This piece was originally published in Classical Post.
Is there a right way to listen to an album? How literally should a listener take the track layout of an album? Does learning the intended listening experience of the composer bring you closer to a work? What is innate to a work, what is perspective and how does listening order impact an interpretation? These are some of the questions rummaging through my mind after speaking with Du Yun about her album A Cockroach's Tarantella, performed marvelously by Jack Quartet with Du Yun.
MY LISTENING EXPERIENCE
My first listening experience of A Cockroach’s Tarantella was a particularly pleasurable and illuminating one, so I’m going to share it. It comes with the caveat that this is not the listening experience that Du Yun intended. I’ll be thoroughly sharing her thoughts and intentions later in the piece.
The album, A Cockroach’s Tarantella, is for string quartet, electronics and narrator (Du Yun). The album begins with a four-minute Epilogue, immediately setting the tone for a work that is cyclical in nature. In this opening track, the sliding strings are simultaneously deeply grounding and disconcerting. Out of these morphing consonances and dissonances enters the unfamiliar: a male voice calling out regularly in Chinese, the sound of seagulls, flapping wings perhaps. And just as it emerges, it slips out of the sonic picture, much like the sliding of the string parts.
As if abruptly woken, from this Epilogue the story begins. This is the work A Cockroach’s Tarantella within the album of the same name. Du Yun’s warm voice enters alone with the unexpected line, “I have been pregnant, for as long as I could remember”. From here, there is a switch in musical language and the strings begin the underlying churning component to the story with a snap. Listening through the work, my mind took note of the strings and the tone of Du Yun’s voice, but primarily followed Du Yun’s captivating story. It is the story of a cockroach who is bored with her life, yearns to become a human, wants to have babies out of love, desires to cry and prays to both God and Buddha in the hopes that one of them will turn her into a human in four months.
The story switches tones on a dime. At one moment we’re laughing with Du Yun, then sad for this creature and everything in between while being a little uneasy thinking about cockroaches for such a prolonged period. Throughout the work, the strings continue cyclical sounding musical material, moving and constantly transforming. Like the cockroach who is stuck in this life while trying to become a human, the string parts stay busy but are unable to reach a final destination.
OFF I GO
Even with the often uneasy nature of the story, the work has an oddly soothing and coaxing quality. By the end of the English version of A Cockroach’s Tarantella, I was ready to be guided into whatever musical material Du Yun presented next. Ocean is the final track in the story, which has a beautiful underwater quality to the voice and electronics that gently drifts you into the unknown, ending with the line “Off I go”, propelled into the next life.
TATTOOED IN SNOW
For me, this point is the real trick of the album. From the ending of this story there is a seamless transition to the substantial central work, Tattooed In Snow, which when relaxed after listening to the story has a dreamlike quality to it. Musical ideas surface and submerge like waves. It is the in between, the transitory, guiding from one life to the next. Glimpses of the past manifest, glorious moments of counterpoint come to the forefront only to be swept back into the depths. From here there is a recurrence of sliding, reminiscent violent bug-like thrown musical motifs and swells. It is a constantly shifting platform and is long enough to give an aural reset. There is a difference here in the string writing from what was heard before, an expansiveness and sense of allowing.
HEARING THE WORK FROM A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
After feeling like we’ve gone on this journey and perhaps might arrive in a new place, the cycle resets. A Cockroach’s Tarantella begins again, but this time it is spoken in Chinese. It is the same story and musical material, but from a different perspective which fundamentally alters the listening experience. As a native-English speaker who doesn’t speak Chinese, my attention was drawn to the sound of and inflections in Du Yun’s voice and the string parts grasped my attention. Hearing the work in Chinese after hearing it in English shaped how I heard it as little memories popped into my mind of what I thought was going on in this part of the piece or that, but the memory was fuzzy. Similarly, hearing the work in Chinese after hearing it in English made me want to listen in English again to notice the differences in tone, tempo and perhaps pick up on more details that I might have missed. This listening experience allowed me to see the same thing from a different perspective and notice what had been there all along. My experience of the work A Cockroach’s Tarantella was fundamentally shaped by listening to it in both languages and the layout of the album as a whole. In the spirit of talking about the same thing from a different perspective, we will shift to my discussion with Du Yun regarding this work.
THE DEEP ‘WHY’
One of the first things that I thought of when listening to A Cockroach’s Tarantella was Kafka’s best-known story The Metamorphosis, in which salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself inextricably transformed into a huge insect, a monstrous vermin. I heard A Cockroach’s Tarantella as at least partly influenced by this work, a kind of inverse. I’ve always pictured the bug as a cockroach, Du Yun has always pictured a beetle, and the internet doesn’t seem to have a definitive answer. “It’s one of those stories that I don’t mind associating with as I think it’s one of the best stories written in modern times. It really addresses the human condition within a social context and framework,” says Du Yun. “The inspiration is actually very far away from that story, but at the same time The Metamorphosis informs my story. The deep ‘why’ is that I grew up with stories about reincarnation, that’s the culture that I came from. It’s not unheard of that you become something else. One of the oldest sayings if you feel in debt to a person is saying that you want to be a horse to that person. That’s one of the vernaculars that we use. Then of course there’s the reason of what angels and fairies mean. Who gets to be thrown into the world? Who gets to be a human?”
LIFE BEFORE STORY
Du Yun began writing the story for A Cockroach’s Tarantella back in 2004, when she was 25. She wrote the story as she was simultaneously finishing her first chamber opera, Zolle (2005), a 55-minute one-act opera with narration and singing. “Zolle starts with the main character being a ghost. It’s an afterlife story. As I was finishing that piece, I realized that it would be really nice to have a life-before story,” says Du Yun. A Cockroach’s Tarantella became that work. “I never wanted to write a string quartet for the sake of writing a string quartet, because it’s one of those overly weighted forms. But with a story like this attached it feels a lot more lighthearted, it doesn’t feel like I’m writing an Opus. That way I can free myself from the associations of Beethoven, Bartok and Ligeti.”
A few years later, Du Yun was speaking with iO Quartet and they got a grant from Chamber Music America commissioning Du Yun to compose A Cockroach’s Tarantella. She started writing the piece in 2008 and the premiere was in February of 2010.
TRANSLATING THE STORY INTO CHINESE
Fast forward to October 2019, when the Beijing Music Festival programmed Du Yun’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Angel’s Bone. As Du Yun is an exceptional performer and composer, they wanted to also feature her somehow as a performer. That’s when she had an idea. “I used that opportunity to translate the story (A Cockroach’s Tarantella) back into Chinese. I didn’t feel like I wanted to narrate in English to my people. I never believe in a hard translation, like word to word, I go for the spirit of the words,” says Du Yun. “Somehow, the Chinese version is much more fun and goofy. When I deliver it I recite it much faster, that’s why the duration of that piece is shorter than the English one.”