A brief word about Iris dévoilée: Its orchestration includes female singers (both bel canto and Peking opera styles) and traditional Chinese instruments (erhu, pipa, and zheng). In nine movements, the piece runs through various states of womanhood from “Chaste” to “Hysterical.”
This week I finally had a brief word about the piece with Chen Qigang himself. Its unusual form was partly an extension of his earlier piece, The Five Elements, an orchestral suite of five short movements that marked the first time he’d attempted such abrupt changes in mood. In content, Iris owes much to Chen’s Raise the Red Lantern ballet for director Zhang Yimou and the National Ballet of China, which had incorporated elements of Peking opera in the score. “We had worked on that piece for more than a year,” Chen says. “There were many ideas we never used.”
More important than specific musical sources, though, was the collaborative sense that the ballet had instilled. Working with a director, choreographer, and dancers as well as musicians had brought home the idea of conveying multiple viewpoints in a single piece.
“This essentially represents the nine different ways I’ve observed women presenting themselves,” Chen explains. “Right up to its publication, I was facing the dilemma of whether or not the subject matter was appropriate. There hasn’t been anything like this before in Chinese music.”
In France, where Chen has lived since 1984, this was hardly a problem. Most people who heard about the piece found the Chinese elements exotic but the subject matter appealingly universal. But, as Chen had feared, exactly the reverse proved true in China, where the people found the piece strangely Western in its openness.
“Many people in China who heard this piece felt uncomfortable,” he said. “When I discussed this piece with students at the Shanghai Conservatory, I got a stern warning from the school authorities: ‘You talk too much about women and romantic love in front of college students.’”
But women, he insists, are intricately connected with men’s lives, beginning with their mothers. “Women have all the qualities of men, but men don’t share all the qualities of women,” he said. “All men need women. Without women, men could do nothing.”
But back to the roots of the piece, does Chen Qigang have an iris? Was there a particular muse at the heart of the piece?
“No,” he says, a little too quickly. “There was no muse. You cannot say there was a muse.” Which, of course, is fooling no one. Unless, like the Greeks, he had several of them.
Posted by Ken Smith