchestra and China Symphony Chorus conducted by Hu Bing Xu    TELDEC 0630-17114-2 [77:07]

This unusual, and therefore invaluable album for the serious film music enthusiast, is an insight into Jipling's highly individual but very effective mix of Chinese/Western music for films from China like Raise the Red Lantern and Farewell My Concubine which have won great international acclaim and awards. It is a potent combination that has broad international appeal yet still retains the essential Chinese spirit and culture. Indeed, its impression of authenticity is enhanced with the inclusion of so many colourful Chinese instruments - - sometimes en masse as in the use of the percussion instruments of the Beijing Opera for the aforementioned scores.

In short, this is a collection of entrancing music beautifully played and recorded in vivid sound.

Zhao Jipling's work has embraced opera and orchestral and chamber works as well as film music. His non film music includes: Silk Road Rhapsody, a concerto for wind instruments and orchestra; the Yellow River Suite; the symphonic poem, The Baltic; and the opera The Elm Blossom. Zhao Jiping was the only representative of an Asian country to be invited to take part in the Second International Discussion Forum on Film Music in Switzerland. He has been the subject of a documentary film shown throughout the world.

An explanation of the album's title - "Electric Shadows" is a term borrowed from the popular art form of the shadow-show and is the literal translation of the Chinese word for film.

The opening two tracks are of music from the film To Live and a number of ethnic instruments are featured over slow moving strings to produce dream-like ethereal music of serene beauty. These instruments are: the banhu (a Chinese string instrument) the erh-hu (a two-string bowed fiddle, and p'i-p'a (a lute that is played vertically).

The Sunbird tells of the fate and struggle for survival of a female dancer in a claustrophobic Chinese society and uses a large orchestra with a sheng (a seventeen-pipe mouth organ) and bawu (a bamboo flute) adding to the iridescent range of colour. Two numbers are included from the score, `Two Trees' and `Spirit of the Peacock' After a quiet meditative opening for sheng and organ-like synths, wooden blocks and assorted drums accompany Yang Liping in her speech-song, in march/dance like rhythms and in crescendo and increasingly faster tempi. `Spirit of the Peacock' is a lovely evocation: one imagines woodwinds in birdsong, harp figures portraying little cascades of water and small bells summoning spirits. At length the music quickens and to a frenzied dance complete with an array of tambourines, drums, blocks and gongs before it broadens out into the sort of grand romantic theme one would associate with the Hollywood's Golden Age.

Ju Dou was a melodrama about an older, impotent man who mistreats his young wife and loses her to his adopted nephew. Zhao uses practically only a single instrument a xun, an oviform wind instrument made from clay (with gong strokes and timpani rolls and other percussive instruments for colour and dramatic effect plus a child's voice intoning a traditional song). The xun wonderfully expresses both sexual longing and at the same time denial as well as a kind of otherworldly wistfulness.

Farewell My Concubine charts 30 years of chaotic social upheaval in China's history as seen through the eyes of two actors from the Beijing Opera. It begins with the massed percussion of the Beijing opera sounding, to western ears, perhaps, more like the clashing of pan lids than cymbals and like music that might be associated with the dragon parades in celebration of the Chinese New Year. The two cues are entitled: `Brotherly Love and Stage Life' and `The Curtain Falls'. Contemplative music, at first accompanied by a wheezy sounding wind instrument, then develops into pastoral/mystical material that strongly reminds one of Vaughan Williams in similar mode. Later in `The Curtain Falls' more assertive and dramatic music alternates with softer material played on another mix of exotic instruments.

Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker is about sexual transgression and moral transgression. The two-movement suite begins with gentle, then increasingly passionate love music for slow moving strings and ethnic winds, with horns adding a forlorn note and distant perspectives in `The Love between Chun Zhi and Niu Bao' `On the Yellow River:Unflinching Love' introduces more western-style sweepingly dramatic music, although I would not go so far as to equate it with Steiner or Korngold as the author of the notes does, besides there is much exotica to underline dramatic turbulence.

The most significant part of this album is the 21-minute suite of music from Raise the Reed Lantern divided into four movements: `Overture', `Women (Xu Lian and Mei Shan)', `Fate' and `Metempsychosis'. In Raise the Red Lantern there are two dominant themes: the power of ritual over the freedom of the individual and the sexual and social repression of women in a feudal country such as China, still following the teachings of Confucius. Here Zhao Jiping uses a highly effective device borrowed from the Beijing opera with the chorus constantly repeating the phrase "Li-Ge Long" to express its utter contempt of women. The eerily threatening character of the music - a threat perceptible only on a subliminal level- serves to underscore the sombre events in the lives of the head of the household and his four concubines.

The chorus of womens voices, detached and beautifully ethereal even when intoning the dreaded `Li-Ge Long' (as if to repudiate the assertion), contrast with earthier percussion strokes to elevate `Overture' into an almost prayer-like elegy. This mood continues with the women's voices caressing `Women (Xu Lian and Mei Shan)' accompanied by glistening, sympathetic string figures. `Fate' knocks with cold insistent wooden block blows and more agitated womens' voices. This music has a sort of folk-song quality. The final movement, Metempsychosis, has a feeling of resignation, and chill distance, and detachment, but the force of `Li-Ge Long' is tempered with a cautious gentle optimism for the future?

A rewarding album for the adventurous film and film music enthusiast.


Ian Lace



Ian Lace

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