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Free Translations of Li Ch'ing Chao: Program Notes from the Composer

Updated: Jun 27

In the spring of 2015, Dr. Jun Qian asked me to compose a song cycle for clarinet, soprano, and piano. He left the choice of text up to me, but asked that it be of Chinese origin. Having no familiarity with Chinese poetry, I was enthused to begin exploring the Chinese poetic tradition. Serendipitously, I soon thereafter met Dr. Luke Taylor, an English professor at Baylor University. In our very first conversation, I mentioned to him that I had been invited to compose these new songs for Dr. Qian, and asked him if, by any chance, he had any knowledge of Chinese poetry. To my delight and utter surprise, he was not only fluent in Chinese, but had also lived in China for two years and had developed a keen interest in Chinese poetry.

We immediately began our interdisciplinary collaboration. Under Dr. Taylor’s guidance, I continued my study of Classical Chinese poetry, and began familiarizing myself with that rich and varied tradition. After having spent some months with the poems, Dr. Taylor and I met to discuss possible directions in which we might take our project. In the end, we decided to create a song cycle setting poems by the twelfth-century poet Li Ch’ing Chao, one of the few female poets whose work has survived the centuries.

Dr. Taylor sent me three translations to set to music. The three poems, titled “Youth,” “Middle Age,” and “Old Age,” create a narrative arc that spans three life stages of the narrator. The translations are subtle and quiet in tone, ambiguous and multivalent, pregnant with meaning and emotional depth. The plums mentioned in “Youth,” for example, perhaps symbolic of a kind of awakening, return in “Old Age,” when the narrator describes the white plum blossoms that she and her beloved, together, would put in their hair “year after year.” At the end of the poem, in a beautiful, tragic, and subtle turn, the narrator describes the white streaks in her hair, sadly reminiscent of the plum blossoms now absent, of her beloved, now absent.

My intention in composing this song cycle was to capture the multivalent and subtle yet emotionally profound nature of Dr. Taylor’s translations. The poems are rife with elements balanced in counterpoint: for example, motion that goes nowhere in the swaying of the childhood swing and the turning back of the narrator in the poem “Youth,” or in “Middle Age,” the cool wind and rain that wash away heat. In these parts of the musical settings, I used minimalist styles rife with motion yet lacking a teleological direction in order to embody the concept of staticity manifested by elements in motion.

A motive consisting of an ascending fourth (B–E) followed by a descending second (E–D or E–D#) and followed by another ascending-descending pair of pitches (either A-G or G-F#) is first introduced at the moment the narrator’s world comes to a halt in “Youth,” at the moment “he” comes into her life, when she sings “And when he comes I run away in fright.” The motive is sung by the narrator and simultaneously played by the clarinet. From this moment onward, this motive - so closely associated with “him,” and with the clarinet, which comes to represent “him” - is ever-present in her world within the song cycle.

During the narrator’s awakening at the end of “Youth,” symbolized by the “green and unpicked plums,” the motive is once again presented by the soprano and the clarinet. The motive, which changes slightly throughout the cycle as the narrator and her relationship develop and evolve, is frequently presented together by both the soprano and also the clarinet, celebrating the closeness of their relationship and the existence they find with one another. At the beginning and in the middle of “Old Age,” as the narrator recalls life with her beloved, whenever she presents the motive the clarinet responds, and when the clarinet plays the motive she responds, so that they sing it together. But at the conclusion of “Old Age,” the narrator sings “And now our plum blossoms are gone;” despite her repeated calls, her reiterations of the motive, the clarinet never again responds, and she is left alone.

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