A Juno nomination in 2005 and a seemingly endless amount of touring has proven there is a sizable demand for Orchid Ensemble’s take on classical Chinese music. Their latest album, Life Death Tears Dream, flexes both their skilled musicianship and desire to present traditional instruments in new and interesting ways. I spoke with two-thirds of the Vancouver-based ensemble, Lan Hung and Jonathan Bernard, and talked about this album’s conception, their busy performance schedule, and if a Juno nod changes how they work.
I’ve been listening to Life Death Tears Dream for a few days now. How much of this album would you consider classical Chinese music, and how much of it is Orchid Ensemble taking these instruments in a more contemporary direction?
Lan Tung: There are two pieces that are very traditional, the second and third tracks [“Tune of Mulberry” and “Three Variations on Plum Blossom”]. Their arrangement stylistically is very traditional. And there’s one flamenco and erhu duo, and all the others are new compositions.
Jonathan Bernard: “Three Variations on Plum Blossom” is very, very old and represents the real pure classical Chinese tradition. However, Lan’s arrangement for these three instruments in itself is quite contemporary.
Tung: It’s an ancient melody that’s been played for 2000 years, so that’s the oldest piece on the CD.
Bernard: But no matter what we do with the real traditional music, it’s always going to be contemporized by our instrumentation.
Life Death Tears Dream is accompanied by a book of poetry. How exactly did this poetry influence your mostly instrumental sound?
Tung: Yeah some of the poetry is in the lyrics, some of the poetry served as inspiration for the new compositions. In “Ghostly Moon,” the last track, there’s a collection of different poems from Chinese classic novels. The composer Barry Truax did the research to pull together ghost stories from those classic poems and translated them into English. So the whole piece is telling ghost stories. And the two pieces by Moshe Denburg are based on sacred texts…
Bernard: …from the Old Testament. And so interestingly, the text never appears in those pieces.
Tung: Yes, they’re instrumental pieces.
Your songs tend to feature very rich build-ups and wild dramatic movements. What is the composition process like for your original songs? How does that begin and who typically does what?
Bernard: How does one map out the form of a piece and where it’s going to go in terms of its energy? Well sometimes that happens while the piece is being composed. Lan, with your compositional process do you envision the whole and where it’s going, or does it have a life as its own as you’re working on it?
Tung: Both ways. Sometimes it’s very clear in a composition where the climax will be. And the parts open for improvisation really depends on the player, so that’s a variable factor. Because you can play into a climax, or you can play it softer, it depends on how it feels.
Bernard: Usually that’s preconceived in our pieces. The improvisations are always coming from somewhere and going somewhere very specifically in terms of the energy. Certainly in “Dancing Moon” we wanted Haiqiong [Deng, zheng player] to build the energy with her solo as much as possible, and then into that final section that adds a lot of rhythmic tension.
What was the recording process like? As seasoned musicians, how different is the studio experience from being on stage?
Tung: It’s probably the most different for Jonathan because when we’re performing live he plays all his instruments at once. When we’re recording the first track we all play at the same time but he only plays the marimba, he doesn’t play all the bells, cymbals, gongs and everything. So the hearing is different because we have to imagine those gongs when recording the first track.
Bernard: On one hand we always prepare heavily for our recordings in the studio by playing those pieces on tour as much as possible. That might be for a couple months, or it may be for a couple years. I don’t know, a lot of ensembles or groups perhaps create in the studio…
Tung: We don’t have that kind of money. [Laughs] Every time in the studio I feel like “Oh, I can play that better.” Because you’re putting a microscope to every note you play.
Bernard: Really for us, I think recording in the studio for a CD is something very different than a performance. Performances kind of go out into the air, they’re in the moment. But in the studio you have an opportunity to create something that’s permanent, that exists on its own like a painting for all to view. So there’s our chance to make it as perfect as possible, and to make it as beautiful as we can because we have that control.
Tung: Obsessive compulsive.
Bernard: I think Glenn Gould had similar thoughts. He could control everything, that’s why he was obsessed with recording.
Tung: In concert you play a piece, people clap. But in the studio you get feedback and listen back to what you do right away, and it’s a lot more critical that way.
Both in the group and as individuals you have quite the busy tour schedule. How how challenging is it to juggle these various gigs?
Bernard: It’s always been a huge challenge to balance our individual musical lives and Orchid Ensemble. Orchid Ensemble is basically run by Lan and I and has been for the last 15 years. We do all the management, booking, grant-writing, producing of concerts and all that comes along with that. So it’s more than a full-time job to keep this group going, just administratively. From the beginning we’ve consciously wanted to have a balance between our more freelance or individual musical lives and our Orchid Ensemble lives. That balance is still a challenge because of course, Orchid Ensemble is our baby and our priority. So we end up missing out on projects and activities because of it. And that’s not a bad thing, that’s just the way it is.
Tung: Orchid Ensemble plans tours really far ahead. A lot of local gigs doesn’t come until two months [ahead of time], so by that time we’ll know if we’re available or not. With Vancouver’s Intercultural Orchestra, who we play with, we plan our dates together to make sure we’re available.
Bernard: Our goal is to do it all, but maybe that’s not possible yet. The listener never misses what they don’t hear, and you don’t see what we’re not able to do. But those are personal challenges of any artist who doesn’t have a singular job.
How did your recent US tour come about and how did that go?
Bernard: That was a whirlwind, and a very tightly booked tour. It came about the way they all come about, just a lot of work on the phone and emails. You start from one date and build from there. That one was particularly busy, it was 14 shows in 11 days. It was a nice mix of shows and venues. For example, we started doing this choir collaboration project at Kent State University. That’s a project we started on tour since 2006, collaborating with choirs, getting them to sing in a variety of languages. Just a wide range of activities, which is really how we book solid tours. School shows have always helped to fill days between concerts.
You were nominated for a Juno for your last album, 2004’s Road to Kashgar. What was that experience like, and how did it affect the process of making Life Death Tears Dream?
Tung: I think the industry awards have a certain kind of aesthetics, and this album doesn’t exactly fit into any of the categories the Junos have. Of course, we’re always hoping, but we couldn’t plan artistically our choices according to Juno categories. We’re still doing the best quality of work we can, but doing everything we can to get nominated was not the goal.
Bernard: You maybe have nerves before you go on stage, when you’re actually playing on stage you forget about all that. Similarly I think in the studio you’re simply doing the very best you can with the material you’ve chosen to put on the CD. But the nomination was a great help for us and made us feel good, so of course you’d want that. We were also nominated this year for an Independent Music Award for best World Album, and Lan’s piece “Dancing Moon” was nominated for most Eclectic Song.
Tung: I think there will be some voting online for those too.