Oct/Nov 1998 Miscellany

Bun-Ching Lam: "The Child God"

Review byRichard K. Weems

Bun-Ching Lam presents her second recording for the Tzadik label, The Child God, three compositions based on Chinese texts. The ensemble she chose for this particular recording is a mix of Chinese performers (like pipa virtuoso and fellow composer Wu Man and tenor Chen Shi-Zheng, who appeared in the premiere of Meredith Monk's opera Atlas) and New York instrumentalists (cellist Michelle Kinney and percussionist Danny Tunick, for instance).

This alone does not reflect the mix in Lam's music of both Eastern and Western traditions—though she was born in Macao, she studied composition at the University of California at San Diego. There is a distinct flavor of Chinese music through all the compositions, more so in "Autumn Sound" and "The Great River Flows East." "The Great River" is in its own way classical Chinese sentimentality: the tenor sings praise of the days of powerful emperors and heroes, which becomes a lamentation for growing old ("I long to ride back with the wind, but fear the crystal halls and jade mansions / would be too cold on high") and the realization of one's mortality and fatal attachment to the earth. Chen Shi-Zheng is effective for this piece for tenor accompanied only by percussion, but he is certainly more moving in "Autumn Sound" (based on 12th century texts by Li Ching Chao). These three songs about autumn carry with them from the very start an inherent sadness—the passing of summer vitality captured before the certain death of winter. The performance is strong, and Bun-Ching Lam's music is emotive without becoming overly dramatic.

But the real height of this composer's powers come through in the shadow opera "The Child God," as does the mix of styles. The Chinese songs are prefaced by an English-speaking narrator, which is by no means a kowtow to Western audiences. The narration in fact helps in capturing the moods of the opera, which range from clownish antics, to swashbuckling, to moral-giving parable.

The opera is the tale of No Cha, born with god-like powers. In his adventures he angers the Dragon King by killing a turtle guard and one of the Dragon King's own princes in fierce, mythical battles. The Dragon King intends to take the boy's transgressions out on No Cha's parents. No Cha realizes the responsibility he must take for what he has done and thus kills himself. In the end, he is reincarnated as a saint.

This is the tale as given by The Creation of the Gods, a Ming Dynasty mystical novel, but Lam turns all this into a driving piece of music, enhanced by quick turns of tempo and style found in much of today's American style (like John Zorn and David Shea, even Harry Partch). The harsh plucking and crashing of pipa and percussion found commonly in classic Chinese opera turns suddenly to a comical loping of bass clarinet and cello quite reminiscent of Meredith Monk. Chen Shi-Zheng is masterful, whether growling the fury of the Dragon King or wailing the lamentations of Madam Li, No Cha's mother. Through it all, Bun-Ching Lam presents not just Chinese music with a Western edge to it, but a music that is both Eastern and Western and neither, a new kind of fusion taking place to produce something fresh and quite original.

For other recordings involving a mix of Chinese and American styles, check out Bun-Ching Lam's first Tzadik recording, ...Like Water, or Liu Sola's Blues from the East, renditions of Chinese opera realized with blues accompaniment.


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