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About the Author
Ken Smith currently divides his time between New York (where he writes for Gramophone magazine) and Hong Kong (where he serves as the Asian–performing arts critic for the Financial Times). He is Co–Music Director of the recordings Dong Folk Songs and Miao Music for China's MediaFusion Group, and he won an ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award in 2008 for his liner notes to Gil Shaham's recording of The Butterfly Lovers Concerto for Violin. Ken is also the author of Fate! Luck! Chance!, published in 2008 by Chronicle Books.

Ancient Paths, Modern Voices Blog

10/24 Ancient Spirits @ Zankel Hall

Ancient Spirits

Much has been made of the ancient connections between spirituality and theatricality. No good piece of theater exists without a spiritual core, and no display of spirituality is effective without at least a touch of theater. So the pairing of the Zhang Family Band, whose distinctive style of shadow puppetry stems from their oral folk culture, with the Li Family Daoist Band, a family of ritual musicians from the neighboring province, made for a colorful and insightful juxtaposition.

It also proved to be no fluke that the Dong singers had thoroughly rearranged their song selection the night before. Even performers from literate cultures, it seems, have no tradition of sticking to the printed program.

The Zhangs exploded with an almost frightening level of intensity, which they soon tempered to give longer-term dramatic shape to the evening. This did little to rob the performance of its visceral immediacy, however. Take away the traditional trumpets, suonas and rustic percussion (including banging bricks on benches) and you could imagine their rough-hewn vocals successfully making the leap to a heavy metal band. Particularly intriguing in their segment was the use of shadow puppets, a longtime folk art in Shaanxi province.

Like the Zhangs before them, the Li Daoist Band, too, departed from the announced order of their program. In distilling a three-day funeral ritual into a 45-minute concert segment, they conflated two hymn sequences into an unbroken vocal segment. But then, not many people read their program at a Daoist funeral. Like most ritual music—as well as early works by Philip Glass and Steve Reich, which the sheng mouth organs evoked—the music was deliberately about not keeping track of time, and losing yourself into a different state of consciousness.

One could imagine reversing the two bands and having an equally valid, though completely opposite, experience. After the Zhangs, you felt like banging bricks on benches yourself. The Lis were more delicately cathartic, with a feeling of having completed a spiritual journey.

Posted by Ken Smith

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Chinese Translation (Traditional Characters)
Chinese Translation (Simplified Characters)