ALULA: Every seat occupied beneath the vast AlUla sky at the outdoor Wadi AlFann was filled with anticipation and excitement to witness the world premiere of “Nine Songs” on Saturday night.
For two nights only, ending Nov. 27, the vision of artist Rui Fu, and co-artistic director and producer, Farooq Chaudhry, morphed from Mother Nature into life. The audience received a full sensory experience, surrounded by a carefully-curated, modern and inventive interpretation unfurling before them.
The title of the work was inspired by a collection of poems from the ancient Chinese “Songs of Chu,” dated to 300 B.C. The location for the theatrical music performance was fitting, as the ancient landscape of AlUla was incorporated into the visual elements of the show.
Fu blended the sounds of the wind with her own voice and instruments, such as the Chinese dulcimer, Japanese taiko drums, violins, and harps.
The Chinese American singer-songwriter specializes in improvisational singing and composing, and was inspired by traditional Chinese classical aesthetics as well as Chinese ethnic music traditions.
The audience on opening night was a mix of Saudis and non-Saudis, who filled the site, inspired by the natural landscape of AlUla and its geological structures, with light sky, and fairy-lit candles leading them along a steady pathway atop the sand.
Fu did not want the audience to be restricted by the lyrics, wishing to free people of linguistic hurdles that might arise.
Any speaker of any language could follow the story, with the sounds and movements their own form of communication, connecting the sky to the ground and to everything in between. Certain sections of the show blended ancient Chinese, recited in different dialects, in addition to Fu adding her own twist.
“The majority of our show is actually in my own improvised language, and I find that very helpful because it helps us to focus on the emotional essence of the melodies more, without being restricted by cultural barriers, and also language restrictions and limitations and having to figure out what it means and how to say it in order to interact with the musicians,” Fu told Arab News.
“I believe that will be a way to help us all present the music with more passion, with more intuition, and the audience will understand it as well, because it’s not supposed to be a language that you’re supposed to understand intellectually — it is supposed to be a language that you feel, along with the music,” she said.
“This is a humongous, interesting, and diverse blend of cultures. And it’s been a very rewarding challenge to see how we can bring together different perspectives — different ways of interpreting the same story from different angles — so that I believe all of us feel that we’ve expanded who we are as artists and as people as a result of this project,” Fu added.
Jocelyn Pook, the music director and co-composer of this project, told Arab News that it was a thrill to work on “Nine Songs” because of the eclectic group of musicians from all over the world that joined in, as well as the juxtaposition of ancient and modern, of different Chinese and Western instruments, and AlUla.
“We’ve been devising the music together as a group, and it's been a very unusual process and kind of challenging, actually,” Pook told Arab News.
“We’ve got a Chinese dulcimer and a guqin and (an) extraordinary sort of array of percussion taiko drums, and a double bass, (an) extraordinary virtuoso violinist, Preetha, and harps — two harps — (a) Celtic and a gothic harp. It’s created this incredible landscape in the music, and I think it’s quite varied. And of course, Rui, with her extraordinary singing and range of vocal singing, which is sometimes very playful, sometimes quite traditional,” Pook added.
Spearheaded by the Royal Commission for AlUla, Fu was able to invite musicians from around the world from different cultures. There are two Chinese instrumentalists and collaborators from Japan, the UK, India, and the US.
“Nine Songs” is the inaugural activity of the Wadi AlFann’s season-opening, with temporary exhibitions, artist residencies, and symposiums planned. Five new commissioned artworks are due for completion in 2024.
Visit the AlUla and Wadi AlFann websites for more details.