Category Archives: Events

Meaning and Melody

Folio of calligraphy, signed by Mir Imad Hasani; Iran, probably Isfahan, Safavid period, dated 1611–12; borders signed by Muhammad Hadi; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; Purchase, F1942.15b

Folio of calligraphy, signed by Mir Imad Hasani; Iran, probably Isfahan, Safavid period, dated 1611–12; borders signed by Muhammad Hadi; ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper; Purchase, F1942.15b

Michael Wilpers is manager of performing arts at the Freer|Sackler.

The Sackler’s current exhibition Nasta’liq: The Genius of Persian Calligraphy demonstrates the occasional tension between writing meant to be read and that which is valued primarily for its artistry. One of the more flamboyant Persian scripts on display in the exhibition is almost impossible for most viewers to read. Ornate Persian scripts have often been used in architecture and ceramics, more as decoration than signage.

This kind of tension between intelligibility and artfulness has played out many times in the history of music, between songs with easily understood words and those in which lyrics are almost overwhelmed by melodic invention. A Westerner might compare the emphasis on the words in Christian congregational singing with the kind of melodic invention of a choral fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach, where sometimes the words hardly seem to matter.

Perhaps no sacred music tradition is more devoted to clarity of text than the Vedic chant of Hinduism. You can hear a sample in the first track of our 2006 podcast of Gustav Holst’s “Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda,” featuring Venkatesh Sastri of the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple and recorded at the Freer Gallery. Only three pitches are used and almost every syllable gets its own note, making it easy for anyone who understands Sanskrit to follow along. At the opposite extreme of the Hindu tradition is the classical music of South India, where devotional songs (kritis) are so well known by their melodies that virtuoso musicians can perform lengthy improvisations on them without any need for words at all, confident that their audience will know them. A good example is our 2009 podcast featuring South Indian violinist L. Subramaniam performing highly elaborated variations on devotional songs by Tyagaraja (1767–1847) and his father, V. Lakshminarayana (1911–1990).

Coincidentally, at the very time that Persian nasta’liq script was reaching its peak of development—the mid-sixteenth century—the Roman Catholic Church ordered that sacred music be made more understandable. Composers were to refrain from disguising the words of the liturgies in overly elaborate melodies and counterpoint. One target of these reforms was a genre of medieval plainchant that stretched out each syllable of text over a long string of notes. An excellent example can be heard in our podcast of Cappella Romana singing the fourteenth-century Invitatorium in the Greek Orthodox tradition. Simpler music—and more intelligible lyrics—were in demand again two hundred years later when Bach and Handel were writing their most complex works, a style heard in the music of their contemporary Domenico Scarletti and in our podcast of the Gulbenkian Choir.

The Islamic world saw its own reforms of sacred music when orthodox legalists condemned the ornate style of Koranic recitations that appeared in the ninth to twelfth century. Melodic virtuosity is nevertheless still practiced by some specialists in Koranic recitation, while a much simpler chant style is prescribed for laypeople. In the South Asian music known as qawwali, Islamic texts are joined with praises for Sufi saints in renditions that are sometimes straightforward and at other times in a highly elaborated style. Such contrasts can be heard on our podcast by the Chisty Sufi Sama Ensemble.

View our complete list of podcasts here.

Nasta’liq: The Genius of Persian Poetry remains on view through May 3, 2015.

A Matter of Life and Death

Frontal from the base of a funerary couch with Sogdian musicians and dancers and Buddhist divinities; 550-577; China; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1915.110

Frontal from the base of a funerary couch with Sogdian musicians and dancers and Buddhist divinities;
550–77; China; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1915.110

Rachel Bissonnette, a student at the University of Michigan, recently interned in the Scholarly Programs and Publications Department at Freer|Sackler.

The Freer|Sackler and the University of Michigan jointly publish an annual periodical called Ars Orientalis, which celebrates its sixtieth anniversary this year. Ars Orientalis isn’t exactly “light reading,” but it is an esteemed academic journal that produces pioneering articles on the arts of Asia, the Islamic world, and the ancient Near East. Ars Orientalis themes each of its issues, and Volume 44’s theme is “Arts of Death in Asia.” This exciting issue examines pan-Asian cultures, religious traditions, and the art that honors the deceased and warns of death’s inevitability. The print volume has just been released, and the first digital version of Ars Orientalis will be released soon!

However, you don’t have to wait for the publication to learn about some amazing funerary art. The Freer Gallery has a wonderful Sogdian funerary couch base on display. The couch, called a shichuang, is made of multiple marble slabs. The museum has three slabs on display, which were purchased by Charles Lang Freer in 1915; five other parts of the shichuang are now dispersed throughout various museum collections. Our couch dates to 550–77 CE, which was prime time for Silk Road trade between the Middle East and China. The ancient kingdom of Sogdiana (present-day southern Uzbekistan and western Tajikistan) traded luxury goods with the Tang dynasty in China. This profitable trade resulted in our wonderful funerary couch.

Shichuangs were used as burial furniture for the repose of the deceased. The couches were typically decorated with elaborately carved scenes inspired by teachings of Confucius or protective spirits to guide the dead in the afterlife. However, the Freer Gallery’s funerary couch is decorated with Buddhist themes, musicians, and dancers. The characters are in non-Chinese garb (boots, tight pants, and belted jackets). These costumes and Buddhist themes are likely due to the Sogdian influence from the Silk Road.

Explore the couch along with other spooky objects during our Halloween-themed Fear at the Freer event tonight!

Journey to the West: A 400-Year-Old Tale

"Journey to the West"

Scene from “Journey to the West”

Molly Thanrongvoraporn recently interned in the Department of Public Affairs and Marketing at Freer|Sackler.

There will always be a special place in my heart for Journey to the West. It’s a magical tale that has captivated both children and adults for centuries. Growing up in a half-Thai, half-Chinese household, I couldn’t escape its spell. How could anyone resist the fantastic journey to India undertaken by a Buddhist monk, an invincible magic monkey, a gluttonous pig monster, a humble fish monster, and a quiet dragon-in-disguise horse? Oh, the good old Saturday mornings of sitting around the table watching the Monkey King defeat demons. It makes me nostalgic!

Journey to the West (aka Journey) is one of those stories that brings together East Asian people of all ages, especially when you’re partly Chinese. My grandmother and I are able to discuss the same story even though we were born fifty years apart. As one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, Journey was adapted into many forms, ranging from Beijing opera to animation spin-offs. My earliest memory of it is the 1988 film Doraemon: The Record of Nobita’s Parallel Visit to the West. As I was growing up, television series, cartoons, and movies telling this tale were released every few years to people who knew the story by heart. Regardless, we all rejoiced with every new version we could find.

The one element of the novel that appears most frequently in popular culture is the Monkey King, Sun Wukong. Many actors have tried their hand at portraying the character. Just this year, Donnie Yen starred in The Monkey King, a new adaptation made with a big budget and plenty of special effects. Although the entire story is loosely based on Journey, Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball protagonist Son Goku is heavily influenced by Wukong. Goku has the same name (but in Japanese), rides on a cloud, carries a magic staff, and had a monkey tail as a kid.

My favorite Wukong is the one and only Hong Kong comedy king, Stephen Chow, who created a bombastically funny version in Jeffrey Lau’s A Chinese Odyssey series. Focusing on how one may suffer with love and lust, the loose adaptation traces Wukong’s journey of self-redemption from an arrogant lying individual to a faithful follower of the Longevity Monk. Chow’s Wukong has set a high standard for any future adapters of the tale.

Catch Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons on Friday, August 15, at 7 pm, and A Chinese Odyssey Parts I and II at 1 and 3 pm on Sunday, August 17, at the Freer. These films conclude the 19th Annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, cosponsored by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, Washington, DC.

Read Molly’s previous post on Hong Kong films.

Whistler and the British Music Hall

The Manager's Window, Gaiety Theatre; James McNeill Whistler; 1896; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.76

The Manager’s Window, Gaiety Theatre; James McNeill Whistler; 1896; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1896.76

Michael Wilpers is public programs coordinator at Freer|Sackler.

Musical ideas abound in the work of American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), whose art is more abundantly represented in the Freer|Sackler’s collections than at any other museum in the world. Rather than use conventional labels for his works (such as “portraits” or “landscapes”), Whistler instead called them “harmonies,” “symphonies,” “nocturnes,” “variations,” and “arrangements.” But the connections between Whistler and music extend beyond these labels and their associated aesthetic concepts.

The London of Whistler’s time was virtually consumed with the burgeoning form of entertainment called “music hall,” a variety-show genre comparable to American vaudeville and French cabaret. When Whistler arrived in London in 1859, the Canterbury Music Hall had just been converted from a 700-seat establishment to one that held 1,500 guests, featuring tables and chairs for dining, ornate chandeliers, and a capacious mezzanine. By 1875, more than 375 music halls were open in greater London, ranging from modest taverns to massive entertainment centers, all with music and comedy to accompany their beer and food. Perhaps it is not unreasonable to wonder if Whistler’s famous night scenes (nocturnes) were so lacking in people because they were all at the music halls!

Along with sentimental and patriotic tunes, music hall’s trademark and biggest draw were its comic songs, replete with double entendre, tongue-twisters, and other risqué wordplay evidenced in such classics as “Pheasant Plucker” and the later “You’ve Got the Right Key but the Wrong Key Hole.” Such lyrics contributed to a culture of wit and conversational cleverness—of which Whistler was a proud champion. His playful, public conversations with Oscar Wilde were the talk of the town; he once famously claimed to have perfected the “gentle art of making enemies.” In addition, one might be remiss in considering Whistler’s relationship to music hall without factoring in his many romantic liaisons, which were certainly not inconsistent with the genre’s bawdy themes.

Whistler also represented music hall directly in his artwork. The Freer collection includes several of his lithographs showing the exterior of the Gaiety Theater (pictured above), which opened in 1868 with a seating capacity of 2,000. In 1877, Whistler executed a portrait of one of the Gaiety’s child-stars, Connie Gilchrist, who was just twelve at the time. She became famous for her jump-rope dance routine, “taking the fashionable frequenters of the place by storm,” the Times noted, “her ingenuousness capturing all hearts, especially in contrast to the precocious cynicism of her stage dialogue.” Many artists and photographers created portraits of Gilchrist, who married well above her station, like so many of the “Gaiety Girls.” Of course, Whistler gave his portrait a musical name—Harmony in Yellow and Gold—with the overarching colors punctuated in three spots by the red of her lips and the two jump-rope handles.

The Freer Gallery celebrated the venerable music hall tradition this summer with a performance by the British Players, a revival troupe based in the Washington area. In a nod to Whistler’s nocturnes, the troupe included its own arrangement of “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’,” a big hit of the very early 1900s. The Washington Post called the Freer show “a bawdy good time … full of bad jokes, genuinely funny acts, and naughty songs.” The critic continued, “The show went off with enormous good humor and energy, suggesting that the dark and somewhat spooky London that Whistler dwelt on must have had its lighthearted music-hall moments.”

The British Players performing at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The British Players performing at the Freer Gallery of Art.

The British Players give a series of charity performances every December and June at Kensington Town Hall in Maryland, under the patronage of Lady Kensington herself. Their shows come complete with the requisite “chairman” (a wise-cracking master of ceremonies), bow-belles, the Chord Busters vocal quartet, the Edwardians (ensemble choir), can-can, and plenty of food and drink.

For excellent material about music hall—its history, theaters, entrepreneurs, star performers, and sheet music covers—visit the Victoria and Albert Museum’s web feature and be sure to check out the related content.

A look at Whistler’s ode to a rapidly changing London, An American in London: Whistler and the Thames, remains on view in the Sackler through August 17. #americaninlondon

Hong Kong Films: The Vampire Strikes Back

Twin ghosts from the movie "Rigor Mortis"

Twin ghosts from the movie “Rigor Mortis”

Molly Thanrongvoraporn is an intern in the Department of Public Affairs and Marketing at the Freer|Sackler.

They jump. They bite. They’re scary and hilarious at the same time. The Jiangshi, or hopping vampires, seen in Mr. Vampire are always up for some brutally comical blood-sucking. The success of this film, directed by Ricky Lau in 1985, made Jiangshi (Goeng-si in Cantonese) a popular sub-genre of horror films in the following decade.

Of all the qualities that go into making a Jiangshi movie, humor is number one. Jiangshi films employ slapstick physical comedy, especially when the vampires hop into kung fu moves. When I was younger, I played Jiangshi vampire with other kids back home in Bangkok, Thailand. The one who was “it” jumped around with his or her arms raised zombie style to catch the fleeing humans. In our children’s game, the humans tended to outrun the vampires, but not so in the Jiangshi movies. If onscreen characters aren’t speedy, they need one of the following: kung fu skills, a Taoist protective tag, or the ability to hold their breath for a long time—the Jiangshi vampire can’t see prey that’s not breathing. This contributed to many funny scenes in the films, and my friends and I would hold our own breath while we sat in the audience. Jiangshi took the scary out of horror films and replaced it with a physical comedy that younger audiences appreciated.

After the 1990s, Jiangshi movies disappeared from the cinema marquees in Asia. Finally, in 2013, Juno Mak decided to bring the hopping vampire back to the silver screen, this time darker and scarier than before. His film Rigor Mortis is a story of a bankrupted actor who moves into a rundown apartment, only to find himself in terrifying circumstances. A critical and commercial success, Rigor Mortis won Best Supporting Actress (Kara Hui) and Best Visual Effects at the 33rd Hong Kong Film Awards, while Juno Mak was nominated for Best New Director. Earning more than ten million Hong Kong dollars, Rigor Mortis is proof that the Jiangshi vampire never really fades away for East Asian audiences. Newer trends of horror films may come and go, but the Jiangshi vampire sleeps quietly, waiting to return and shake us all again with its hopping.

See Mr. Vampire and Rigor Mortis back to back on Sunday, July 27, as part of our Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, cosponsored by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office.

The Littlest Tea Man

Chigusa, "with and without clothes," by Leo.

“Chigusa, with and without clothes,” by Leo.

Allison Peck is head of public affairs and marketing at Freer|Sackler.

The renowned ceramic known as Chigusa recently added another chapter to its long and storied history, and the drawings of a six-year-old boy entered the permanent record of the Smithsonian Institution. Chigusa, a 700-year-old tea-leaf storage jar, is one of the most important objects in chanoyu, the Japanese art of tea. Acquired by the museums in 2009, the jar currently is making its U.S. debut in Chigusa and the Art of Tea, an exhibition that Leo, age six, visited with his mom earlier this year.

As beautiful as Chigusa is, with its weighty simplicity and mottled brown glaze, what truly brings it to life and creates its legacy is the tradition of documentation and decoration that surrounds it: the 500 years of tea diaries, poems, records, and luxury adornments created by generations of Chigusa fans. The men who have paid homage to the jar and form the most human—and, some would argue, the most interesting—part of its story are called, aptly, “tea men.”

Chigusa and the Art of Tea wasn’t designed as an exhibition to appeal to younger audiences, so we were astonished and a little bemused to receive an email (with the charming subject line of “Chigusa, with and without clothes”) containing Leo’s accurate crayon drawings of the tea jar in various states of ceremonial display. His mom, Amy, reported a similar feeling.

“I was surprised by his drawings of Chigusa because he is the kind of boy who usually draws countless pictures of Angry Birds,” Amy wrote. “It was my idea to go see Chigusa with the family, and I wasn’t sure how Leo would respond to it at first. But he seemed to enjoy the exhibit very much. I suspect that the reasons for that include the fact that it is a jar with a name, which gives it a different kind of status among objects, for kids and grown-ups alike.”

In honor of the tradition of documenting encounters with Chigusa, Amy thought we might like to see the drawings and learn how they came to be. (Actually, she sent them twice: the first time, they had been scanned out of order, and Leo—with a rigid attention to detail worthy of both a true tea man and an art historian—requested they be re-sent in the “correct” sequence that he had intended!)

“I asked Leo why he drew the pictures of Chigusa and what gave him the idea, and he said, ‘Love!'” Amy wrote. “He said that he knew that I liked Chigusa a lot, and so he drew the pictures, so that I could remember it. Chigusa obviously made an impression on him.”

Chigusa, dressed in its new mouth cover, secured with an ornamental knot.

Chigusa, dressed in its new mouth cover, secured with an ornamental knot.

“As Leo gets older with a better sense of time,” Amy went on, “he’s interested—just like we are—in old things that have interesting stories.”

With that last sentence in particular, she unknowingly captured one of the Freer|Sackler’s most essential missions—to bring old things that have interesting stories to light, and then to step back and allow them to speak to visitors of all ages.

Andy Watsky, professor of Japanese art history at Princeton University, responded to Amy and Leo with a thank-you note. “My co-curator of the exhibition, Louise Cort, and I, and many other people at the Sackler and in Japan worked long and hard on this exhibition; we all hoped that the results would be meaningful to those who visited,” he wrote. “But I can tell you that I have never seen as fine a response as your son’s drawings. We have the records of how Chigusa has kept people interested over many centuries, including the tea diaries—in fact, sometimes the diarists included drawings of objects they saw. How wonderful that your son’s drawings now join that history as one such personal memory of Chigusa.”

He and Cort, curator of ceramics at Freer|Sackler, are requesting that Leo’s drawings and the story surrounding his trip and inspiration be entered into Chigusa’s permanent record in the Smithsonian database, making them accessible to future generations of researchers and curators. They’ve become the latest entry in that centuries-long tradition of Chigusa fandom, and Leo has become the littlest tea man.

Chigusa and the Art of Tea remains on view in the Sackler through July 27. On October 11, the exhibition will open at the Princeton University Art Museum.

Music in the Time of Kiyochika

Teahouse at Imadobashi by Moonlight by Kobayashi Kiyochika, ca. 1997; Robert O. Muller Collection

“Teahouse at Imadobashi by Moonlight” by Kobayashi Kiyochika, ca. 1997; Robert O. Muller Collection

Howard Kaplan is museum writer at Freer|Sackler.

What would it have been like to attend a piano recital in Meiji-era Japan (1868–1912), the period when the city called Edo ceased to exist and was renamed Tokyo (“Eastern Capital”) by Japan’s new rulers? It was a time of modernization that featured the introduction of gaslights, steamships, railroads, brick buildings, and telegraph lines. It was also the time when self-trained artist Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847–1915) captured the rapidly changing city in the woodblock prints on view in Kiyochika: Master of the Night.

During the late 1800s, Western music was embraced with enthusiasm in Japan. (The most popular composer in Japan at the time was Beethoven; he remains so to this day.) With that in mind, Swiss-born American pianist Gilles Vonsattel presented a program in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium that featured Western composers popular in Japan during Kiyochika’s lifetime. The pianist brought out deeper meaning and darker tones in the music, similar to what Kiyochika accomplished in his work.

The first half of the program, played with a combination of passion and precision, featured Beethoven’s “Bagatelles” and “Moonlight Sonata,” followed by Liszt’s “Pensée des Morts.” The pianist ended the first half of the program with “Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu” (Bells of Anguish and Tears of Farewell) by Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992). Messiaen was born too late to fit neatly into the program, but his work echoes Liszt’s, which itself has ties to Beethoven’s famed sonata. After the intermission, Vonsattel played Schumann’s “Arabeske in C Major, op. 18″ and Books I and II of Debussy’s “Images.” This is where Vonsattel’s playing was marked with poetry and an ethereal air. The themes introduced in the first half—bells, water, and moonlight—reverberated with masterful panache.

You could close your eyes and imagine that you were back in Kiyochika’s Japan, listening to music in a concert hall that was illuminated by gaslight. When viewing the prints in Master of the Night (which often include images of light on water), however, we recommend you keep your eyes wide open.

Kiyochika: Master of the Night remains on view in the Sackler Gallery through July 27, 2014.

#kiyochika

Night Light

Ariana, age 11, created a beautiful night scene inspired by the art of Kiyochika.

Ariana, age 11, created a beautiful night scene inspired by Kiyochika’s “Fireworks at Ike-no-Hata.”

Stephen Eckerd is head of ImaginAsia family programs at the Freer|Sackler.

As a child, I loved playing in the dark. I could find my way from my bedroom to the refrigerator without turning on a light or bumping into anything. Kobayashi Kiyochika’s woodblock prints, such as one of fireflies dancing over a river, recall childhood evenings in June along the banks of the Potomac.

The moment I saw Kiyochika’s prints, I knew I wanted to create an activity that explored Kiyochika’s nocturnes and allowed children to use oil pastels to paint with light on black paper. In the ImaginAsia classroom, families examined works from the exhibition Kiyochika: Master of the Night and produced nightscapes that incorporate Kiyochika’s silhouettes as overlays for their compositions.

In Kiyochika's print, sepctators climb a willow tree to get a better view of fireworks, 1881, Robert O. Muller Collection.

In Kiyochika’s 1881 print “Fireworks at Ike-no-Hata,” spectators climb a willow tree to get a better view of fireworks. Robert O. Muller Collection.

Mercy, age 8, created a nightscape with colorful fireworks.

Mercy, age 8, painted fireworks that explode in pinwheels of light.

Kiyochika: Master of the Night is on view in the Sackler through July 27. View a slideshow of Kiyochika’s work.

Thunder on the Mall: Cherry Blossom Edition

Thundering taiko drumming met traditional Japanese dance as artists from Tokyo’s Tamagawa University treated National Cherry Blossom Festival visitors to a special performance this afternoon. The group, which is led and choreographed by Kabuki dance master Isaburoh Hanayagi, is one of the top-ranking Taiko groups in Japan and comes out of the country’s most prestigious performing arts school.

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Xanthe Gresham: Telling Tales from the Shahnama

Arash Moradi and Xanthe Greshem

Arash Moradi and Xanthe Greshem

London-based storyteller Xanthe Gresham returns to the Freer|Sackler for Nowruz on March 8.

Arash Moradi and I are delighted to be returning to the Freer|Sackler with tales from the Shahnama (the Persian Book of Kings) for family audiences. It’s always a joy to be part of the museums’ annual Nowruz celebration. Revisiting these stories is like the deepening of a longstanding friendship: Each time we discover something new.

An epic poem consisting of some 50,000 verses, the Shahnama took its author, Firdawsi, more than thirty years to complete. It is the longest poem to have been written by a single person.

According to legend, Firdawsi was supposed to be paid his weight in gold on the poem’s completion. While he was writing, however, a new shah was enthroned, and the poet was only offered his weight in silver. When the new shah finally read the magnificent poem, he was so overwhelmed by its skill and beauty that he rushed to bestow Firdawsi with the riches he was due. The shah was too late and only met the great poet’s hearse.

A heady mixture of tragedy and romance, the Shahnama piles up exquisite images and striking moments of truth and humanity. We can only scratch at the surface of this remarkable narrative, but what a rich surface it is!

On Saturday, March 8, Arash and I will perform three sets of tales:

12 pm: the story of Creation and the Demons, followed by the stories of Jamshed and Zahak

2 pm: the stories of Sam, Zal, and Rustam

4 pm: the tale of Sohrab, Rustam, Bizan, and Manijer

We hope to see you there!

See the day’s schedule of events. Follow the conversation at hashtag #nowruz.