Maestro weaved his magic to convey spirit of novel
Wang Liping talks as if it had just happened yesterday.
At 76 he can still recall vividly the day he was chosen to be the composer of the television adaptation of the Dream of the Red Chamber, one of the four masterpiece of Chinese literature written by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) author Cao Xueqin.
It was 1980, and in a small hotel room in Beijing a panel of a dozen people asked Wang asked for his views on the novel and on the main characters, such as Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu. The questioners included Wang Fulin, the director of a planned 36-episode TV adaptation of the novel.
“You can’t please everyone, so just be upfront and honest,” Wang says he told himself before facing the interviewers.
When he had read the novel as a teenager it had not quite been his cup of tea, he says.
“The story is told slowly. I found it tedious at the start because there’s no drama. However, the more I read on, the more I liked it. It’s a tragedy but it’s full of beautiful sadness.”
If he was chosen to compose the music for the TV series he would use “emotionally and beautifully tragic rhythms”, he told those gathered that day.
By that time, Wang Liping, who was born in Changchun, Jilin province, and obtained a degree in composition from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing in 1965, had composed for some popular movies, including Shaolin Temple, the debut film of Jet Li, the Chinese martial arts movie star, which was directed by Chang Hsinyen in 1982.
“Writing the film score for Dream of the Red Chamber had long been my dream. When I read the novel I imagined writing music for each of the main characters.”
So when he was told he had been selected to write the score for the TV series he was thrilled, he says.
He told Wang Fulin that he wanted to compose the music independently because “the emotion needed to be cohesive and private”, Wang Liping says. He also went out of his way not to read the script because he wanted to envision his own ver- sion of the story.
“Unlike other elements of the TV series such as costumes, scripts and settings that can be sourced from the novel, music didn’t exist at all,” Wang Liping says of the challenges he faced. “I just read the novel over and over again, and I came up with the tempo that the writer Cao Xueqin set.”
It took him four and a half years to finish the 13 original music pieces for the TV adaptation of Dream of the Red Chamber.
When the 36-episode series premiered in 1987 on Central Television, all the musical pieces, including Wang Ning Mei and Zang Hua Yin, became instantly popular.
Starsing Music Group, a record company in Guangzhou, recently released a vinyl version of the soundtrack of the TV series as part of its Vinyl Revival project, which aims to promote a comeback of vinyl.
Wang Liping says he suffered many a sleepless night and man- aged to portray the characters with his music every single day.
“With each song finished, I would invite the director, those who are experts on the novel and others from the production team to my home to listen to the song I played on my piano.”
Apart from writing the score, the other big challenge for him was to find the right singer to interpret the songs.
“I didn’t want to have professionals or well-known singers because they have their own styles. I was looking for someone who would match the particular role in the TV series.”
He then discovered Chen Li, an amateur singer, an assembly line worker in a car factory in Changchun.
Chen, who was introduced to Wang Liping through a friend in Changchun, had learned Peking Opera, and her voice was “clean and pure”, he says.
“I taught her how to sing the songs word by word. She learned very quickly and was highly flexible and adaptable. She was like a little girl walking into the garden in the Dream of the Red Chamber. Her singing is full of curiosity. She recognized the tragedy of characters in the novel, and she sang with absolute empathy.”
Over the past 30 years many singers have performed the songs from the TV series, but for many aficionados of fine music the original versions of the songs are hard to beat.
“For me, composing for Dream of the Red Chamber turned out to be a lifelong honor, even if it did not come without hardships,” Wang Liping says. ”Everybody’s hard work paid off, and even though 30 years have passed since the TV series was first shown, people still talk about it and say how they love the music. For them it conveys the spirit of Cao’s novel.”
Composer Wang Liping spent four and a half years to finish the 13 original music pieces for the TV drama.