Shadow puppets and Satie

Photo: Frank Kouwenhoven. © CHIME, all rights reserved.

Among a select group of films on rural life in China, little-known but brilliant is

  • Chinese shadows: the amazing world of shadow puppetry in rural northwest China (58 minutes, Pan Records, 2007).

Fruit of the collaboration between Frank Kouwenhoven and the late lamented Antoinet Schimmelpenninck of the CHIME foundation in Leiden, it evokes the changing lives of itinerant troupes in the poor villages of Huanxian county in east Gansu. Both in the scenes of villagers chatting and in their performances, you can feel the film-makers’ empathy with rural dwellers.

The puppetteers often perform as part of the Crossing the Passes (guoguan) ritual to protect children.  A similar ritual in Shaanbei is shown in my film Notes from the yellow earth (with my book Ritual and music of north China, vol.2: Shaanbei, p.37); see also my note for Daoists in Changwu in Shaanxi, not far away.

The sound-world of the puppetteers is remarkable, with gutsy percussion, fiddles, and shawms accompanying passionate vocals. [1] On the Chinese shadows soundtrack, piano music (Howells, Smetana, Janáček, and so on) makes a disorienting contrast with the guttural sounds of the Gansu singers and their earthy instrumental accompaniment. At first I had reservations about this choice, when we have so little opportunity to savour the sounds of village China—but I’ve come round to it as an effective personal reflection of the film-makers.

In similar mood, also lesser-known than some of Satie’s other Gnossiennes is the fifth:

Frank used it to elegiac effect in his portrait film of Antoinet’s life, a tribute shown at her funeral.

 

[1] The 2-CD set The beauty of Chinese opera (今夜来场戏) is one of an excellent series of historical recordings from Wind Records, also including folk-song, narrative-singing, and instrumental music—the most authoritative overview of Chinese music on disc. See my article and discography in The Rough Guide to World music: Europe, Asia & Pacific, pp.495–506.

 

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