Early autumn has come upon us, and I quietly long for the sweet-scented osmanthus flowers that accompany the reddening maple leaves of Sūzhōu and Jiāngnán. That beautiful land is in lockdown and quite paralysed at the moment, and my heart goes out to my friends and colleagues still stuck there during this strange time. 请多保重身体! Qǐng duō baǒ zhòng shēntǐ！Please look after your health!
Likewise in Australia the situation is getting worse - particularly for casual workers and entertainment industry freelancers, who are having contracts cancelled with no compensation (the virus counts as force majeure). Van Badham wrote an incisive column on this in The Guardian. Stay strong friends.
Meanwhile, I am working with Forest Collective to start a blog that will explore their upcoming projects and concerts. It ought to appear on their website in the coming weeks at www.forestcollective.com.au. Recently we have been delving into the interesting and exciting thematic currents that run through Forest’s next concert Asia Focus. Curated by core member Ali Fyffe, the concert will feature a broad range of composers from across a region that is reshaping the modern world, from Japan to Iran, China to India. Grappling with the contrasting influences of Western and Eastern traditions, new technologies and often state censorship, these exciting composers have found unique and original musical voices. Ravi Shankar’s Sonata for Harp and Cello is imbued with driving raga rhythms. Takemitsu’s chamber quintet Rain Spell is permeated with a transcendental stillness.
I will perform a couple of mandarin language songs in this concert, along with the wonderful scholar and pianist Danaë Killian. One of these is 涉江采芙蓉 (Shè jiāng cǎi fúróng) Crossing the River to Pick Hibiscus by the extraordinary Chinese composer 罗忠榕 Luó Zhōngróng (b. 1924). This groundbreaking piece was published just after the Cultural Revolution in 1979, and was the first piece of Chinese music to use a 12 Tone compositional technique. Described as the spiritual father of modern music in China, Luó translated many 20th century treatises on harmony and serialism into Chinese for the first time, including works by Hindemith, George Perle and Charles Wuorinen.
His compositions were shunned during the Cultural Revolution, and Luó himself was persecuted and imprisoned. Yet in that time, he continued to study and compose in secret. After the Revolution ended in 1979, he published a number of these hidden works, including Crossing the River to Pick Hibiscus. Combining a serialist compositional system with a strong pentatonic (i.e. Chinese) flavour in the setting of an ancient Han dynasty poem caused quite a stir in Asian music circles. I’m really looking forward to presenting this startling and original piece in May.
Ali herself has travelled and performed extensively throughout Asia, collaborating in local and sometimes underground new-music and improvisation collectives. Her experiences and perspectives are truly fascinating. So stay tuned for the blog at www.forestcollective.com.au to check out some of her stories.
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Through early February I had a recurrence of chronic fatigue symptoms for the first time in over a year. It was a scary little episode that brought up a lot of fear about returning to that constant exhaustion that was my companion for four years. I had been hit by a couple of “fatigue deaths”, as we had dubbed them - a sudden and immediate need to stop everything and sleep. My brain would refuse to function and minor problems become totally overwhelming. I am grateful to have had the understanding and support of friends and family, both back then and now.
Much has been said about cultivating gratitude as a key to happiness and mental fortitude. I must say that, in the throes of this difficult illness (of which western medicine has not much to say), the notion of being grateful seemed trite and insulting. I felt feeble, angry and useless.
But now, standing at the other side of it, I must admit that chronic fatigue did teach me something incredibly valuable. Something that was entirely alien to my lived experience.
I come from a family where ‘high-achieving’ has been the watchword from an early age. High-achievement in academia, sport and music were always encouraged and rewarded. Any laziness that compromised my many commitments was simply not an option. If I began to feel overwhelmed, then “mind over matter” would get it done. These values have given me a good work ethic and have allowed me to achieve a lot in my life.
But “mind over matter” demands a price on your energy that must be paid back later. And with chronic fatigue, that price can be high! Pushing through the fatigue for one evening of work or play (sometimes with the help of caffeine pills) would sometimes result in a full week of barely being able to get out of bed.
On certain rare days I would wake up feeling healthy and well, and joyously decide to take on the day with a positive attitude. Time to get my life back on track! Get things done! Go out and be social! But by mid-afternoon, I would crash once more and all those plans would be abandoned. The frustration frequently brought me to tears. And herein lies the rub. My self-esteem and indeed my entire sense of self was contingent on doing things. Achieving things. When fatigue hit, I could achieve nothing.
I was forced to confront the question: without doing things, without achieving things, who am I? What is left after that extraneous stuff is taken away? In that time spent resting, with no hope of achievement, I needed to discover the innate value of who I am, regardless of what I do. It strikes me that this is something retirees must also face when they give up their work identities.
I realised that I had lived a very externally-oriented existence. A lot of my self-esteem was contingent on the approval of others - socially, academically and professionally.
This inner self, devoid of the morschen Tande dieser Erde, as it is put in Das Lied von der Erde, was almost a stranger. Like someone I knew from my youth, but hadn’t seen in a long time. They were introverted, sensitive, quietly and joyfully nerdy. Feeling the strangeness of this dichotomy, I gradually set about making friends with this inner me. I reassured him that I cared about his pain and shared his insecurity. It was, of course, my own pain that I was soothing. My own fears that I was assuaging. Through this self-compassion, I felt these two elements of myself integrating. I began to understand my own inherent value. I did not need to perform my worth to the world around me, but rather felt it innately, with a quiet confidence. I became more introverted and more grounded through this process.
When fatigue hit me again in early February, I was reminded of this valuable lesson and felt deeply grateful for the fatigue I once had. That is not to say I wasn’t apprehensive of its return. But perhaps it was a gentle reminder for me as I readjust to the vagaries of this freelance life.