Kun Qu is one of the oldest forms of Chinese opera still performed today. It developed under the Ming dynasty between XIV and XVII century in the city of Kunshan (region of Suzhou, in southeast China), and combines music, drama, symbolic gestures and acrobatics. Melodies are accompanied by a bamboo flute, small drums, gongs and other traditional Chinese instruments. In 2008 the Kun Qu opera was inscribed by UNESCO on the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Kunqu proposes melodic elements and typical gestures of the Kun opera repertoire in a contemporary context, trying to preserve the fine poetry and the ravishing beauty of the atmospheres of the ancient Chinese opera. Tang Xianzu’s masterpiece, the Peony Pavilion, was the main source of inspiration in the development of the emotional journey of the score, through an implicit narrative that touches the main themes of Xianzu’s work: the dimensions of dream, love and death, the presence of elements - such as water, gardens and flowers - that still today make Suzhou one of the most beautiful cities of China, the ‘Venice of the East.’
The main themes of this score are drawn from melodies that accompanied the ancient performances of the Peony Pavilion, traditionally played by the bamboo flute.
In Kunqu the above melodic materials open the work and - starting from b.58 - float on big masses of sound [flutes (bb. 58-76), violins (79-90), brass (91-102)].
The melodic fragment below also belongs to the repertoire of the Kun opera and can be observed in other passages of the score (see, for instance, violins bb.196-199).
Further harmonic and melodic materials come from a matrix.
In three passages of the score (bb. 42-45, 170-173, 304-305) performers are required to whisper short sentences from Xianzu’s opera, in English translation. With their intervention, they accompany and underline the emotional context of these sections. That is consistent with other technical aspects of the score, such as partially aleatoric procedures, meant to realize a sort of ‘molecular agitation’ and increase the communicative power of this work. The short quotations from Cyril Birch’s translation of the Peony Pavilion were kindly authorized by Indiana University Press.
Percussion play an important role and mark the main sections of the work. Some extended techniques, such as the circular friction on the chau gong with a rub mallet or the roll of the cymbal on timpani, are adopted in the passage that ideally invokes the descent to the underworld and the infernal judgment (bb.242-277). Kunqu was conceived as a dialogue and an encounter between ancient Chinese music tradition and Western contemporary repertoire. The melodic and harmonic materials, drawn from the Kun opera repertoire, blend with structures freely derived from a matrix. The interpretative key of this work is in its dramaturgic and communicative strategies, meant to establish a contact with the audience and offer a new perspective of integration of Eastern and Western cultures.