Taken from a story by the same title in 聊斋志异 Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (1740) published in Qing dynasty China by 蒲松龄 Pu Songling (1640 ~ 1715), 鬼哭 Wailing Ghosts explores different live processing aspects of voice and non-pitched instruments in addition to acoustic and theatric performance. The piece employs text-painting through live and synthetic timbres to portray a narrative heard in Mandarin and Sanskrit such that even those unfamiliar with these natural languages can comprehend. The text used is mostly from the above tale with an added Buddhist mantra of Ksitigarbha at the end.
To briefly summarize the tale: at the time of the Xie Qian troubles, the residences of the nobility were all commandeered by the rebels including the residence of Commissioner Wang. When the government eventually retook the town, every porch was strewn with corpses and blood flowed from every doorway. Since then, Wang frequently saw ghosts in the day and night, hearing the ghosts wailing in various corners of the house. He eventually ordered a lengthy ritual performed to depart the wandering souls. Ever since, the hauntings ceased.
I took a new approach in this piece when dealing with the text. Rather than setting the text in a traditional way, instead I act as narrator to present the text directly. Since Chinese is a melodic language, through the dramatic reading, the nuance of the melodic contour of the text can be easily perceived. The live-processed electronic sounds further amplify the character of the language. The Chinese opera gong used in this piece achieves multiple layers of functionality: from the timbral perspective, striking with mallet and palm brings out different levels of complex sounds; when used with singing, the gong acts as a filter giving the sound a special effect; from the theatric perspective, the gong acts as a mask, separating the narrator and the characters of the story.
Li Tao is a composer and pianist from China. While Chinese traditional culture profoundly influences her, years of living in the U.S., culminating in the receipt of her Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of Oregon in 2020, have formed her distinct multicultural musical language. Her primary interests include acoustic and electroacoustic composition, performance, and theoretical analysis of compositional techniques and aesthetics. She maintains a deep interest in the inner connections between composer, performer, and instrument. As an interdisciplinary performer, Tao is actively performing both classical and contemporary, acoustic and electroacoustic music in concerts and music festivals. Tao’s music has been performed by numerous musicians and ensembles across Asia, Europe, North America, and Australia.