“ ‘Chang’e Flies to the Moon’ is a folk tale so ingrained in China’s ancient and mystic cultural heritage. For me, and many others in China, this tale was passed down through oral tradition. For even more, the fated tale of the moon goddess, Chang’e, is eternalised in a celebrated Beijing opera, which in China can be seen not only in opera houses, but also on daytime TV.
“The tale itself is ambiguous, but the greater plot revolves around an expert archer, Hou Yi, who, after saving the world from the wrath of 10 suns, married Chang’e. They lived on Earth happily for some time, until Hou Yi began to pine for immortality for them both. He sought out an elixir of immortality: two portions, for him and for Chang’e.
“By some circumstance, however, instead of the couple ending up happily in heaven, Chang’e ultimately overdosed on the elixir and surpassed heaven, landing instead on the moon, where she resides to this day, alone but for a rabbit to keep her company.
“The more I thought about this tale, the more it mystified me; I could not fathom Chang’e’s thinking. She reminded me of Eve in the garden of Eden – it was somehow an astonishing thing, how these women, with the smallest gestures, could cause sublime devastation. To settle this confusion for myself, I found three explanations of Chang’e’s mishap, in different versions of the tale:
“One version suggested she was simply tempted, careless, downed it without thought of consequences – a simple solution, though curious. Another suggested a rival archer broke into their home when Hou Yi was out to thieve the elixir, and Chang’e, unable to defend against the intruder, was forced to consume the elixir whole. And in one last version, Chang’e consumed the elixir as an act of despair and devotion, when Hou Yi was slain in battle.
“The intensity of emotion Chang’e must have experienced to commit such an act – of drinking the elixir alone – expressed itself to me almost instinctively in musical sound. To write it, I evoked Nicki Minaj creating Roman’s Revenge: working almost as a method actor, trying to feel as much as Chang’e did.
“The writing of this piece became a careful balance of emotionally expressing Chang’e without relying too much on the distinctive communication of the narrative to carry the music. It can also be troublesome to relate music too directly to a culture, even if the culture is your own: I focussed as much as possible on Chang’e herself, and the music hopefully sounds as she was: Chinese.
“The result, for me, ties many threads together: not only a new understanding for myself of Chang’e’s tale, but an internalisation of Chinese musical practises, and Beijing opera aesthetic. It’s an ode to this profound and inexplicable woman, who through her actions, likely gave her husband a divine headache.” – Lauren Marshall
Lauren Marshall’s ‘Chang’e Flies to the Moon’ for cello and electronics will be performed by London Sinfonietta soloist Tim Gill at Kammer Klang at Cafe Oto on 8 November 2017.