Monday, 30 July 2012

Naked truth

The shooting was set for Monday afternoon, at Norm's studio. Two or three hours.
"I want to do some outdoor shots, first" Norm told me when I arrived. "I have seen some very nice back alleys, I think I want to investigate that".
A typhoon had hit Hong Kong the previous week, the strongest in thirteen years, people said, and the positive outcome was that it temporarily cleared up the air from the heavy pollution. The sky had not been so crisp and crystal blue in ages. We could see the shores of China very distinctively. The temperature however was high.
Norm's studio was located in Chai Wan, which is at the other end of the island. A more modest and industrial area, not unlike the London Est End.The back alleys offered an interesting, graphic background for the pictures. The fact that I walked around shirtless didn't look conspicuous, since many men take off their shirt for a better comfort in their manual and often demanding work. Except that I was all dressed in white, with my yellow fluorescent sneakers.
I shall discover what Norm saw behind his lens. For now, I only could follow his direction and trust his eyes.
"Then we'll got back to the studio for the nude pictures. You still want to do them, don't you?" he asked with a naughty smile.
"I said I would, so you don't need to look at me that way!" I replied. We both laughed.
Posing nude wasn't so difficult. The fact that I had to constantly pay attention to the light and move extremely slowly made me forget about the other aspect of it.
"I actually find it more comfortable than posing for portraits" I told Norm. He was surprised. "Quite strangely, I can be extremely shy when it comes to play the piano or sing. But being naked is totally fine. I guess I learnt to tame the 'beast' when I started going to onsen in Japan. Everybody is naked there, from the child to the elderly, and it's the most natural thing. That's how it should be."
"I would still feel very embarrassed to show myself naked in front of people", Norm said with a grin.
"I used to as well. I didn't like my body when I was a teenager. I was ashamed of it. And in my education, it was not really encouraged. Add the Christian guilt to it and you get my state of mind then!"
Norm's pictures are studies in black and white. And portraiture.
"I want to take lots of portraits of you. Of all the models who posed for me, yours is the most Romanesque face". Norm said from behind his camera.
I suddenly thought of the Roald Dahl's story about that painter who, in order to do a portrait of his female subject, had to first paint her nude, then one by one, apply layer of 'clothes' until she was fully dressed.

I won't see the images before Norm has fine-tuned them. The book will be released by the end of the year. "Maybe end of November. I am curating a collective exhibition and will be showing some of my work as well."
Perfect time for the book launch. Truth be told, I'm still a bit nervous about it. Not because of the nudity, but simply for a more vain reason. The other models cut a perfect figure and my lack of self-confidence is kicking plaintively.
A learning experience.

Not a photo by Norm, but a self-portrait during my stay in HK

Friday, 27 July 2012

Letter from 'awe-struck Goddess' Kristina

Dear Emperor An,

WOW!!!!! I have no word. As always, you take me on a journey through life, death, creation, love beauty, the desert, the forest; the depths of deepest darkness, the most exquisite light and beyond all of that.
The piece is extraordinary. You have always been beyond brilliant and now to hear all the experience you had originally as what the Balinese call'Taksu' (god-given, plural gods in their case, of course! And in my case too as I know there are many) what you have explored and gained and spiralled into and around since I have seen you, is magnificent. I am truly amazed. I really laugh and cry when listening to the piece. I had tears in my eyes after the tribal percussive sequence and orchestral explosions, going into the powerful strings which weep, really. Then I laughed with the wonderful delight of your playful sense of times and rhythms and because I know you, and I understand it all... and I'm STILL AWESTRUCK!!!
THANK YOU!!!!! I should be so fortunate to live up to that with my choreography. I have a beautiful amount of work to do. The middle section is done and fits PERFECTLY... It is even the exact perfect length of time... This 3:40 minute section starting at around 7 minutes is exactly the piece I have just choreographed.
It will be performed this week end to another music until it becomes a part of the gorgeous gift you just sent me.
The finale is yet to be heard and I know that every time I listen, I will hear something new.

Dear Dear Emperor, THANK YOU



Thursday, 19 July 2012

Bits and bobs

Kristina has been on Facebook for a couple of months so that allows us to be in touch more frequently, and thus share more news and ideas. She had requested some music from me for a solo she was to perform at a private event in New York. It didn't have to be original music, so I sent a couple of tracks, one of which being the music I had written last year for Johan Ku's exhibition, The Hole.  The event was a big success, and the solo, Untwisted, will be properly filmed these coming week in Washington. The solo will continue its new life at another event, this time at Lake Tahoe, where Kristina had been asked to perform (originally another solo, Sarong Paramaribo, set to Lester Horton's choreography) but she was so enthused about her new piece that she suggested the director of the Tahoe Ballet to do Untwisted instead, a suggestion which was welcome with great excitement.
But key point of this, is that Lester Horton's long time lover, Frank Eng, will be there to see it. I had never met Frank Eng, but thanks to Kristina, we are connected. We write occasionally. The man is 94 this year and he's the last of that breed of extraordinary minds who shaped (though indirectly, in Frank's case) the landscape of dance in the 20th century. It will be an honour to have Untwisted performed for him!!!

The other music that I sent to Kris was the one I penned for SiuYung's current exhibition at the Agnès b. gallery in Hong Kong: Les Lumières Imaginaires. Not so much an exhibition than an art installation. He requested me and three other musicians to come up with some music for it. Two of them, from Hong Kong, provided something which leans closer to what is called soundscape art. The third one, Pierre Fageolle (how that name pops up more and more among my friends these past months) who improvised a short piece for piano. 
Gilles went to the opening which took place last month - there were hundreds of people waiting in line that evening, a first time for the gallery, apparently, and didn't seem that convinced by the whole affair.
"It triggered my imagination when I read it on paper, but the result was somewhat underwhelming." he wrote to me. "But maybe I should see it with less people..." he added.
I shall make my own judgement on my next visit to Hong Kong (sometime by the end of the month).

KunLin invited me to attend a recital by NiuNiu, a young piano prodigy from China. I had seen a couple of his records at the store. He had been signed by EMI and had released a Mozart album, a CD of Chopin's Etudes, and more recently, an album of virtuosic transcriptions by Liszt. Since he gave his first concert at the tender age of six, he has quickly become a sensation - the world love child prodigies, especially in his home country of China and Japan where his concerts are usually sold out.
KunLin had told me about him when we were still working on the Silk Road project with Avi Avital. I have never been impressed by pure virtuosity, in the sense that it usually quickly turns into a big spectacle where music has little to do. And when it's a child who is involved, I feel ill at ease because there is often backstage ruthless parents behind who vicariously live their offspring's success.
The program included Chopin's Sonata in B minor, as well as Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Two sonatas  one after the other... an odd choice. Niu Niu's technique of course was flawless, although he tended to play everything at a fast tempo to the point that it would sound like a musical mist through which it was nearly impossible to distinguish any phrase, much less any note. There were some brief moments that would give us a hint of the fine musician he will become in a few years, but for now, NiuNiu's performance was very much like one of a very gifted student playing for his teacher (his Taiwanese teacher was there) but there was no fire or personal involvement. That comes with age, I would say. How old is he now? Maybe 14...
I got bored and left at the intermission.
I'll see NiuNiu in concert again, in ten years when the hype will have died down and allow him space to become a real musician, not a circus phenomenon.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Films in my life

The Taipei Film Festival is ending now. But this year I managed to see four films. Two Taiwanese films and two Swedish films. Strangely, they all reflected important issues of my own life. One of the two Taiwanese films How I learned to tell a lie, was directed by a friend of mine, Guo Shang-Sing. A short film about the loss of innocence of a boy who enters the adult world. I particularly appreciated the use of animation which brought an expected bittersweet, childlike irony to the narration, and the bold humour, something which is oddly missing in many Taiwanese films I have seen (they usually prefer something more gentle or verging more toward slapstick comedy).


Play, by Ruben Östlund, is a drama about bullying among the young children in Gothenburg. A group of Black teenagers decide to rob younger children (who are designated as coming from a wealthier background), using an alternative to the usual violence: they perform a well-oiled scheme to trap their victims, and overpower them by just using the racist cliches and prejudices that people often have of them. Somebody commented that the ignorance (absence of presence, I would rather say) of the adults was too parodic. If the person was there, I would argue that it is in fact very accurate. If I have to remember my time at school when I was the daily prey for bullying; the adults were extraordinary oblivious to what was going on right in front of their eyes, whether that was conscious or not. In the film, the adults are whether absent or don't get involved by simply discarding the drama as mere child play. That said, if the film wasn't a visual treat (Östlund opted for a documentary-like approach, with clever use of long shots), it was excellently acted by the young actors. Östlund actually focused less on the issue of racism, than on the rhetoric of opposite social groups which come across each other.

The other Swedish film, Maria Larssons eviga ögon (Everlasting Moments) by Jan Troell is a beautiful period piece set in the early 20th century. I had no idea what I was going to see when I decided to buy the ticket for that film. I only knew it was about a working class woman, a mother of seven and spouse of a loving but alcoholic husband, who wins a camera at a lottery and discovers a new way to apprehend life through the lens. I had brought William with me and we were both enchanted by the cinematography and the attention to details. Jan Troell created an enrapturing visual style which to me perfectly translates this silent and suspended moment when a photograph is taken, a feeling which is conveyed even more strongly in the earlier days pictures. I'm thinking of Gertrude Käsebier's Maiden in Prayer or the beautiful portraits of Paul Strand. Jan Troell is obviously in love with the image-making, a passion I also deeply relate to, as well as the fact that (artistic) creativity is an important, if not vital factor in one's life, that so many people are unaware of. In the title role, Maria Heiskanen is simply a miracle.

The fourth film I saw, Young Dudes, is a visual fantasy of modern time Taiwan involving two best friends and a pretty Russian girl, who decide to build a modern day Noah's Ark named KLAATU when they hear about the imminence of the apocalypse. There's the spirit of Woodstock, especially toward the end when the trio reunite at a rock concert among hundreds of other youngsters. DJ Chen's film captures the spirit of young Taiwan: energetic, cool, nonsensically funny, but the attitude cannot hide the fact that it also shows their lack of any real direction, or a sense of identity... The soundtrack reflected that as well. It was penned and performed by Taiwanese indie band Soler, and as it played during the film, I found that in spite of their obvious musical skills, they were better at imitating other artists' style then coming up with their own. And the choice of the David Bowie song All the young dudes is certainly relevant of that. The presence of the Russian girl added to that feeling. The actress is lovely and extremely cinegenic, but her acting amounts to  striking poses and looking kawai-cute. Not much life inside. Trippy and hallucinogenic as it may be, one cannot help but wonder what the whole point it. There's no real message, and the film ends up looking like an art-student experimental project.
The film might meet with some success among cinema goers. It's got attitude, but I can't help thinking of Terry Gillian would have done...
Beside, the camera on shoulder approach nearly made me sick...

The director CJ Chen and her leading lady Larisa Bakurova

Po-Chieh Wang and Larisa Bakurova signing posters for fans

Then it occurred to me: Larissa is the model who appeared in Tsai Ming-Liang's short film for Johan Ku The Hole! I knew she was more a model than an actress.

Sunday, 15 July 2012


I didn't suspect anything. Jay came to Taipei to spend a few days with me. I was glad about his presence. I wanted to do a little get together with some friends to present them the video of Nothing comes to Light on my birthday, the same way I had the premiere of Les Contes d'Hoffmann right on the day I turned forty. But Zed had not finished working on the post-production. So I decided to keep it quiet and enjoy the day as any other day. Jay said he wanted to have lunch with me, then tea at home. I told him that I suddenly craved a juicy hamburger for a change. 
"Why don't we eat in the neighborhood?" he asked. 
"Nah... I'm tired of that. Always the same taste, the same food. I really feel like eating a big hamburger. I know one in the Zhongshan area. It's called An Burger!"
We went there and had a very good meal. I had not been sleeping well the past nights, but the spirit was high and joyous.
"Oh I want to go to Ikea as well. I need to buy a metal shelf for the dining room area." I said as we were munching on our burgers. 
"Oh... Ok" and excused himself to the lavatory. 
My plan to go to Ikea was abandonned when a friend Hsing-Ying called and asked whether she could come for tea. She had also come from Kaohsiung for the week end. Needed to see her family and her sister in particular, Jay told me.
We came back home. We had stopped at the supermarket to get some juice and strangely all the guava juice that Jay likes so much had gone. 
HsingYing was waiting on the street. I was so happy to see her; I had known her through Simon, when I was still living in Paris, and even filmed one of my concert at the Café de la Danse. We only became closer friends more recently, thanks to Jay.
When I opened the door, I felt a gush of fresh air, which struck me as odd. Why... Who...? But I didn't have time to think any further for a thunder of voices gleefully shouted "Happy Birthday!!!!".
I saw happy faces, beloved and dear faces, friendly faces. I was happy yes. It was my first surprise birthday bash. 
"Just imagine how panicked I was when you told me you wanted to go to Ikea" Jay said. What I had not told him was that I also planned to go to the flower market later on...

Friday, 6 July 2012

I'm a sinner

A friend of mine, S. asked me whether I would give one day of my time for young children who had contracted AIDS. The plan was to take them to the seaside and offer them a beautiful day. I said that I would. I love children, and to spend time with those who unfairly contracted that disease was the least I could do.
"Oh and a friend of yours will be there as well. I found out that the two of you knew each other!" 
When I asked who that friend was he gave me a strange answer: "Em... I can't tell you, because I don't think he would want to know that you and I know each other. You'll find out on that day."
My curiosity was piqued. Who on earth could that? And why wouldn't that person like the fact that I knew S.? "He's some sort of celebrity... But he's straight, and from a totally different world that yours." was S. only clue.My mind was searching. Exit (most of ) all the models and dancers I knew. I wasn't acquainted  to that many male celebrities in Taiwan.  Then I had a hint. If S. was so cautious about mentioning his name, it meant that there was some ideology attached. And what else but... religion?
"Tell me, S. this outing with those children, is it under the umbrella of any religious group? Like a Christian group?" There was a long pause before S. answered.
"Yes, it's a church community."
As quickly as I had accepted to be part of it, the whole picture changed in my mind. The last time I was at a Christian event was for my nephew's baptism, an experience I don't recall as very pleasant, not to say violently disturbing. However, since I moved to Asia, I realised that Christian faith here was a totally different matter than it is in Europe, where it has impregnated deeper layers of consciousness. Here in Asia, Christian faith is displayed like a shiny brand new car. People are quite unable to voice any personal opinion. Everything sounds like it's been taken from a book of wonders and proudly recited by heart by well programmed robots, which makes me think that their new found faith isn't so dissimilar to the propaganda people had to be submitted to in some dystopias. Maybe I'm pushing the comparison a bit too much to the edge, however, I feel completely ill-at-ease in their company, as I feel uneasy when I'm surrounded by fanatics of any kind. I loathe the mass. People scare me when they cease to think and become that one beast that destroys more than creates. It's always disturbing when natural kindness morphs into self-righteousness.
So I told S. I would alas have to decline and not be part of that grand day out with those children. I sincerely felt bad, but I really didn't, just couldn't picture myself spending one full day with those holier-than-thous.
I quickly understood who that common friend was. A very nice fellow he is indeed, although my relationship with him can only be mundane. When I first met him, I was charmed by he and his girlfriend. But the magic vanished when I started to realise that it was impossible to go beyond a certain point in our friendship. When the conversation would accidentally delve into more personal matters, the name of God would be called in: all was in God's hands, everything would go according to God's plan. And the conversation would come to a sudden end or revert to mundane topics.
Once he showed me his newly finished flat. We just had had lunch and mostly discussed his current issues with his girlfriend. I was surprised he would talk about it, but I knew it was useless to share my point of view with him (might as well speak in Finnish), so I merely listened. He tried to present the problem from a practical angle (he was her first boyfriend, she wanted to make sure he was the 'one' and asked for some time off to find out by herself and possibly date other guys...) yet something was unclear to me and I could not put my finger on it.
The flat was on the ground floor, in a very quiet and residential area. An enclosed cluster of small sized buildings, surrounded by lots of trees, the chirping of happy little birds all around and the presence of fake surveillance cameras to give the feeling of safety in the community.
We had coffee and nutella toasts (a downfall that one is).
"We went to see a pastor to talk about our issue" he said.
I was curious to hear what the pastor told them. But I was disappointed. They didn't need to see someone to give them that kind of advise.
When I passed his room, I was surprised to see a single bed.
"A single bed? So where does your girlfriend sleep when she spends the night?" I asked fairly innocently before I realised what I had just been saying. He gave me his Jesus look without muttering a single word. "Now I understand why his girlfriend wants to make sure he's THE one..." I thought to myself.

I saw Josh the other night and he told me about a shelter for children who have AIDS. Some people from his entourage have volunteered to teach them or just spend time with them. I asked him to get more information about it for I would like to be able to do something for them as well. I was thinking of inviting a story teller, organising a small concert for them or introduce them to music. There are countless possibilities. Josh said that the shelter often had to change location when the local residents find out that the children are sick and don't want them in the neighbourhood. It's saddening. I find out there is hardly any AIDS awareness in Taiwan. There are more and more cases of contamination among the young, especially now that Taiwan has become a favourite destination for gay tourism in Asia.
But for now, I will focus on those children.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Original flavour

If one starts listening to others' opinion, it's a fall in an endless well! Zed and I tried to shoot new scenes, after we heard Carol and Ryan's input. But we just didn't manage to come up with anything satisfactory. I don't know whether the full moon did play any part in it - I'm so sensitive to the moon... I was just not into it. I looked tired and lifeless. 
"You don't have the enthusiasm and the energy you had last week." Zed said. 
We had to admit that it wasn't a smart idea to listen to what everybody has to say - even close friends. Since it is my first experience at directing a video, I didn't feel that much confidence and accepted their remarks too willingly. But Carol and Ryan did miss one major point in the song: it was about the loss of memory and the listlessness of life when nothing seems to connect. So adding close ups of myself looking straight at the camera did not suit the purpose and the meaning. Zed didn't feel we had shot anything interesting today anyway. Neither did I. The shots looked like they were done for another project. So after watching some of the rushes, we decided to stick to our original version and toss them aside. Usually the first intuition is always the best. That's how I felt the video should look like. There will always be someone to voice some criticism. 
"If I had to direct the video myself", Zed added with a smile "I would actually do it in a very commercial way and add more footage of you singing!"

I guess the video of Nothing comes to Light will be ready very soon!


My father wrote that his new work were a collection of stories written by my mother which he set to music under the title of Contes de Grand-Mère (Grand-Mother's Tales). I couldn't help but feeling moved by the way he tries to keep my mother's mind alive and creative. I suppose those folk tales are the ones that she adapted for a bilingual book of Vietnamese tales - a project which has been dragging for years and never sees the end. Maybe if it was completed, my mother would feel she's reached the conclusion of an important chapter. I have a new book project in mind that I would like to realise this coming year: a book of poems by Hàn Mac Tu that she translated a while ago, illustrated by photographs by my friend Yves Schiepek. I believe that this could turn into a beautiful object. I just need to find the impulse and the right timing to make it happen. Yves is excited about the idea, my mother had lots of praises for his photographies. Let's do it!!!

I have decided to give up all hope to have any work presented at the French May in Hong Kong. Now that this commission from the Berlin Symphony has come into the picture, it would be sheer madness to also write the play, stage and perform it next spring! Beside, Gilles had warned me about the working conditions in Hong Kong theatre houses: only four hours on the day of the first performance to set the stage, do the lighting design, and have a run through. Not particularly ideal. Wei Wei will be busy performing in another play that very month, and now, I'm having second thoughts as whether to have Bévinda playing the French part. The odds are against me. I must wake up to reality and know that such ambitious a project could not see the light in so short a time. Give it time...
But that wasn't the main reason. I had a long conversation with Gilles, which left me with a bitter after taste. He was teasing me about this picture I posted on Facebook, which sees me carousing in my underwear. It caused many friends to suddenly pay attention to this unexpected side of me. For me it was partly a narcissistic game of self-portrait, partly a training to feel more confident for my upcoming session in front of Norm Yip's camera. But for Gilles it created a confusion  about the way people may perceive me: a musician who is also moonlighting as a playwright and photographer, who shows some skin in languid poses, who writes and perform his songs, directs his videos and composes for the Berlin Symphony. I guess the confusion is his alone. in France, as soon as someone stops doing the one thing he's been known for, people are taken aback. Labels are important. And once someone is labelled, it's indelible.
Another blow came when I realise that Gilles was never much that genuinely interested in my work, despite his friendly - if slightly condescending attitude toward me. Or am I too hypersensitive?  He didn't bother to watch and listen to the Cd's and DVDs I had given him, which explains why he finds my artistic path so unclear. But he obviously finds me more exciting when, as he put it, I'm 'this vaguely artsy, good-looking lad who uses his body as a work of art'.
"I found you fairly boring as a dark and tormented composer." he wrote during one of your on line chats. All is said. My first impulse was to bring the drama to the foreground. Poor me, the misunderstood artist, for I do believe that those who do not have any feeling for my work cannot really be my friends. Egotistic? Maybe... Let me calm down and I'll have another view in a few days.
Another explanation could be that since Gilles used to be an artist agent, he very well knows what hardship we are going through. Since he has forsaken that thankless path for the security of a position as a government official (I can't blame him, it IS a thankless job) any reminder of the struggles of an artist's life makes him uneasy, although the status of struggling artist is not something I want to carry on for too long. Fortunately, it's going much better than, say, last year! My father often tells me about former fellow students from the music conservatory, far more talented and skilled than he was, he said, but who ended spoiling their gift because they chose an easier path than that of a composer. if that can be any consolation... Here and now...
But I can't really say it was the boldest move to bring a Picasso exhibition to Hong Kong.