Listening Log – [Pt. III]- Alex Ho – ‘Untold’ abridged version (2019)


Alex Ho – ‘Untold’ abridged version (2019) In February 2020 Listened (streaming) to youtube clip: ‘Untold – Alex Ho (2019) abridged version. Composer: Alex Ho – Co-director, composer, co-producer. Co-director: Julia Cheng (Ye Xian) – Co-director, choreographer and dancer. Performer: Keith Pun (Fish/King) – Counter-tenor. Daniel Shao-(Step-sibling 1) – Flute. Reylon Yount (Step-sibling 2) – Yangqin (& Co-producer). Beibei Wang (Stepmother) – Percussion. Erin Guan – Set and costume design. Raycher Phua – Lighting design. Orchestra: Tangram. Funding/licensing: ‘Untold’ was supported through Sound and Music’s Talent Development scheme, ‘New Voices 2018’. It was also supported generously by Arts Council England, Help Musicians UK, Sound and Music, Snape Maltings, RVW Trust, PRS Foundation, The London Community Foundation, and The Cockayne Foundation.

Untold – Alex Ho (2019) abridged version

Write ups and plot summary about the performance quoted from Tangram Sound.: Full length film (45 minutes) available on request – contact Tangram (link below) “[I]t was a very special evening: sincere, unpretentious, inclusive, inspired and inspiring…[The] juxtaposition of Chinese and Western idioms and cultures was simply brilliant in its delivery.” – David Gowland, Artistic Director of the Jette Parker Young Artist Programme at Royal Opera House “I felt like I was watching both an ancient form of performance whilst at the same time witnessing an entirely new form of music theatre emerge. I loved it.” – Michael McCarthy MBE, Artistic Director of Music Theatre Wales Long before Cinderella, there was Ye Xian. Undeniably one of the most well read European fairy tales, Cinderella follows the life of a young woman who is abused by her stepmother until she is set free by her fairy godmother and a charming prince. Considered to have been first transcribed in the 17th century by Italian writer Giambattista Basile, this tale is in truth one version of a much older story, found in different cultures around the world throughout history. One of these predecessors is the Tang Dynasty story of Ye Xian (叶限 or 葉限), set in southern China and originally documented in an anthology written by Duan Chengshi in the early 9th century. ‘Untold’ is a music theatre piece that retells the story of Ye Xian through music and movement. While the original Chinese tale follows an arc many of us might recognise, ‘Untold’ reveals a few new twists.

Having seen Tangram Orchestra perform a few of Alex Ho’s new compositions for the Chinese new year at LSO ST Luke’s on Jan 25th I decided I wanted to use one of his compositions for my listening log. I picked the 8.22 min long, abridged version of Alex Ho’s 45 min long music theatre piece ‘Untold’ (see youtube clip above). I thought that an interesting comparison can be made between this modern, genre defying work and early Baroque theatre (and eventually opera). Perhaps it is the 9th Century fairytale (see synopsis above) and the sound of these ancient Chinese musical instruments which gives this piece a sense of timelessness and reminds me of older periods in Western Art music? The composition itself feels throughly modern, using both contemporary compositional devises, spoken word, poetry, dance and multimedia.

The piece opens with a spoken word prologue setting the scene, a soprano voice chants a wordless melody, abruptly punctuated by hissing noises which erupts into chinese percussion instruments playing a ‘Western” rhythm, accompanied by dramatic dancing. Another story telling section with spoken word/ soprano singing follows. This time the solo voice is quickly joined by several high voices singing shorter melismatic responses. The Chinese percussion then interrupts, this time playing a very stereotypical Chinese rhythm- whith powerful outbursts and very quick alterations in dynamics. In contrast to Western percussion style of playing, which frequently seats up grooves and rhythms, Chinese drumming marks important events and feelings. It reminds me a bit of their martial arts, it is fast, powerful and lethal. A ritualistic display of force and a very effective way of heightening emotion and underpinning a story.

The next section is introduced by the yangqin playing a tremolo-ing glissando and other instruments join in. The sporano singer comes back and sings a stunningly beautiful rising figure culminating in a tutti climax.

The story teller returns, this time accompanied by a an airy and sensitive flute. The section follows a similar structure to the previous one, with a percussion climax that dies down into another poetic section.

The last section develops in the same way, this time with piano being the main instruments, again culminating in percussion climax and a final quiet spoken word section.

I really enjoyd Alex Ho’s use of Chinese ancient instruments playing contemporary Western Art music. The way in which it reminds me of Baroque Theatre and opera is in the recitative style of the delivery by the instruments. Although the soprano sings very drawn out flowing lines, they do not have much in common with later Classical opera arias, the flavour is ‘older’.

I really enjoy this mixture and juxtaposition of old and new and Eastern and Western culture. I think we are witnessing an emergence of a new hybrid, multicultural genre which defies description. It is inspiring to see the direction young contemporary composers are taking. There is a refusal to be confined to just one ‘cultural identity’, one gender and one period and style of music. It is a far more accurate reflection of how multifaceted and globally influenced modern humans have become.