Monday, June 15, 2015

Yellow River

Today's musical companion for my evening walk was a lifelong favourite, the Yellow River Concerto. I first heard it in my dorm room in Syracuse, sitting with my room-mate from Macau (via Hong Kong, which still existed back then!). Agnes had a large collection of Chinese music, as I did Indian, and it was the music that played as we both fell asleep. There was something about the still dark Syracuse night and the sound of Cantonese opera that seemed made for each other.

But of all the music Agnes played, and that I taped from her, the Yellow River Concerto remains special. I brought back a cassette where I copied it and as I walked around the Fort or Colaba running errands or getting to class, it played loudly in my ears, reminding me (as it still does) that my world is larger than the place where I sit, that all this too belongs to me.

Reluctant to wear out that precious tape further, I was delighted to discover that Lang Lang had done performances of the piece and that I could buy a recording on CD as well--which is what I played today.

As I sat down to write this post, I finally Googled the Yellow River Concerto, I learned that this piece I love was commonly reviled. That must have something to do with its origins as the composition of a collective in the Cultural Revolution era. There are also suggestions that parts of it were plagiarised. I don't know enough about music to pronounce a judgment on the matter.

I can only tell you that this piece of music has always spoken to me.

In school, studying Chinese geography, we learnt that the Yangtze was the source of both life and sorrow to the Chinese who lived along its banks. Frequent floods and changes of course had a dramatic impact on people's lives and livelihoods. The image I took away from geography class of a large yellowish river, so large you could not see one bank from another, rolling, swelling and rising in rage to consume all in its wake found its background score in the Yellow River Concerto.

Sitting in our little room in the International Living Centre, blasting the Concerto on the boombox, or walking across Flora Fountain with it playing on the Walkman, each time it was (and is) as if a story unfolded before me in four parts.

The first part is loud and dramatic. The river comes at you, all sound and fury, and like a horror movie, you run as fast as you can, but the river is just faster and more determined. Like tsunami waves more than a swelling river, the disaster sweeps everything away.

In the second part, you watch a little toddler sleep. The day gone by has been full of tantrums and tears, and much tearing around in between. The household is in a shambles and its other members are wrecked. But the toddler sleeps gently and peacefully, a cherub. You imagine a calm Yangtze after the floods and fury are spent, utterly still as you pick up the pieces of your life.

In the third, the music reminds you that rivers are centres of life--civilizations grow around rivers. You see the bathers, the swimmers, the people washing clothes, the livestock quenching their thirst and the canals that take water out to the fields. You think of what Will Durant wrote: "Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river." 

The first few notes of the fourth part are dramatic, as if a storm weather warning has sounded. All parts of the concerto, all the moods and movements of the Yangtze come together. Some are sanguine, some are scurrying. This is life. 

I think I am fortunate to be able to enjoy music without making every session a game of Trivial Pursuit and Technical Excellence. I am able to close my eyes and imagine the Yellow River, something I may never see in this lifetime, just by listening to its eponymous concerto and cantata--unfettered by other concerns than this journey in my head. 

Watch a performance of the four parts of the Concerto here

This is a recording of the first movement of the Yellow River Cantata, from which the Concerto is said to borrow a great deal. 

This links to the playlist comprising the full Cantata.