Showing posts with label Writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Writing. Show all posts

Dohee Lee Interview

Here’s an excerpt of an interview of Dohee Lee and the MAGO Project at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from November 14-15, 2014, in San Francisco:

with Dohee Lee at YBCA
From my Jeju journey, I realized two things that enrich the stories and structure of my performance. The first is the silent part of memories and the feeling of absence. I also discovered the Crow as a messenger by learning more about the April 3rd Massacre [nearly 30,000 people from Jeju Island were killed during a year-long rebellion known as the Jeju Uprising that began in April 1948].

My research in Jeju brought memories I had never noticed before. It was about a renewed awareness and intention to look at my hometown differently. I used to feel happy to see my grandparents and hometown. I used to feel excited to see my relatives. I used to feel joy to see the beautiful hills, mountains and ocean. But this time was different.

I grieved. I was shocked. I was horrified. These were new emotions. Now, I feel more deeply connected to my hometown: where I’m from, who I am, why I am, and what I am doing.

Since my trip to Jeju was to do research and work on a documentary film about the April 3rd Massacre in Jeju, I had to warm up my memories; but, unfortunately, what I remember is the silence of the village.

I could smell and taste that thick silence.”

Read the full interview on the Creative Capital Blog

Video: MAGO preview

Arts & Social Change

Grantmakers in the Arts asked me to write about my experience at the Arts & Social Change Symposium held in Seattle, from October 12–13, 2012. Here's an excerpt:
Seattle Center 2012. I walk around the grounds in autumn. The Fun Forest closed in 2011. Gone are the amusement rides and games. Are children eager to come here as I once was? 
“You come from people, not place.” 
Enter the promise of the Seattle Center’s Festál. As the only child of divorced immigrant parents, for me the Seattle Center in the 1970s was a cotton candy version of America with amusement rides and flashing lights. Now, children brought to the Seattle Center can experience amateur and professional artists in continually renewing ethnic festivals. 
The flashing lights shift to a cultural currency where the exchange is between people rather than places. Thinking about arts and social change, my initial doubt becomes the realization that transformation requires the public articulation of private acts. The Fun Forest recedes into memory as the Seattle Center comes alive with contemporary and traditional artists grappling with ways to perform multiple cultures as Americans.
Read the complete article for free at GIA Reader, Vol 24, No 1 (Winter 2013).

NewMusicBox Taiko

Kenny Endo Taiko Ensemble
NewMusicBox has published an article I wrote about the 2011 North American Taiko Conference at Stanford University. Along with a conference overview and a brief history of kumi-daiko, I focus on new music created for taiko.

Here's an excerpt:
Two quotes that continue to resonate with me are “innovation is tradition” spoken by numerous people throughout the conference, and “work is both a verb and a noun” spoken by Stephen Sano, professor and chair of the department of music at Stanford University. Considering work as both a process and a product, as a way for new music to continually rearrange for multiple performance contexts, provides a sustainable approach that the taiko community, even though nascent, offers to musical groups in America and beyond.
Check out the article at NewMusicBox.

24 City

Sometimes, one scene makes an entire show click. In 24 City, this moment for me was when a buyer for wealthy ladies in Chengdu, China acknowledges that she will survive because she is the daughter of factory workers. Born in the 1980s, Zhao Tao is one of the final characters we meet in this poetic take on how China is shifting.

24 City focuses on stories from three generations of residents in an area formerly known as Factory 420. In a subtle mix of documentary and fiction film-making, director Jia Zhang-ke handles his subjects carefully, akin to a portrait artist, focusing on memories of migration and the lines around the lips. Quotes from Irish writer W.B. Yeats along with music from Chinese red songs, orchestral strings and Japanese enka add to this peculiar yet strangely comforting film about the transition of an aeronautical factory into a luxury high-rise complex.

As I watched the film, I thought of the stories buildings contain. Once these places are demolished, do memories become rubble to be swept away?

Movie Trailer

Kane Mathis

For The Mother of Us All, I am honored to work with Kane Mathis. Kane is a multi-instrumentalist specializing in plucked string instruments such as the oud and kora. These instruments are akin to the guitar and harp. For Spectrum Dance Theater's new production playing at The Moore Theatre from March 3-5, I invited him to participate. After our initial meeting in early November 2010, I knew that he would be perfect for this project. Here's a sample of his music.

Kane is one of those rare musicians with a solid sense of self. He is grounded in his studies and dedicated to exploring sonic possibilities informed by a rigor towards understanding the traditional as well as contemporary contexts of the instruments he performs. Beginning in the late 1990s, Kane traveled to West Africa to study kora, a 21-sting Mandika harp. He learned:
  • that the kora, an instrument over 1,000 years old, functions to accompany storytelling as well as serves to relay current news;
  • to speak Mandingo and listen to the inflections and pauses enable his playing to resonate with the tones and silences of speech;
  • that musical traditions powerfully connect to folks when used in everyday life.
Kane performs on kora
As a musician raised in Chicago, Kane also realized in his 10+ years of studying with Malamini Jobarteh and Moriba Kouyate, that he wasn't from a lineage of kora musicians; that even though he would have the opportunity to perform for audiences throughout The Gambia on national television and radio as well as earn him recognition by the Gambian president, he would need to incorporate his musical background as a classical, jazz and indie rock musician with his present life.

Kane moved to Seattle over five years ago to follow another teacher, Münir Nurttin Beken from Instanbul. Beken founded the State Turkish Music Ensemble, composes for orchestras and film and is known as an oud virtuoso.

As a kora and oud musician, Kane currently calls Seattle home. He performs with a half dozen local bands. Additionally, he performs as a soloist as well as with choreographers such as Catherine Cabeen, as composer and musician most notably for the upcoming performance Into the Void to premiere at On the Boards in late April.

I first heard Kane at a 4Culture Touring Arts Roster showcase three years ago. Little did I realize that I would have the opportunity to work on a show about Africa and that I would be blessed to work with him.

Seattle Modern Orchestra presents Strictly Strings

Before the concert of Strictly Strings, Seattle Modern Orchestra co-artistic directors Jérémy Jolley and Julia Tai presented a slide show about string techniques explored by composers Claude Vivier, Iannis Xenakis and John Adams. The highlight of the presentation was when Jolley pointed out that the filled-in triangle in the Seattle Modern Orchestra logo was the symbol to play the highest pitch, not an umbrella.

The concert started with Zipangu by Claude Vivier. Zipangu was a difficult work to understand. The balance between the violins, violas, cellos and lone string bass was uneven and the pauses were awkward. I wasn't sure whether this was the venue, orchestra or composition. Vivier himself was an intriguing character. Born in Montreal to unknown parents, he studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen in Cologne and lived in Paris where he was working on an opera based on the death of Tchaikovsky. He was murdered in Paris just shy of his 35th birthday. Lonely Child for soprano and orchestra continues to be one of my favorite works, but Zipangu based on Vivier's travels in Japan in the 1970s, felt emotionally distant.

Syrmos by Iannis Xenakis was similarly distant in a different way. Jolley and Tai mentioned that Xenakis was influenced by mathematical models and architecture. The glissandi effects, mass sororities and spatial pizzicati continually moving around the orchestra caught my attention.

The concert concluded with Shaker Loops by John Adams. It was a joy to finally hear this composition performed live. Shaker Loops continues to astonish me with a continually evolving sense of direction that never actual resolves. With Tai's conducting, the Seattle Modern Orchestra sounded precise and nuanced. Their sound filled the hall with gentle tremolos and exciting accents.

Listening to these three compositions from the late 20th century, I wonder about the future of live performances of contemporary classical music. Speaking with Tai after the performance, she mentioned that this concert was volunteer driven. I was heartened that the composers I admired in college are admired by energetic performing musicians and appreciative Seattle audiences.

The Seattle Modern Orchestra's next concert includes my favorite violin concerto called Anahit by Giacinto Scelsi (performed by Michael Lim) on May 13, 2011. In addition, Cornish College of the Arts music department chair Kent Devereaux announced that Dutch composer Louis Andriessen will be in Seattle this March. I attended the world premiere of Andriessen's ROSA The Death of a Composer (libretto by Peter Greenaway) at Netherlands Opera. Never have I seen so much blood on stage (!)

The Big Gay Polish Show?

The title of the show is really:
Radosław Rychcik
Stefan Zeromski Theatre
In the Solitude of Cotton Fields
… but I call it The Gay Polish Show as a way to frame my experience. I attended the Thursday, January 13th performance in Seattle co-presented by On the Boards and Polish Cultural Institute of New York. The show features two handsome men in black suits with microphones on stands + a backup house/punk/techno band called the Natural Born Chillers. So why The Big Gay Polish Show rather than RR/SZT/In the Solitude of Cotton Fields?

In the Solitude of Cotton Fields is presentational. Most of the performance features two actors (Tomasz Nosinski and Wojciech Niemczyk) who face the audience and speak into microphones or move through expressionist poses. Occasionally, there are dance interludes sometimes with a strobing light. The band, in striped sailor t-shirts and white pants, rock out on drums, laptop, keyboards, electric guitar and bass. The action shows the inner thoughts of the two men through still and contorted faces and bodies + text spoken in Polish and projected as supertitles in English. Ergo, a show.

When I was in Warsaw, I stayed with the mother of a musician. This elderly lady seemed to be the picture-perfect image of an old Polish woman. She kept her grey hair in a tight bun and wore a large hand-knit sweater. Her flat was a concrete block of socialist architecture with a dark stairwell that led to two rooms. The living room had a drape that covered one wall and corner. There was a wooden table in the center of the room where we ate. We had canned pineapple for every meal perhaps because I was a guest from outside Poland? The room felt correct and austere until she pulled me closer to the corner.

(Polish continued…)
Behind the heavy drapes was an elaborate altar. Photographs of the Dalai Lama, beads, flowers, incense and pamphlets decorated her secret space. She told me that she was a Tibetan buddhist at heart ready to reincarnate so she could be closer to her teacher. In the Solitude of Cotton Fields similarly allows the audience a peek into a secretive life. Beginning with suited men dancing to techno music, eventually the smoke from the fog machine dissipates to reveal the time when men align with beasts. The brilliance of Rychcik's direction of the play by Bernard-Maria Koltes is that the danger zone is for the most part imagined. Striking moments are when "difference" becomes a placeholder for "injustice" and the idea that a successful exchange between men should not actually fulfill desire but rather have desire continue to grip.

The lipstick, nudity and kiss place the work within the rhetoric of the closet. Gayness here becomes a symbol of transgression from a suffocating normality, in this case an implied heterosexuality signaled by the wedding band. The work grounds itself in the uncomfortable reality of keeping secrets for the sake of appearances showing how gay continues to be relevant even with queer and transgender performance making the rounds.

The show is loud. I wore earplugs all the way through. The show has to be bigger than life. What better way to share secrets than to yell accompanied by a rock band? Whenever I am in solitude I scream the loudest. It must be really awesome in the cotton fields. Moreover, there's an intense slideshow with images like a bleeding star knifed into the flesh around a belly button. During this slideshow, text appears saying "words are useless."

... so The Big Gay Polish Show or In the Solitude of Cotton Fields?

When I was in Europe, I was told that Americans were sentimental, yet I feel that there is a crying out to behold with this work. Or perhaps it is because I am American that I feel moved by the intensity of emotion felt between the men on stage last night. Or perhaps, in America, it would become The Big Gay Polish Show because as an American I have become immune to laughing at people who shame themselves so I need a tongue-in-cheek title to entice me to attend. Or perhaps it is a way to discredit the potential of a performance to probe uncomfortable territory.

Whatever the reasons, I am thankful for big gay Polish cotton fields where I can hang out and watch the angst of other men and their desires in what becomes more than a sound-byte exchange. In the Solitude of Cotton Fields continues for two more performances at On the Boards tonight and tomorrow night at 8PM.

Bright Idea

Last night I heard the Seattle Symphony perform Bright Sheng's Shanghai Overture composed in 2007. Shanghai Overture contains biting harmonies and textural shifts that titillated the ears of both the audience and orchestra. It was delightful to watch the smiling faces of symphony members acknowledge curious sounds travel through the percussion, strings, winds and brass. I was amazed at how gracefully the music continually transitioned throughout this 8+ minute work.

This reminded me that one of the most significant lessons Bright taught me was that western classical music is about transitions. In addition to my weekly composition lesson, Bright convened a few students to analyze classical music from a composer's perspective. I remember analyzing a Brahms Intermezzo with him and two other students. Bright sat at the piano and played the music, then pointed out ways the rhythmic and melodic motifs continually appeared in ingenious configurations throughout the work. The seamless transitions that Brahms was able to achieve is a compositional technique I continue to value.

While Shanghai Overture references Chinese melodies, rhythms and timbres, the composition is scored for symphony orchestra. Bright considers this work neo-Classical. He shows how the modularity of Chinese folk music and the developmental aspects of western classical music co-exist in a sophisticated and exciting way. I consider this a Bright Idea (!)

The Seattle Symphony reprises Shanghai Overture along with works by Gunther Schuller and Alexander Borodin, plus a stunning performance by Gil Shaham performing Béla Bartók's Violin Concerto No. 2 this Saturday, January 08, 2011.

Empire of Illusion and Gloria's Cause

"... in a sound-bite society, reality no longer matters." Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion

Recently, there have been two elegies about America that encourage me to continue asking questions. Last Sunday, I attended a revision of Dayna Hanson's performance inquiry into how the gritty reality of America's founding fathers intersects with America's current struggles. Last night, I finished reading Chris Hedges' diatribe about the collapse of the American Empire. Rather than a review, this is a reflection and a call to lay to rest a dysfunctional America.

I will use Hedges' Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle as a way to delve into Hanson's performance about America. Empire of Illusion tackles the cry that America is at the end of an empire. I've heard this before, but Hedges writes with an in-depth intensity that makes me comprehend the urgency of this death-knell. His book is neatly laid out with five simply titled chapters that cover the illusion of literacy, love, wisdom, happiness and America.

This was the third time I have experienced Hanson's Gloria's Cause. The first was a rehearsal preview last summer. The second was a workshop performance at the TBA Festival in Portland last September. In the most recent version at On the Boards in Seattle, the costumes and set were no-nonsense. The cast wore tailored business suits with occasional costume changes to represent the American bald eagle, George Washington, troops at Valley Forge and so forth. Musicians Maggie Brown, Paul Moore, Dave Proscia and others with trap set, electric guitars and bass, vocal mics, keyboard and trombone perform atop a scalloped platform and carpeted stage.

Likewise, Hedge's no-nonsense Empire of Illusion begins directly with a chapter on literacy that starts with a description of the World Wrestling Entertainment Tour and continues through other media circuses: "This cult of distraction... masks the real disintegration of culture... It deflects the moral questions arising from mounting social injustice, growing inequities, costly imperial wars, economic collapse and political corruption... The fantasy of celebrity culture is not designed simply to entertain. It is destined to keep us from fighting back." (38) Throughout Gloria's Cause, questions are raised about the foundations on which America is built. Bodies hunch over and contort. Characters speak at the blue carpet or through a Benjamin Franklin doll or sing incomplete songs through hand-held mics. The fragmented text shows a literacy fractured through the onslaught of entertainment created to distract.

In his second chapter on love, Hedges attacks the debilitating effects of the porn industry: "Porn is about reducing women to corpses. It is about necrophilia." (82) This chapter goes into terrifyingly dehumanizing places to show how sexual violence brings about a numbness for audiences and performers who consume and are consumed. In Gloria's Cause, Hanson contrasts an opening of two suited men performed by Pol Rosenthal seated facing the audience and Wade Madsen standing in profile. Two nude female bodies dance in unison, faceless and de-sexualized. The opening contrast of suits with lack-of-suits, speaking with non-speaking, eating with not-being-eaten causes a numbness that is broken by a recess where the entire cast rocks out in an American popular dance show-stopper.

The performance continues to include memorable moments such as Peggy Piacenza's American bald eagle existential monologue and Madsen's hip-hop-poppin' animatronic George Washington. Both characters ultimately break down through movement to offer a glimpse into another reality. Riffing off of the "inverted totalitarianism" that Sheldon S. Wolin proposes, where the corporate state has an anonymous grip on every citizen's livelihood, Hedges writes that "corporate media control nearly everything we read, watch or hear. It imposes a bland uniformity of opinion. It diverts us with trivia and celebrity gossip." Gloria's Cause upends the diversion with the painful reality of the iconic American bald eagle and robotic George Washington becoming debilitated. Revered symbols have no power when people starve. Hedges writes "as the government squanders taxpayer money in fruitless schemes to prop up insolvent banks and investment houses, citizens are thrown into the streets without work, a place to live, or enough food. There are now 36.2 million Americans who cope daily with hunger." (161) Trivia and gossip leave empty stomachs which show a lost eagle and hollow first president. In the performance, the eagle ends with a dance of death and Washington, who has run out of steam, can only sigh when prodded with a rifle.

New performance moments include a drunk Washington fighting with troops from Valley Forge (played by Jim Kent and Jessie Smith) at a Jerry Springer-like talk show. In a rousing tirade, Kent yells that even soldier uniforms were neglected to where shredded pants showed the "penis dangling out and balls shrunken up." This was in the late 1700s, during the American Revolutionary War. In the past 70 years, the federal government has squandered more than half of tax payers money on the military. Yet, when I turn on the radio, I don't hear of the $700 billion dollars the Pentagon received for their 2010 budget. Rather, I hear a sobbing father who remembers his son, a returning soldier who has committed suicide before being sent back to war. Hedges writes that "the U.S. military spends more than all other militaries on earth combined." (144) This has led to a debt that is more than $11 trillion dollars. Hedges calculates this at over $36k per person: "The bill is now due. America's most dangerous enemies are not Islamic radicals but those who sold us the perverted ideology of free-market capitalism and globalization. They have dynamited the foundations of our society." (151)

Aspects of Gloria's Cause are deliberately obtuse. Conformist corporate outfits hide the truth, so I know to search for clues elsewhere. By having the cast in suits rather than a red Coca-Cola t-shirt or a Daniel Boone coon-tail cap, I relied more on what the performers told me through movement and pauses. Even the media, according to Hedges, hides the truth: "Television journalism is largely a farce. Celebrity reporters, masquerading as journalists, make millions a year and give a platform to the powerful and the famous so they can spin, equivocate and lie.... No journalist has a comfortable, cozy relationship with the powerful. No journalist believes that serving the powerful is a primary part of his or her calling. Those in power fear and dislike journalists." (169) Similarly, performers like those who perform at On the Boards, are oftentimes jarring and uncomfortable, because the platform, in the set of Gloria's Cause, is actually not stable even though the carpet may be thick. Nonetheless, the performers at On the Boards reveal the uncozy truths of reality.

In chapter three, Illusion of Wisdom, Hedges shows how academia has sold out to corporate interests: "Any form of learning not strictly vocational has at best been marginalized and in many schools abolished. Students are steered away from asking the broad, disturbing questions that challenge the assumptions of the power elite. They do not know how to interrogate or examine an economic system that serves the corporate state. This has led many bright graduates directly into the arms of corporate entities." (108-109) Hedges notes that business majors are now 21.7 percent of the graduating population and that education majors have fallen from 21 percent to 8.2 percent (108). Even more surprising for me was learning that the highest paid employee at the University of California at Berkeley is the football coach: "He makes about $3 million," writes Hedges (94). Berkeley, which was at one time the bastion of student radicalism and social justice in America, has sold out, most horrifyingly in the bankrupt state of California. Hedges admonishes that "a culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death." (103) How can we navigate through morality and power to create values that result in a compassionate world? Hanson and her cast attempt at providing insight into the morass that has become America.

In my search, I read a lot of non-fiction with my guilty pleasure being self-help books. Now, I realize how easily these books lead to self-delusion. Hedges' chapter on the illusion of happiness tackles positive psychology. Hedges writes that "there is a dark, insidious quality to the ideology promoted by the positive psychologists... They strangle creativity and moral autonomy... Its false promise of harmony and happiness only increases internal anxiety and feelings of inadequacy." (138) Hedges uses the example of how corporations train employees to provide a "positive customer service experience" (137). Employees must act happy or risk losing their job and join the one in six Americans who live in poverty. In Gloria's Cause, the American bald eagle monologue/dance-of-death unravels this illusion of happiness to show the truthful pain of confusion and loneliness within many Americans.

While it was difficult to experience Gloria's Cause and read Hedges' Empire of Illusion, I appreciated many insightful moments. In the performance, there was a slide show that juxtaposed aspects of America from Elvis to cigarettes to civil rights to prison cells. For me, this showed the greatness and ugliness of America, but most significantly I came away with the sense that individuals have overcome oppression. Hedges' writes personally in his final chapter, the Illusion of America: "The country I live in today uses the same civic, patriotic and historical language to describe itself, the same symbols and iconography, the same national myths, but only the shell remains. The America we celebrate is an illusion.... Our nation has been hijacked by oligarchs, corporations and a narrow, selfish, political and economic elite, a small and privileged group that governs, and often steals, on behalf of moneyed interests." (142) Gloria's Cause shows the private moments of an earlier elite in America. How they floundered. How they confused. How they had their own self-interest in mind. Hedges continues in his writing about current Americans in power: "This elite, in the name of patriotism and democracy... has systematically destroyed our manufacturing sector, looted the treasury, corrupted our democracy and trashed the financial system." (142)

It is difficult to listen to the truth. It is more difficult to live within the truth. Hedges unravels illusions. Hanson and her cast show ways to reconsider the foundation of America. I offer my thoughts as a way to continue to question in a certain way, to put aside the why and gather courage for the how. Rather than why is America at the end of an empire, I ask how can I continue to live as an American? Informed by reading Empire of Illusion and experiencing Gloria's Cause, I am initially cautious. What keeps me going is the knowledge that every end signals a beginning.

TBA Festival opening weekend

Last Thursday, I hitched a ride to Portland for PICA's annual TBA (Time-Based Art) Festival. Close to midnight, I wandered through the free opening night party at Washington High School (built in 1909/closed in 1981). The ominous brick venue was renamed THE WORKS (yes, all caps, dunno why). TBA Fest volunteers were a harried bunch like chaperones at a party where they'd rather be drinking.

Some volunteers abused their black PICA t-shirts telling visitors to clear out of art installation rooms. Other folks were too polite, leading me down hallways searching for a coat check that didn't exist. Eventually, I found myself outside the main auditorium where punksters Japanther and Nightshade shadow puppeteers tried to out-rock the crowd.

The audience won. Halfway through Japanther's set, auditorium lights went on and the crowd stormed the stage and tore the shadow puppet sheet down. The flimsy separation between art and life was revealed.

I was in the beer garden where the concert was projected through a cyclone fence. Watching from this vantage point with the ambient audio of drunken conversations plus aroma of the nearby taco truck was an auspicious start to this year's festival.

I didn't intend to write so much about the opening, yet this encapsulated the first weekend of performances for me. With an empty high school as festival headquarters, an adolescent awkwardness and curiosity whetted my apetite for what was to come.

Artistic director Cathy Edwards describes the theme of TBA 2010 as "storytelling." This is an apt description. (Read more in Portland Monthly, where writers Claudia La Rocco and Anne Adams have been posting insightful entries about the festival.)

Performances I attended ranged from the highly-saturated, multiple narrative threads of The Wooster Group's interactive 360-degree film collage There is Still Time... Brother and Dana Hanson's work-in-progress absurdist-rock-dance-theater-elegy Gloria's Cause to the singular narratives of Jérôme Bel's direction of dancer Cédric Andrieux in a work about Cédric Andrieux dancing and Mike Daisey's heart-opening tirade The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.

Daisey and Bel's work touched me with their no-nonsense staging and direct deliveries. Andrieux performed on a bare stage with a bottle of water and gym bag, Daisey performed seated at a table with a few sheets of paper.

One more note from my experience last weekend - for those of you at Mike Barber's Ten Tiny Dances 22, you'll remember the orange. For those of you not there, Ten Tiny ended with Daisey spitting an orange into the sold-out crowd. Need I say more? GO. The TBA Festival runs through September 19th in Portland.

New Music Disaster Averted

Preludes to Disaster was the formidable title of a concert of contemporary Danish and Icelandic Music that featured works by composers Anders Brødsgaard (b. 1955), Steingrimur Rohloff (b. 1971), and Peter Bruun (b. 1968). Works by the latter two composers were world premieres co-commissioned by the Seattle Chamber Players and FIGURA. While the concert, which concluded the first weekend of Icebreaker V: Songs of Love and War at On the Boards, could have been a calamitous event, the works were well-performed, musically intriguing, and deceptively complex.

The Sunday evening concert began with Brødsgaard's Galgenlieder (Gallows Songs). The songs were performed by FIGURA, a music and theatre ensemble based in Copenhagen, which included mezzo-soprano Helene Gjerris, accordion player Frode Anderson, bassist Jesper Egelund, and percussionist Frans Hansen. Paul Taub from the Seattle Chamber Players joined them on flute and piccolo. Each number of the 10-song work was introduced by the charming Gjerris. Some songs were brief such as Nachtbild (Night Image), a sprechstimme number with all the musicians speaking, stomping, and clapping. Other songs were longer such as Der Hecht (The Pike), a musical pastiche that went from a jazz lounge-style to a drinking song to other stylistic genres. Galgenlieder had the feel of a German song cycle about death that was lovingly unsentimental, humorously imaginative, and performed with finesse.

Galgenlieder was well-paired with the first world premiere on the program Stadig ikke/endu ikke (Still not/not yet). This quiet, rhythmically intricate composition by Rohloff was sung in English to great effect by Gjerris. FIGURA added bass clarinetist Anna Klett and the Seattle Chamber Players added violinist Mikhail Shmidt, clarinetist Laura DeLuca, and cellist David Sabee. Swedish-born/Copenhagen-based conductor Erik Jakobsson joined them on this evocative work. The sparse English text was sometimes spoken and sometimes sung by Gjerris in a low tessitura. The inhale/exhale ending amplified by the wind instruments was particularly effective for this sensual work.

After intermission, bassist Egelund performed a solo called Hit Upon. The work was misnamed a solo as there was a recording of string bass sounds that the acoustic bass performed with. This distracted some of the audience as they tried to figure out the relationship between the live bass with the recorded bass. Much of the work seemed like an exercise in extended string bass techniques, but by the end the music was integrated. At any rate, it was a pleasure to experience Egelund as he performed wearing headphones, like a rock star in a studio.

The final work and second world premiere on the concert, Preludes to Disaster by Bruun, was full of intriguing sounds within shifting tonal textures. The ensemble conducted by Jakobsson expertly layered the tuneful melodies with repetitive canons to sound lush and full. Again, Gjerris displayed versatility by singing with delicacy and power. Even the alarm bells and high vocal melismas sounded beautiful. Overall, Preludes to Disaster, the premiered composition as well as the entire concert, averted any feeling of a contemporary-classical-music-concert-gone-wrong. There were no new music casualties in the audience of about 130 people, but rather ears curious to hear more new music from Denmark and Iceland.

Italian Futurism Today

by Byron Au Yong

"Their programming is always a surprise. Must be something in Seattle's water."

A paraphrase of a quote I remember while speaking with David Schotzko, Promotion Director at music publisher Boosey & Hawkes. We talked about American contemporary music ensembles and he explained why the Seattle Chamber Players were unique. Funny how that works, how in New York, I come to appreciate a local musical group and how in a different city, I long to drink from Seattle's tap.

Now in its 20th year, the Seattle Chamber Players continue their reputation for presenting an eclectic array of contemporary classical music from around the world with Icebreaker V: Love and War. The festival featured music from Holland, Italy, Hungary, Russia, Ukraine, Denmark, and Iceland with soloists and ensembles from those countries as well as Japan, Poland, Germany, and elsewhere (whew!). On the Boards played host with a half dozen performances as well as composer seminars.

The full line-up reminded me of being at the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, Darmstadt in 1994. As I was fond of the Italian concerts at Darmstadt, I chose to attend Music from Modern Italy: Life, Color, and Movement on February 27, 5:30pm. The music was performed by the Xenia Ensemble, founded in Turin in 1996 by four foreign musicians. Three of them performed: Irish violinist Eilis Cranitch, British cellist Elizabeth Wilson, and German pianist Caroline Weichert. While the mood at On the Boards on a Saturday afternoon was more subdued than the seething energy of hearing music in the summer heat at Darmstadt, the performance offered an intriguing sampler of Italian new music for piano trio.

The extensive program included works from nearly 100 years ago. Wilson explained the inclusion of works by Futurist composers Francesco Balilla Pratella (1880-1955) and Alfredo Casella (1883-1947) to contextualize the more contemporary music to follow. Italian music in the early 20th century was dominated by the tune-laden operas of Puccini and Giordano. Out of his frustration, Pratella wrote a Manifesto of Futurist Musicians (1910), where he stomped on "well-made" music to liberate individual Italian musical sensibilities from bel canto.

For all his pontificating (Pratella also wrote the Technical Manifesto of Futurist Music and The Destruction of Quadrature), the Finale (1928) sounded like a tribute to his late-romantic idols Wagner and Strauss without the overly-gushing development of motifs, but rather evocative harmonies that appear suddenly. Similarly Casella's Sicilienne (1914) and Foxtrot (1920), both for piano trio, showed the influence of French colleagues Debussy and Stravinsky, without the expertise. In the Foxtrot, I kept hoping that Casella's duple meter would switch to three or five to give the music rhythmic vitality.

Favorites on the program included the piano solo Looking Up (2008) by Lucio Gregoretti (b. 1961). Weichert's controlled touch and ability to differentiate between the three voices gave a quiet intensity to the steadily moving bass line. The audience was so focused on the trance-like polyphonic music, that when the pianist turned the page there was a mild shock. The other solo Weichert performed, Anamorfosi (1980) by Salvatore Sciarrino (b. 1947), started like a music box on steroids and ended so abruptly with a quote from Ravel that the audience didn't have time to laugh.

The two string solos included Canto Antico (2009) by Giulio Castagnoli (b. 1958) where extended violin techniques included a number of jeté played expertly by Cranitch as well as Lame (1982) by Franco Donatoni (1927-2000) where the peculiarly crafted cello gestures sounded smoothed out, rather than enjoyed by Wilson.

Other piano trio works on the program included My Blues (1982) by Lorenzo Ferrero (b. 1951), Notturno (1980) by Gilberto Bosco (b. 1945), and 1916: forze di megalopoli in fronte (scultura architettonicao - futurista) by Alberto Colla (b. 1968). The Notturno was an audience favorite beginning with one note, developing into trills, then into mini-cadenzas for piano, violin, then cello. The final work 1916, included string glissandi at the end that upset my friend so much that Alex Ross should include this work on his recent list of Top Ten Glissandos.

My friend also commented that he wanted to watch the Xenia Ensemble play bridge -- the card game -- because they worked so well as an ensemble. Whether bridge or Italian Futurist music and it's inheritance, Icebreaker V at On the Boards was an event that reminded me that there are intriguing strains of new classical music performed by skilled ex-pats all over the world. The late afternoon audience of about 65 was clearly appreciative. Thanks Seattle Chamber Players and On the Boards for continuing to introduce eclectic, rather than trendy, music performed at a high level to Pacific Northwest audiences. Listening to the concert reminded me that composing is about possibilities.

Hunger: An Unnatural History

Book imageSharman Apt Russell's Hunger: An Unnatural History is an exhaustive study of what hunger represents. The book includes anecdote, history, anatomy, and iconography related to feast, famine, and fasting. The author's sources cover a wide range from medical texts, religious parables, journal entries, and historical records to Kafka and Gandhi.

Especially moving are Russell's personal struggles with food. As she attempts to find the meaning behind food as an American with the privileges and contradictions of knowing hunger from feeding her own children juxtaposed with commercials of hungry children around the world, she voices a compassion that "hunger cannot be ignored." Most devastating for me is the section about cannibalism in China - yi zi er shi (swap child, make food) - where in the 1930s corpses of starved girls were boiled into soup.

Hunger is recommended for people who need to read stories about eating, starving, and everything in-between from a poetic voice who references multiple disciplines throughout history and around the world.

New Wing Luke Asian Museum Opens

Grand openings at museums scare me. Crowds fill tiny galleries. Bobbing heads and jostling elbows cover the art. My experience at these events is less about the work and more about navigating through the swarms.

I hesitated to attend the public opening of the new Wing Luke Museum today. Even though I worked at the Museum for eight years in the 1990s and served on the Community Advisory Committee for the new Honoring Our Journey and Community Portrait Galleries, I was reluctant to show up. My friend Michelle Kumata, Exhibitions Manager, called this morning while I was planting succulents to encourage me to come. Since it started to rain making my gardening less pleasant, I made my way to the grand opening event.

Amazing Museum Both New and Old

The new Wing Luke is awe-inspiring. The historic East Kong Yick building built by Chinese American pioneers in 1910 was renovated by architect Rick Sundberg. The new double-story entrance and other parts of the renovated space, aptly described by Seattle Times Art Critic Sheila Farr as "part archaeology, part contemporary architecture" made me proud to be involved with this Museum.

Saya Moriyasu's fantastic wind-chime sculpture of faces and bells called Sweet Hello is one of the new permanent public art works. Other notable installations are Susie Kozawa's sound installation of ocean waves and immigrant voices in the light wells and Stewart Wong's red cloud patterns floating in the community hall.

Natural light from Canton Alley fills the back of the intimate Tateuchi Story Theatre and adds to the dramatic presentation of the historic Nippon Kan curtain display.

Immersion Exhibitions Coming Soon

Not all the gallery spaces are complete. The George Tsutakawa Gallery's inaugural show called George Tsutakawa: The Making of a Fountain, curated by Tracey Fugami, has fountain mock-ups yet to be installed. Similarly the new permanent exhibition Honoring Our Journey awaits media components and artifacts coming in the next few months.

Also opening to the public soon are the historic immersion galleries. I was able to go through these spaces on a private tour with Kumata and public art plan supervisor John D. Pai. The historic resonances of the lived-in rooms provide a contemplative respite from the crowds.

Within these spare places I had a moment to breathe away from jostling elbows and reflect on the lives of the Asian American pioneers who inhabited the building for a hundred years. Their spirit continues with the hundreds of volunteers who helped make the new Museum opening a success.

Have you visited the new Wing Luke? What do you think?

WLAM in the News

The Way of Taiko

by Byron Au Yong

originally published in the International Examiner (PDF) on page 13

"Taiko is more than a loud drum," says Masato Baba.

We speak about Heidi Varian's book The Way of Taiko, published by Stone Bridge Press. Varian is a disciple of Seiichi Tanaka, who founded San Francisco Taiko Dojo in 1968. She was a runway model from Iceland who started studying at Taiko Dojo in the 1980s. Her book is influenced by Tanaka's austere form of training.

Inside the book cover is an ad for The Spirit of Taiko DVD, which features three generations of North American taiko performers: Tanaka, Kenny Endo and Baba.

Baba sits shotgun while Shoji Kameda drives. Kristofer Bergstrom sleeps in back.

"We had a late start," Baba laughs.

They are on I-5 heading north from Los Angeles to the Bay Area to rehearse with Kelvin Underwood in preparation for a show by their quartet On Ensemble at The Triple Door in Seattle.

Speaking with them by telephone, I thumb through The Way of Taiko looking for photos of On Ensemble, but find none.

"The book should be called A Way of Taiko rather than The Way of Taiko," says Kameda. "Tanaka-sensei's training is old school in the best possible way. He felt pressure to represent a rigid mindset."

Varian continues this mindset by tracing the path of taiko as an "ancient sacred practice in Japan" to her martial arts style training at Taiko Dojo. Her appealing, glossy, square-shaped book fits easily between my palms.

As I read, the book’s construction starts to come apart at the seams. Pages fall out and I worry that I will lose the correct order of taiko immersion that Varian describes.

Baba interrupts my fumbling, "The path of my parents (drummer Jeanne Aiko Mercer and saxophone musician Russel Baba) was very different than what they learned from Tanaka-sensei."

"Jeanne and Russel took taiko and made it their own way back in the day." Kameda explains.

After studying with Tanaka, Mercer and Baba moved to Mt Shasta in the 1970s. Along with raising their son, they started Shasta Taiko. Kameda, Baba's next-door neighbor, started playing taiko with them at age eight.

"When I first started taiko, I was not into fusion at all. I thought taiko was a fixed tradition that had been around for thousands of years." Kameda says.

Bergstrom, now awake, adds, “I had this naive Karate Kid image of taiko. When I went to Japan, there was no 'wax on, wax off' training.”

On Ensemble's sound is an ongoing re-imagining of taiko music with their personal mix of indie rock, electronica, jazz, hip-hop, and other influences.

"This is the way identity and culture really work." Kameda comments. "When reinvention stops happening the art becomes stagnant."

Baba continues, "I want to make the best music I can. At school shows we ask the kids 'What does taiko mean?' Before, they'd answer ‘drums’. Now, they say 'music'."

Music Festival in Seattle

I miss the days of new music festivals in Seattle. In the early 1990s, composer Robert Priest produced Marzena, a Festival of Contemporary Music that brought composers such as Toru Takemitsu and R. Murray Schafer to the Northwest. Performances took place in venues that ranged from traditional concert halls to unique places where the audience was encouraged to bring sleeping bags and pillows to listen to music while in repose. Along with well-known contemporary composers, there were over two dozen other composers from all over the world who would converge in Seattle as part of Marzena.

Marzena is no longer around, so it is with great excitement that I attended the Seattle Chamber Players' Icebreaker IV Festival of emerging American music. For this post, I will write about Day One, curated by Alex Ross. Ross' program included works by young composers, many who are still in school. Their struggles to break out of academic and popular influences could potentially create the basis for a fantastic program.

After all, when does a Seattle audience get to experience the inner battles of Gen-X, Gen-Y and Gen-Me students educated at Juilliard, Columbia or Princeton play out in a world premiere? Especially challenging, was that all the works on Fridays' program where instrumental works scored for flute, clarinet, violin, 'cello, sometimes with an additional instrument such as electric guitar. In other words, there were no lyrics, text or singing at Friday night's concert. Their mishaps and discoveries played out in the abstraction of instrumental chamber music. I applaud Ross, the Seattle Chamber Players and On the Boards for providing this glimpse into a possible future of classical music aptly named World(s) in Collision.

The entire day was set up to give a platform to select East Coast trained composers in their 20s and 30s. Admittedly, I arrived late, five hours late, as the program began at 10 a.m. I missed hearing composers Mason Bates, William Brittelle, Anna Clyne, Alexandra Gardner, and Max Giteck Duykers talk about their work, but arrived in time to hear the tail end of Judd Greenstein and Nico Muhly's presentation as well as Ross' breakdown of his new book The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. It was nice to hear a recording of Muhly's work for old-timesy folk singer with chicken and whale bones. Later, I was heartened to hear Ross talk about the significance of the West Coast's influence on American music and in particular minimalism.

Of the seven works on the Friday-night concert, five were world premieres and two were Seattle premieres. The sold-out audience was highly appreciative. I was captivated by the world premiere of Clyne's 1987. The flute, clarinet, violin, and 'cello wove in and out of a recording that included a music box and branches. Another world premiere, Bates' The Life of Birds was a series of mechanical bagatelles. The Seattle Chamber Players' sounded especially virtuosic and blended fairly well throughout this challenging work. I noticed only a handful of composers and musicians in the audience, and very few seats were empty after intermission, so I conclude that the multigenerational audience was into listening to newly composed classical music.

I look forward to tonight's program called Classics of Downtown curated by Kyle Gann, especially because it includes a work by Alaska-based composer John Luther Adams who I heard performed in Los Angeles and New York and Eve Belgarian, who I have always wanted to hear performed live.

On Community and Culture

I have always been suspicious of the words community and culture because I find myself on the outskirts no matter how hard I try to fit in. I smile when everyone is serious or cry when everyone laughs. Perhaps this is why I travel. The definition of a foreigner is someone who is out of place.

I just returned from London, Aldeburgh, New York, New Haven, and Portland. Next year, I will be in China and hopefully England again. The paradox of travel is that to get from here to there, you have to sit still. Travel has become going from empty seat to empty seat on the bus, taxi, airplane, or train.

In August, over 500 people attended the North American Taiko Conference held in Seattle. The participants came from places like Winnipeg, Utah and Vermont. Since I was home for the weekend and I was invited to teach, I joined the conference.

My composition workshop went well, but I especially enjoyed all the non-workshop moments such as looking for a breakfast burrito with New York Teddy and learning how to make boba-straw panpipes with Los Angeles George.

I became part of this taiko social network without logging on. I didn't post my photos on a Facebook or beats in a MySpace. Rather, by hanging out and smiling, I met Teddy, George and a bunch of other folks who have contributed to my definition of a taiko community and culture. I treasure these moments and think:

Communities and cultures develop slowly over time through the experience, dedication, support, and presence of unsuspecting individuals.

Less than 40 years ago kumi-daiko (group drumming) was introduced to North America. Since then, hundreds of taiko groups have popped up as if we were on a taiko-rabbit farm. I never thought that when I started playing over a dozen years ago, I'd be hopping around as a workshop leader working with groups around the world.

While people have always traveled and exchanged ideas, the mechanisms for connecting continually expand. You may be meeting me for the first time through this writing on the Internet, so... hello. Yet I hesitate to say that our up-to-now, one-sided interaction has anything to do with community or culture.

Then again, I'm here (or was here) and you're here (or will be here) at the computer, iPhone, or PDA. We're travelers warming previously empty seats and while you might want to yell at me, I definitely want to yell at you. Travel, on an airplane or through cyberspace, makes me weary.

I am still suspicious of the words community and culture. To me, they signal a closed mathematical set. How do I find an artistic home in a country that values conformity over anarchy? I suggest adding the word "changing" to the equation.

Changing community and changing culture makes where I live and work dynamic. With flux in the mix, a cultural community such as one made up of North American taiko players thrives at all levels from large drums to boba-straw panpipes.
* * *

A version of this was published in August 2007, as the first of 4Culture's My Point of View Column in their eNewsletter.

Northwest Folklife Festival

by Byron Au Yong

Even though I am busy writing Stuck Elevator, somehow my dear old friend David and I were able to catch a few hours at Northwest Folklife. We went from taiko to tejano to bluegrass to gaelic all within the less than a mile radius of the Seattle Center campus. It turned out to be a musical reunion of sorts with a bunch of my friends who I never see anymore.

I've known the players in Inochi Taiko since they were kids; really, like when they were age six and eight, playing with Tsunami Taiko. In 2003, Garrett, Tyrone and Max started their own group. I was impressed with their showing at the Regional Taiko Gathering in Portland last summer and wanted to check them out at Folklife.

Inochi performed in the Bagley Wright Theatre to a full house. While their playing was a bit shaky and lacked dynamic control, they impressed the audience. Since they seem to be going in a power taiko direction, hopefully their three new members will add to the excitement they are able to generate on stage.

I also ran into Kim Carter as she and Jose Guillermo Castro were rushing off to a gig. Kim and Jose played fiddle and a plucked string instrument and sang. It was stunning.

I was so happy listening to the microtonal doublestops and falsetto leaps. Kim kept time, while Jose weaved in and out. It reminded me that songs could be odd, be in a language I didn't speak and hold me in a spell.

The audience of six sat within arms length of the performers. It was like a house concert without the food.

David was especially excited to hear about my friends in the queer bluegrass group, so right after Kim and Jose's set, we went to hear Skitterpup.

I haven't heard Skitterpup since going to a bar in Fremont last year. Their sound has become cool and lovely, which may not seem like adjectives to describe bluegrass but that Sunday morning, the crowd was not yet up for dancing.

The songs I remembered most were Karen Lindenberg's original "Seagull," with it's this-is-not-your-typical-rock-band accompaniment and their cover of "Tennessee Waltz." Skitterpup's rendition of A-ha's "Take on Me" shows how talented the band is at making material their own. I look forward to continuing to hear them. Hopefully it won't be just once a year.

If you ever want to be happy, catch Karen on stage. Her smiles are contagious. Kathea's bass playing will keep you in the groove, Cody's electric guitar will keep you guessing, Colt's fiddle playing will tickle your ears, and their vocal harmonies will keep you wanting more. I miss the harmonica, but overall was impressed with their Folklife performance.

The highlight this year was catching Hanz Araki. I've known Hanz for over 10 years. He was the only musician I've ever interviewed over a beer. I've heard Hanz go from playing Irish flute, whistle and shakuhachi as back-up to singing and leading his own group.

Last time I saw Hanz was over the summer -- hmm there's a theme here -- in Portland. We talked about how hard it was to make a living as a musician. I was glad to hear that he decided to make it on his own. He's been great in all the groups he's been a part of, but I've always known that he was a super star.

Hearing him on that stage in the twilight was magical. Hanz sang a slow song with his comforting, storytelling voice simply accompanied by guitar, bodhran, fiddle, and keyboards. He also played various flutes. The outdoor standing room audience was mesmerized.

I like to think of Folklife this way: of lifting me out of this world through contemporary traditional music, of colleagues singing and playing from their hearts for strangers and friends and of making me pause and listen anew to the possibilities.

Procrastinating isn't always bad, especially when it's taking time to listen to live music.

NW Asian American Film Festival

by Byron Au Yong
Originally published in the International Examiner.

“By holding our festival in January, we can cherry-pick films from other festivals,” explains director Wes Kim.

It’s a Sunday morning two-and-a-half weeks before the 2007 Northwest Asian American Film Festival (NWAAFF). I sit with Kim in a local caf». He wears glasses and a baseball cap. While eating a muffin, he continues.

“The granddaddy of Asian American film festivals happens every March in San Francisco. Then there are festivals in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego and D.C. By now, I know which films have been featured and which have good word-of-mouth.”

From these recommendations and a call for entries, Kim and the rest of the all-volunteer NWAAFF staff schedule an array of films that befit the low-key intelligence of film goers in the Pacific Northwest.

Three of the recommended featured films this year are “Red Doors,” “Colma: The Musical” and “The Slanted Screen.”

“Red Doors,” a bizarre Chinese American family comic-drama directed by Georgia Lee, won Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival. Co-presented by Women in Film/Seattle, this will be the Washington premiere of Lee’s directorial debut.

“Colma,” a rock musical set in the suburbs, features 13 numbers with original music by co-star H.P. Mendoza. Directed by Richard Wong, this coming-of-age film has been called “fresh, easy-flowing and irresistible” by the Los Angeles Times and an “unexpected delight” by Variety. The Seattle premiere, co-presented by Three Dollar Bill Cinema, is sure to be a favorite of the festival.

“The Slanted Screen,” a documentary about Asian American men in film and television by writer/director Jeff Adachi, includes interviews with actors such as James Shigeta, Dustin Nguyen and Tzi Ma. This work examines how Asian American men have been portrayed and stereotyped in Hollywood films.

“The Slanted Screen” won the Best Short Documentary award at the New York International Independent Film & Video film festival. It will be paired with Director Steven Okazaki’s film “American Sons,” which explores how racism affects four Asian American men. “American Sons” includes Seattle actor Yuji Okumoto who acted in “True Believer” and “Karate Kid II.”

Other local talent is featured in “Northwest Shorts,” a program that celebrates regional filmmakers. The films include “Community Stories: Uncle Jimmy” directed by Shannon Gee; “Happy Valentine’s Day” directed by Mark Ratzlaff and “The Invisible Dog” directed by Madeleine Grant and both produced by Jessica Cheung; “Palweiser Beer” directed by Brad Wilke; “Room 710” directed by Ann Marie Fleming; “Smells Like Fish Sauce” directed by Chau Nguyen Tony Ngo, Boon Tran and Quang Pham; “Tokiwa” directed by Doug Ing; and “Little Red Riding Hood” directed by SJ Chiro.

“I was pleasantly surprised by Chiro’s film,” said Kim. “It is a stylized and fantastical retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story.”

Kim first learned about Chiro, a former artistic director of the Annex Theatre, through her submission to Northwest Shorts. He is dedicated to continue showcasing local talent like Chiro in the festival.

“Asian American Activism,” another shorts program curated by Media That Matters, includes the Asian American documentaries “Day of Remembrance” directed by Cynthia Fujikawa, “A Girl Named Kai” directed by Kai Ling Xue, “How Wal-Mart Came to Haslett” directed by Meerkat Media Collective, “Night Visions” directed by Kathy Huang, “The Rules of the Game” directed by Garance Burke and Monica Lam, “Slip of the Tongue” directed by Karen Lum, “Something Other Than Other” directed by Jerry A. Henry and Andrea J. Chia, and “Vision Test” directed by Wes Kim.

In addition, there is the crowd-pleasing “Animation: The Illusion of Life” curated by the San Diego Asian Film Festival and co-presented by ASIFA (Association International du Film d’Animation/International Animated Film Association) Seattle. This program includes 19 animated shorts that range from “Kungfu Gecko” directed by Nickson Fong to “Talking About Amy” directed by Yorico Murakami.

Another popular event at the festival is the late-night “Cineoke!” hosted by Three Dollar Bill Cinema. In “cineoke,” a twist on karaoke, audience members perform with their favorite movie musical scene.

Other films include the documentary “Mighty Warriors of Comedy” about the San Francisco sketch-comedy troupe, the 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, written and directed by Sung H. Kim. This program includes a live performance by Seattle sketch-comedy group Pork Filled Players.

Winner of the Tribeca Film Festival Audience Award, Linda Hattendorf’s documentary “The Cats of Mirikitani” is about once-homeless, 86-year-old artist Jimmy Mirikitani. New York Magazine calls this film “a profoundly gripping film with a cumulative impact that may well wipe you out.” Mirikitani’s paintings were featured at the Wing Luke Asian Museum last September.

Local indie filmmaker Jon Moritsugu will attend screenings of his films “Scumrock and Crack.” His subversive films have received awards from the New York and Chicago Underground Film Festivals and have been called “gripping, strangely beautiful and poignant” by The Village Voice.

New to this year’s festival are screenings of 35 mm prints at the Northwest Film Forum. The two features will be presented on opening night.

The first is “Eve and the Fire Horse,” by Vancouver, B.C.-based director Julia Kwan. Film critic Roger Ebert called the work “Luminous! One of the most beloved films at Sundance this year.” It is a story about a Chinese North American girl with an overactive imagination.

The second is “Journey from the Fall (Vuot Song)” by filmmaker Ham Tran. Told from the viewpoint of the average Vietnamese person’s experience leading up to and the consequences from the fall of Saigon, Kim called this work “a sweeping and powerful film that is like the television mini-series ‘Roots,’ but for the Vietnamese American community.” USA Film Festival award-winning writer/director Ham Tran is scheduled to attend the screening.

Speaking of the opening night features, Kim said, “Both of these films are perfect examples of the level of craft and sophistication that Asian American film has reached.”

Now in his fifth year of the festival, Kim is cautiously optimistic about the future of Asian American filmmaking.

“The success of Asian American films like ‘Better Luck Tomorrow,’ ‘Charlotte Sometimes’ and ‘Robot Stories’ opens younger Asian Americans up to the idea that they can do film … still there needs to be a special level of encouragement in seeing Asian American films,” he said.

As a filmmaker, full-time copywriter and father of two boys ages 6 and 8, Kim knows the importance of balancing time with values. The 2007 Northwest Asian American Film Festival brings thought-provoking, entertaining and personal films with eight features and numerous shorts from Jan. 25-28.

“I want to create movie-going experiences that are worthwhile and fulfilling,” said Kim. “I hope this festival becomes a welcome and expected event.”

My first trip to China

This July, I visited Xiamen, Fuzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing. This was my first time in mainland China. The first week, I traveled with my grandmother, dad, first uncle and aunt, third uncle, and fourth aunt.

We explored the island city of Xiamen where my grandmother went to boarding school beginning at age 13. Throughout our time there, my 97-year-old grandmother asked, "What are we doing in Hong Kong today?"
[photo of grandmother in Xiamen]

Xiamen had changed since she was young. It was now full of high rises and she was surprised. I was also surprised by China's modernization.

[photo of Wal*Mart]

Here are impressions from Xiamen...
At the seafood restaurant
the rollerskating waitress falls
porcelin shatters surprising the cicadas.
[photo of Xiamen U]
Xiamen University has
music practice rooms
that face the ocean.

A tenor sings Puccini
to the container ships.
[photo of Xiamen]
Luxury accomodations
23 stories high
with an elevator that traps
my screaming grandmother.
Here are photos from Gulangyu, an island that used to bear the sign "no Chinese, no dogs." it was inhabited by foreigners from 13 different countries and had mansions and pianos to rival Europe.

[photo from Gulangyu]
view slideshow in a new window

After Xiamen, my dad returned to Seattle, my other relatives went to Manila. I went on my own to Shanghai. I stayed with two teachers, age 70 and 64.

In this metropolis of 20 million, I'm surprised to see old men wear pajamas on the main tourist drag Nanjing Lu. Children run around naked enjoying the People's Square fountain in the summer heat. Storeowners say "man zou" or walk slowly as the good-bye phrase, so I feel relaxed, even though my feet hurt from walking all day.
Sitting in the history museum
I watch a silent film
projected onto the side of a model T
driven by a wax Englishman.
a Shanghai orphan from the 1920s
looks for work pushing rickshaws.

I watch quietly
until a startled girl jumps
realizing I'm not wax.
[photo of Shanghai]
Isetan near the Ritz
Karen Carpenter sings
every sha na na na
while a violin plays
the Tonight melody
from West Side Story.
This is what the white marble floors echo
footsteps of Shanghai shoppers buying
clothes the price of an airline ticket to Beijing.

[photo of Forbidden City]
view slideshow in a new window

After Shanghai, I went to Beijing. I visited all the main attractions: Tianamen Square, the Forbidden City, Tian Tan, and the Great Wall.

I was very lucky to have Suli, Jessie, and Chen as hosts. They brought me to a retro Mao military bar, a tea house, the conservatory of music, and other places. Still, I was saddened by Beijing, especially the pollution.
Haze of smog
over the capital
the cicadas muffled
from lack of oxygen
accompanied by hand phone gulps
brown water
blurry sky
blossoms taunt pink
as I search for the buddha.

[photo of Starbucks]
Speaking in shapes
the poet uses his hands
clearing the air
flattening a plane
curling upwards
falling diagonally
circles upon circles
tightening the heart.

[photo of boy on the Great Wall]
Smoking a cigarette
past the "no smoking, no scratching" sign,
an old man with heaving breaths
passes me up the Great Wall.

A boy in a red hat
picks through the garbage
searching for plastic bottles.

He finds a battery
and studies the shape
as if it were a snuff bottle
from the Qin dynasty.

He has no pockets
for his treasure
only bags
of flattened bottles.

What is it like
to face a wall
day after day
mortar from the blood
of our ancestors lost
crushed from stones
now carved with the scratches
of signatures from those who pay
the $45 RMB entrance fee?

The boy's half-nylon sock
tan and see-through
covers a bony ankle above
orange-black tennis shoes.

He studies his scraped knee
the mountains shaped by the wall
a dragon sloping up and down
the angle of his elbow
as it rests against handrail.

I imagine him accusing me
10 years from now
"you are lucky to travel"
not realizing that I just want
to lay my head on my own pillow.

Aunt with the flowery shirt
faded from the sun
wears a straw hat
that matches her straw broom.

She sweeps in the crevices
of past laborers
their ashes from no incense
passing the red hat boy with blue veins
"get back to work," she says.

On the Great Wall
I catch his smile
and offer him a peach
thinking that maybe
like Monkey
he can escape, but knowing
as the wall is long
and broken at parts
that the juice of fruit
is only temporary.
I have many more thoughts about China that I will continue to write. The exciting news is that I will be going back to China in August as a delegate for the Dragon 100.

Dedicated to intercultural collaboration, Byron Au Yong composes songs of dislocation, music for a changing world. He teaches in Performing Arts & Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.

Byron Au Yong & Christopher Yohmei Blasdel: BreathPlay

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