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Big Sky: Press

Legends score well with a Hong Kong composer
By Alison Dakota Gee / Hong Kong


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OCCASIONALLY, THE MUSE GRACES Hong Kong in a big way. In a place where homegrown music usually means Cantonese pop -- an often screechy, highly imitative blend of Chinese lyrics and Western tunes -- composer Noel Quinlan's latest album suggests that a muse has landed. Maybe even 10 of them. In a collection of songs entitled 10 Women of China, the Australian-born composer, who has lived in Hong Kong for the last three decades, pays homage to the mythic female characters of Middle Kingdom folklore. These are icons that many people -- Quinlan included -- haven't known very much about. "Women in Chinese history have been treated as chattel," he laments. "It's a disaster to have a daughter and not a son." While that perspective is contestable, Quinlan's objectives are laudable. Through music, he wanted to expose more people to "folklore heroines, women who found the strength to step out of traditional roles." The project expanded. Quinlan teamed up with another Australian-born, Hong Kong-based artist, Kevin Orpin, who listened to the music, read the stories and produced a series of photographs of the 10 women that have been exhibited at an art gallery and grace the album packaging.
First, Quinlan had to do his homework. Scouring old tomes and soliciting oral histories from veterans in Hong Kong, he researched a breadth of myths and pared his selection down to the 10 stories he found most compelling. "It would have been very easy to do the 30 women of china," he says. "I didn't realize the wealth of material."

Some of the icons are familiar: Quinlan wrote one song about Hua Mulan, the daughter of a distinguished warrior who disguises herself as a man to lead her father's army. He composed another about Zhu Yingtai, the female half of the doomed operatic story The Butterfly Lovers. But Quinlan dug deeper to find the obscure history of Yang Guifei, a woman born in 719 AD who became the favorite concubine of Emperor Xuan Zong. "The emperor saw her naked in the bath and flipped," says Quinlan. Of course, the relationship ended in tears, with Yang killing herself on the battlefield, and the emperor losing his kingdom. "Whether they were good or evil, beautiful or perverted, I chose women who influenced a collective consciousness," he says.

Quinlan sampled every Chinese instrument in the Hong Kong Chinese Philharmonic, and then he went about unearthing antique instruments. He obtained a primitive flute, "basically a lump of clay with a few holes drilled into it," and then enlisted a master musician from the Chinese mainland to perform on it. "The guy was wonderful and mad and around five feet tall. We stuck him in a studio in Macau, handed him a microphone and just said 'Blow, man!'"

The tracks on 10 Women are inventive and can be transporting and evocative. But the work can also slip into that territory that is anathema to almost every composer -- the Muzak zone. Music filled with chimes and simulated wind; music that is soothing to listen to, all too easy to snooze to, the kind of background tunes that make their way into too many Hong Kong television commercials.

But Quinlan's music also has substance, derived from Chinese history and its cultural reserves. And his work also has a certain admirable ambition driving it. "I wanted to make something that would travel," he explains. "Something that would move across borders. Music builds bridges."
10. Noel Quinlan
Middle Kingdom 1, 2, 3, 4
10 Women of China
Masters of China
This series is a collection of Chinese songs and instrumentals arranged for Western ears.
It's a great starting point for explorations into Chinese music.