Alex­ina Louie’s MU­SI­CAL JOUR­NEY

The Chi­nese-Cana­dian com­poser found her voice by re­turn­ing to her roots

Ottawa Citizen - - ARTS - PETER ROBB OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN

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.

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