Alexina Louie’s MUSICAL JOURNEY
The Chinese-Canadian composer found her voice by returning to her roots
When The National Arts Centre Orchestra takes to the stage in Hong Kong next month, the respected Chinese-Canadian composer Alexina Louie will celebrate a homecoming of sorts.
Her work Bringing The Tiger Down From The Mountain will help open the NACO’s major seven-city tour of China in October. That in itself is gratifying, but it also marks a major step on Louie’s musical journey.
When she graduated in 1973 with a degree in music from the University of California at San Diego, Louie, who had trained to be a composer, was in a quandary. “Who am I? What is my voice?” she asked in an interview, describing an almost existential crisis of confidence that caused her to stop composing for years.
“I thought, ‘Why would anybody decide to play my pieces, because there are so many people that are writing music.’
“I had to figure out my own voice. That’s a very hard thing to do for any composer. So in order to do it I had to stop.”
Louie, who had played the piano since she was a child, didn’t give up music altogether. Instead, she turned to playing a Chinese instrument, and that was her salvation.
“I decided my own voice had to come from within myself. That is why I started looking at my Chinese heritage.”
She also started reading Chinese philosophy and poetry and studying other Asian music, including Japanese and Korean. And she studied an ancient seven-stringed Chinese instrument called the guqin, from the zither family. “I loved it. There was a real connection for me with this instrument. It is very special, it is an instrument of the philosophers. It’s very quiet and the repertoire is very ancient. It is one of the oldest of the Chinese instruments.
“Confucius actually took it into the forest to commune with nature. I loved the sound. It was not flashy, it was intimate and personal.”
Louie would start writing again by the end of the 1970s. She explored Asian influences, including orchestra pieces, a violin concerto, solo and chamber works. In 1991, she wrote Bringing The Tiger Down From The Mountain, a piece based on Tai Chi and originally for piano and cello.
Tiger has been orchestrated and had a dance choreographed to accompany it during a performance as part of the NAC’s 40th anniversary. The piece was championed by the NACO’s principal cellist Amanda Forsyth, who has made it hers.
“It is an unusual piece,” Louie says. “It’s filled with colour and passion and poetry. It’s short. She (Amanda) took to it so much. She complained about the technical challenges, but she is a fabulous cellist and she was able to play it.”
Her composition will be performed in China by a combined Chinese-Canadian orchestra, featuring a cellist in a bright red and orange “tiger” dress.
She says the idea of the performance “is moving, just the thought of it.” Her time with the tour is short. In addition to Hong Kong, she’ll teach a master class in composition at a conservatory in Guangzhou. The Tiger challenged Forsyth. “At first,” she said, “I thought this piece is way too hard. As I began learning it, I was cursing it. There is a lot of crazy sliding and double stops up and down which has to do with the Tai Chi moves.” But now Forsyth knows the poetry of the piece. “It became the crying of the tiger. Now it has become so much a part of me, that I can just toss it off.
“It’s another Canadian work that I champion (around the world). It’s not structured, so it can change from night to night. Sometimes people will say the tiger was really growling tonight, or he was really whiny.”
The journey of Alexina Louie and her family is a familiar immigrant story. There are about 50 million overseas Chinese living in dozens of countries, including about 1.35 million in Canada.
When her great grandfather H.Y. Louie arrived he could not speak English. “He taught himself English ... He practised riding on a cart, delivering food to people’s houses. He was quite well known in Vancouver beyond the Chinese community.”
Chinese have been arriving here for more than 100 years, but they have not always been welcomed.
Louie’s father Alex, for example, was not afforded the full privilege of Canadian citizenship, even though he was born in Calgary. He was prohibited from serving in the Second World War — until the Allies needed Chinese-speaking agents behind enemy lines in Asia, Alexina said. He enlisted in a special unit that was to have gone into China if the war had not ended.
“(These) men decided to do this because of love for Canada, but also because they thought it would help get full citizenship for Chinese. Thank God the war ended just in time.”
Louie, who is an Officer of the Order of Canada, is third-generation Chinese-Canadian, born into Vancouver’s close-knit Chinese community in 1949, the same year China became the most-populous Communist state on the planet.
“My parents were born here. My (father’s) ancestors come from Dutou, near Zhongshan in mainland China. It’s a small village.” Some of her relatives still live in Dutou.
“My mother was born in Victoria and her family moved to Moose Jaw, Sask. They were the only Chinese family in the town. They had a restaurant. All the kids worked in the restaurant. My grandparents made the best pies,” she recalls.
She has been to China once before. Her father took her to the ancestral home in 1973, just before her graduation. It remains a stunning and memorable trip.
China, then in the Cultural Revolution, had just opened up to Canada (in 1970) and the U.S. (1972).
“It was rural. There were still water buffalo and they were growing rice. Today, it’s highly evolved. There is manufacturing going on.
“Mao was still alive,” she said, “everybody was riding bicycles ... wearing Mao jackets. ... We were followed by masses of people. ... Some of the girls in our group, they braided their hair, bought Mao jackets and those little slipper shoes, and they tried to go out amongst the people, but they could tell just by the way you carried yourself, that you were western.”
In China, she found her musical centre. “I’m coming at it from a different place. I wasn’t born there. Finding your own musical language and voice takes a long time if you are going to do it. So you can create your own music out of all the music that is written in the world. What is it that you do, or that you create, that makes it your own?
“My upbringing was playing Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms, and going through my Royal Conservatory exams. In my household, my parents listened to western music.”
But when her father took her to celebrate the New Year, “It was close to me. I was thrilled with the drumming and the clanging of the Chinese cymbals. And the firecrackers.”
The Lion always dances on Chinese New Year, and Louie “always found it moving. I never knew why then, but now it’s obvious that it’s because I’m Chinese that it strikes a chord within me.”
She says she did not set out to be a bridge between cultures. “I really set out to find myself.” But sometimes bridges get built anyway.
“I have a book of Chinese symbols,” says Louie. “And I looked up my instrument, the guqin. It said there was a famous family living in northern China renowned for making the best guqins. The family is the Thunder family. That’s my name. I know the character. The top of the character is rain and the bottom part is field. Rain on the field is Thunder.
“I thought, Oh my God.” And sometimes circles get completed.
Composer Alexina Louie composed Bringing The Tiger Down From the Mountain, which will be performed during the NACO tour of China.
National Arts Centre Orchestra cellist Amanda Forsyth in the ‘tiger dress’ that she’s expected to wear during a performance in Hong Kong of Louie’s Bringing the Tiger Down From the Mountain.
Thunder, or Rain on the Field, which Alexina Louie says is her family’s symbol.