The Orchid Ensemble finds mountains of inspiration

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      The Alps have their devotees, as do the Himalayas; those who have found their way to far Patagonia might make a case for Mount Fitzroy, as well. But when it comes to lofty peaks, few have been more extensively celebrated than China’s Mount Huangshan. Subject of legend, song, and millions of painted scrolls, the fabled “Yellow Mountain” is what we think of when we imagine the Chinese landscape: a soaring granite crag picturesquely decorated by pine, bamboo, and flowering plum.

      Topping out at only 1,800 metres, Huangshan is a mere molehill next to, say, Mont Blanc or Everest. Yet ascending its heights can still be an adventure, as the Orchid Ensemble’s Lan Tung found out on a recent pilgrimage to this most scenic of sites. Rather than trek up on foot, she opted for the comfort of a cable-car ride—but when the pulleys froze mid-climb, during a howling windstorm, she still had a few anxious minutes.

      “It was scary,” relates the Taiwan-born erhu virtuoso, on the line from the East Vancouver home she shares with percussionist Jonathan Bernard. “But when we reached the top, we had an amazing view. Because it was really windy, the clouds were flying very fast from below me, up to my face, brushing on my face. By that time we’d already been in China for maybe five days, and finally we got what we were hoping for.”

      Tung’s no storm chaser. Instead, she and videographer Nenad Stefanovic were seeking raw material for the Orchid Ensemble’s latest multimedia presentation, Mountain High River Flow ”¦without end. After returning to Canada, Tung sent their footage to composers Rui Shi Zhuo and Dorothy Chang, who then wrote pieces inspired by Huangshan’s rugged beauty. She also delivered the videos to the Flicker Art Collaboratory’s Aleksandra Dulic and Kenneth Newby. Working alongside Dulic’s students, they turned those images into paintings, then animated the paintings using computer technology. Their collective aim is to render a new, interdisciplinary view of topography that artists have been studying for millennia.

      “The idea was to take Chinese landscape painting as the main inspiration,” says Dulic, reached in Kelowna, where she teaches at UBC Okanagan. “It’s really based in nature and landscape; that’s the main exploration. But we’ve also placed our focus on integration with the music.”

      As for that music, Tung confesses that her own Dancing Moon was written prior to visiting Huangshan. But she notes that Chang’s From a Dream is directly inspired by the area’s dramatic weather and scenic beauty.

      “She was quite inspired by the day we had the flying clouds coming up the hill, just by seeing how the images moved from one to another continuously, with very subtle changes,” she explains. “The piece started to become quite minimal—it can be just one note from one instrument leading into another instrument, fading in and fading out, just like how those clouds rolled into each other.”

      She pauses, remembering again her own experiences on the mountain.

      “The first day we went up in the cable car, it was pouring rain, and also there was really thick fog,” Tung recalls. “But there was one amazing minute when the clouds suddenly opened up. We were on a cliff, looking down at a sea of clouds rolling in around the peaks below—and at that moment, it was all worth it.”

      The Orchid Ensemblepresents Mountain High River Flow ”¦without end at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on Saturday (January 15).