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I first meet the members of the Forbidden City Orchestra when they came to New Zealand at the beginning of 2011 (although I had known about them previously, through my good friend Prof Gao Wei-Jie). The orchestra played two stunning concerts at my university, one of which included readings of Chinese texts, which were also read in English translation. The very last piece of the programme had a most extraordinary text by Zhuangzi, the famous Chinese philosopher who lived in the 4th century BC. It talks about the special qualities of sound, and how sounds behave. Although with a voice from antiquity, and filtered through translation, to me the words seemed to express exactly what it means to be a composer, in the struggle to assemble and to give coherence and meaning to disparate sounds.
I was thrilled to accept this commission from the Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra, and am extremely grateful for all their time and patience in helping me learn about these instruments, and to the commitment they have given to the performance. The emperor speaks:
“I compounded sounds out of sheer spontaneity, at the command of nature itself. They followed one another helter-skelter, in utter chaos, like a many-clustered plant, burgeoning from a single root, like the music of a forest arising with no visible form. They spread themselves and yet left no trace. They issued from deep obscurity, where there was no sound. Their movements came from nowhere. Some would call this music death. Some would call it life. Some would call it the fruit. Some would call it the flower.”