Review: A ‘Sonic Great Wall’ Breaks Down Musical Barriers | Modern Society of USA

Review: A ‘Sonic Great Wall’ Breaks Down Musical Barriers

Review: A ‘Sonic Great Wall’ Breaks Down Musical Barriers

When he wrote it in 2016, the composer Huang Ruo couldn’t have imagined that his immersive multimedia work “Resonant Theater: The Sonic Great Wall” would be so timely. But before conducting it on Monday at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, Mr. Ruo asked audience members to take up a pen and paper.

“Write down what comes to mind when you think of a wall,” he said. “Any wall.”

Earlier in the day, President Trump, who has brought the federal government to a partial shutdown in an effort to obtain funding for a wall along the southern border of the United States, had announced he would speak from the Oval Office to make his case for this wall as a national imperative. “The Sonic Great Wall” became a way for its audience to grapple with the concept of barriers and borders.

In the piece, Mr. Ruo — whose expansion of his opera “An American Soldier” was one of my favorite musical events of 2018 — attempts to break down walls between musicians and audiences. The Great Wall of China, he said on Monday, was erected as a barrier against China’s enemies. But its watchtowers also became a series of signaling stations; the Great Wall was a kind of ancient telegraph system.

As the music gained in density and variety, the larger elements of the piece were driven by a steady, rumbling 4/4 meter played on percussion. Mr. Ruo’s style, well suited to theatrical works, vividly blends Chinese melodic elements and skittish dance riffs with tartly modernist contemporary sounds and pointillist bursts. (Those qualities also came through in his alternately pensive and fraught Chamber Concerto No. 2, “The Lost Garden,” which opened the program.)

Audience members were seated in five “paths,” as they were called, each with two facing rows of seats. Everyone had been asked earlier to jot down thoughts about a wall, choosing one key word to write in bold letters, and then to exchange papers with each other. At certain points during the piece, a musician from the ensemble of 14 would walk down one of the paths.

Those seated, as asked, whispered the written-down words as the musician approached and then spoke the word clearly when he or she was in earshot. Depending on what the musician heard, he or she then varied the music played in response, choosing from various composed phrases or, it sometimes seemed, improvising. So each performance of “The Sonic Great Wall” will be somewhat different.

Embracing the participatory aspects of the piece, the audience members leaned forward to whisper and speak words to the attentive performers as they walked past. The message seemed to be that, by working together, performers and listeners could together create a situation in which the wall between them was merely sonic — and easily permeated.

As it turned out, President Trump’s fixation on a border wall nearly ended this performance before it began. Players from Asko/Schönberg, the ensemble that gave the premiere of the piece in Amsterdam in 2016, had trouble getting travel visas processed because of the government shutdown.

Players from the Dream Unfinished Ensemble leapt in to perform the program. In the end, through the efforts of diplomats in the Netherlands, four Asko/Schönberg players did make the trip. (Two others could not obtain visas in time.) This international collaboration represented the symbolic breaking down of yet another wall.

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