a contemporary cantata
co-created with Min Xiao-Fen, Howie Kenty, and François-Thibaut Pencenat
Don't You Know?
Traditional Chinese recitation is a dying tradition. It is the forgotten voice of the Chinese literati. People in the previous generation, as well as in mine, grew up reading traditional poetry no different from reading a newspaper. However, this was not always the case. Traditionally, poetry, as well as classical texts, would be chanted. As far as we know, this tradition was widespread throughout China, but just like many other traditional art forms, they have largely disappeared within the last century.
Changzhou Recitation—the recitation tradition from the city of Changzhou in southeastern China, which is my hometown—was first documented by Chao Yuen Ren, a well-known linguist who is also from Changzhou. Over the last three decades or so, a local musician named Qin Dexiang recorded recitations from various Changzhou residents educated in the traditional way. Most people who still know how to recite are in their eighties or nineties, and the younger generations are not inheriting the tradition. Seeing a tradition dying in front of my eyes made me committed to making this program happen.
Recitation blurs the boundary between language and music (perhaps there were not any clear ones to begin with). Because traditional recitation was always improvised, writing “compositions” based on the “music” seemed to defeat the purpose. I see this program within the creative tradition of traditional Chinese opera. Here, the writing of the music is not the creation of a single composer, but the total collaboration between language, composition, and improvisation, thus between the author, the composer, and the performer, the distinctions are completely superfluous. Everyone on the team, Xiao-fen, Howie, François-Thibaut, I, and also the poet Li Qingzhao, are the creators of a singular program.
As for the poet Li Qingzhao (1084 - ca. 1155), Ronald Egan, the translator of the text that we will be using in the program, states:
Yet at the outset we should also say that for all the questions surrounding Li Qingzhao and how one should read her works, the core of what she left us—a few dozen lyrics set to songs, a handful of other poems, a few prose works—has a certain luster and pathos unique among all Chinese poets. It is these qualities that have intrigued readers through the millennium since her death, and kept them coming back to her, unendingly, even as each new age brings its own prism of predilections through which it views her.
English translations by Ronald Egan are used with permission, taken from “The Works of Li Qingzhao”, volume edited by Anna Shields, published by DE GRUYTER MOUTIN. Access to free eBOOK at
Photos by Li Qi