Review: 'Ask the Sky and the Earth'


Ask the Sky and the Earth: A Cantata for the Sent-Down Youth

Butler University Wind Ensemble, Indianapolis Chinese Choir of ICCCI (with special guests)

Oct. 2, Clowes Memorial Hall

Open letter to the dude sitting next to me:

Dear dude,

No, Ask the Sky and the Earth, a cantata for wind ensemble and chorus that made its Midwest premiere before a rather-full Clowes Hall Sunday, was not "propaganda." And you didn't have to scoff at any line that reeked to you of propaganda. Nor did you have to mutter negative remarks to your companion; that's just kind of rude, and it's ruder still to leave early (though at least you waited until the end of the number).

Still, I get where you're coming from, being a red-blooded American sensitive to the inadequacies of socialist realism. Maybe that's not how you'd put it. But let's put this in context. Ask the Sky is an attempt, as librettist Wei Su has put it in interviews, to reclaim and reinterpret his life (and that of others) as a Sent-Down Youth, someone who was relocated into the Chinese countryside as part of the Chinese Revolution's policy of re-education and, well, disorientation. It was a terrible period for many people, certainly; tens of millions of Chinese died in famines, as a result of persecution (both politically and ethnically motivated), from overexertion and as victims of natural disasters.

But, as Ma Joad put it — "We're the people that live; they can't wipe us out" — and Su, whose family was the subject of continued violence, recalls, in an interview with Yale's Daily Bulletin, not only the injustices of that time, but also the bright points: "I was shown many kindnesses during those years I grew up, and the memories of those kindnesses have supported me throughout my life." The kindnesses of, even, a soldier: "He told me that he could tell that I was a good boy, and he said, ‘Don't ever lose hope; don't ever lose hope.'"

Is it noteworthy that Su chose neither to directly criticize the Chinese government in his cantata nor to focus on violence done to the Chinese people or the earth? Yes, but it's a defensible choice — and it's essential to note that Su was a leader of the Tiananmen Square movement who was forced to flee to the U.S. after being blacklisted in 1992. Think of it as the Life is Beautiful approach, as contrasted with that exemplified by The Pianist. The former film focused on an effort to preserve some sense of common humanity when confronted with unfathomable evil; the latter showed what others do when faced with such situations — go into survival mode, view injustices from a distance, watch from a window as the ghetto burns.

Su, in epic poetry mode, insists on the hardy aspects of the Chinese people and the land: they learn from the "muddy soil" during a "thousand silver dawns"; they "stamp the ruddy clay," "crack open the rocks," "ravage the weeds" (note the negative sense of these words; that notion of the rape of the land); they praise the mountain which rises high above the turmoil of the seas. They do not dwell on setbacks; they have survived, and they must continue surviving. They love one another despite the political circumstances — and as such, they may look back upon the era with fondness.

Su's words are set to a somewhat-conventional score by Dong-Ling Huo that veers between lush Western film music and anthems with a pentatonic feel. The lows don't get too low, giving the cantata an even feel - even an elegy for 22 youth killed in a flash flood is rendered without undue sturm and drang. This is music calculated for a reconciliation and designed to allow those who were sent down to come to terms with the experience; it's doesn't seem intended to impart any further trauma or to illustrate the intensity of the experience.

If this cantata were performed in a different time, it might have registered as propaganda. But what would it be propaganda for — the Cultural Revolution is over, dude. Su and Huo have engaged with their past in the way they see most fitting — it's about the experience of youth thrust into a world and political environment that they may not quite understand, drawing on resources they didn't know existed, speaking in the poetry they learned from their elders. Leave it for other works of art to excoriate Mao and the whole lot.

Anyways, that's the way I saw it. I'm kind of out of my depth when talking Chinese politics, so excuse any errors. The performance of Ask the Sky and the Earth was quite an undertaking in itself, bringing together the Butler University Wind Ensemble — performing not only the cantata, but additional works, including a meandering 2010 slice of modernism, "Dragon Rhyme," no more than six weeks into the school year — and several choirs and guests, with the Indianapolis Chinese Choir of ICCCI sharing top billing, and additional members of Connecticut- and Chicago-based choirs pitching in. Regardless of one's take on the piece, it's exciting to see new music performed by groups that aren't obligated to mount such large-scale operations.

That's all I have to say now. Keep an open heart and mind. Mahalo.




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