Georgia Straight – Arts Features
Birds of Paradox makes Chinese streetscape come to musical life
It’s so vivid, you can almost feel the heat and the surging press of bustling humanity. “Asian Market: Chapter 1 China”, from the Vancouver trio Birds of Paradox’s new, self-titled CD, mixes discordant cries, half-heard conversations, the rattle and clatter of traffic, and the whirring and clanking of mysterious machinery into a startling, abstract portrait of a Beijing streetscape. Even if you’ve never been to the Chinese capital, it’ll put you there—and that’s just what its composer, erhu virtuoso Lan Tung, intended.
“I had the idea of this piece from when I was travelling in China,” the Taiwan-born musician explains, on the line from her East Vancouver home. “Traditionally, of course, in the market people will be calling out what they’re selling, all kinds of different products. And when you go into the shops, the shopkeepers have many different styles of selling. Some people are more annoying, some people are softer, some people speak faster, some people say just a few words but repeat them. And some are quite aggressive: as you walk through the market, they’ll keep trying to get you to come in and look at different things.”
You can hear all that in “Asian Market”. Tung’s Chinese violin, Neelamjit Dhillon’s saxophone, and Ron Samworth’s electronically augmented guitar shout and beg and cackle, their resemblance to human voices bolstered by Tung’s decision to base the piece on the tonal structure of Mandarin.
“Going to kindergarten in Taiwan, the first thing you learn is to pronounce the four tones,” she explains. “The first tone will be a straight tone, the second tone goes from low to high, the third from high to low and back up, and the fourth tone is from high to low. So the piece starts like kids learning Mandarin and practising their four tones, gradually becoming more fluent and faster.”
Listen closely to the track, however, and you’ll soon realize that in capturing the sound of Beijing, Birds of Paradox is also evoking another very different place: Vancouver. We live in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, and this collaborative trio—which kicks off the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden’s annual Enchanted Evenings concert series on Friday (July 9)—is the musical embodiment of that reality.
“Having been born here and brought up here, I’ve never really known anything else,” Dhillon says in a separate phone interview. “So for me, this band is just an extension of the way I’ve always thought about music.”
In practice, this means that the saxophonist and tabla master is free to borrow a Japanese scale in order to evoke the bleak loneliness of Chinese immigrants exiled to a leper colony off the coast of Vancouver Island, as he does on “D’Arcy Island”. It also means that Samworth can place bent blues licks against a traditional Cantonese melody in “Temple Bells”, and that Tung can draw on Indonesian counterpoint in “Colourful Clouds Eating the Moon”.
“Ron definitely brings his rock background into the music. I bring the Indian side, Lan brings the Chinese side; we all have different lineages through jazz music,” Dhillon explains. “And they all come together.”
That they do—and very beautifully, too.