Inside job: Water Heavens performer

Jake Newby makes a splash at Zhujiajiao's Water Heavens show

Tan Dun is China’s best-known composer. He’s put on shows in the world’s most famous concert halls, penned the scores to Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou’s wuxia epics Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, created the music for the 2008 Olympic medal ceremonies, works as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and has picked up Grammy, BAFTA and Academy Awards during his glittering career. I don’t want to say that all of that has made him a little big for his wellies, but apparently he’s not available to personally walk me through the finer points of performing in his spectacular Water Heavens show in Zhujiajiao for the purposes of this column.

Water Heavens is Tan’s resident Zhujiajiao show. Premiered in 2010, the ‘visual music’ performance takes over a purpose-designed building on the banks of the watertown’s main river. Water not only forms part of the stage, but is also involved in the unique instruments used alongside more traditional strings to weave
together elements of everything from Buddhist chants to Bach. The auditorium itself also becomes an instrument, with performers ‘playing’ the water along with the structure’s pillars, stairs and floor, as the show builds to a spectacular, splashy climax. It looks like great fun to be involved in, and I’m excited to pull on the Water Heavens waders – and not just for the super sexy fisherman look.

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Tan might have better things to do, but fortunately his musical assistant for Water Heavens, US musician Felix Ventouras, is on hand to show me the basics. First though he’s hosting one of Water Heavens’ weekly children’s workshops where kids get a behind-the-scenes look at how it all works. If letting a bunch of giggly, excitable kids loose in a play-pen of water and musical instruments sounds like a recipe for trouble, that’s because it is. There’s water to splash, stones to clack and crazy musical instruments to fiddle with. But once I’ve gotten that out of my system, Felix lets the children in and proceeds to skillfully channel their propensity to make noise and hit things into more creative outlets.

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The children and I learn how the performance incorporates the five elements – earth (the floor), wind (voices), fire (fired cymbals), metal (some of the building’s surfaces) and, of course, water (everywhere). The session provides them with plenty of hands-on experience as to how the entire pavilion can be used to create music and ends with each child playing their favourite noisemaker for a (slightly cacophonous) closing concert.

Once they’ve cleared out, I play around with tapping out a rhythm on the steps, lay into the water-filled drum kit and pull up clear sieve-like containers from inside large bowls of water, thus ‘making it rain’.

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My favourite instrument is something a little less subtle: the ‘water dragon’. For this, Felix opens the floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors that occupy one side of the auditorium and we venture outside. I stand in a small, shallow pool and gaze across the gently lapping river to the yellow walls of Zhujiajiao’s peaceful Yuanjin Temple. Feeling appropriately zen, I then lift up a giant braid of red rope and smash it down as hard as I can into the pool to make a loud thwack.

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I’m also quite taken with the ‘waterphone’, which is played by running a bow over its metallic ‘strings’ and gently rotating the base so that the note resonates across the small quantity of water contained within. When played by a professional as part of the evening performances, it makes a beautiful, ethereal sound – something that Felix attributes with a smile to it ‘having a spirit inside’.

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When I play it, it’s more Water Halloween than Water Heavens, but Felix, perhaps still in the mode of humouring yet-to-mature musicians, tells me I’m a natural. He says that, but at time of press I’m still yet to receive a call from Tan Dun.

Water Heavens takes place every Saturday at 7pm in Zhujiajiao, with tickets from 180RMB. The children’s classes, also every Saturday, are at 3pm and cost 1RMB (two accompanying adults can then get half-price tickets for the show). See waterheavens.org for more details.

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