Artfully Interrupting the Fantasy: Reimagining Ravel’s Asie

24 August 2021

10:00 - 10:30 hrs (GMT+7)
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Ravel’s gorgeous setting of Klingsor’s poem Asie is one of the most beloved art songs in the repertoire, yet its exoticized depiction of Asia, as viewed through Western orientalist lenses, is discomfiting. Klingsor’s longing descriptions paint scenes of sadistic rulers, cruel assassins and bloodshed as if they were self-evident, self-perpetuating facts. Stock characters of princesses, fat bureaucrats and corrupt merchants populate this fantasy which drifts through Persia, India and China - vast empires reduced to broad-brush stereotypes.


Ravel’s music responds to Klingsor's text with lush sororities conjuring an alluring, fantastical atmosphere. The orchestral timbres allude to Asian instruments such as the oboe imitating the Sornā and the flutes portraying the Dizi. However, this was not an attempt to accurately showcase Asian musical cultures. Rather, to borrow Edward Said’s words, “what it is trying to do... is at one and the same time to characterise the Orient as alien and to incorporate it schematically on a theatrical stage whose audience, manager, and actors are for Europe, and only for Europe.”


In August 2020, mezzo-soprano Jade Tan, pianist Abigail Sin and composer and sound designer Sulwyn Lok embarked on a project to reframe and reimagine Ravel’s Asie through the lens of 21st Century Asian musicians. Having recorded the song with voice and piano, we gathered a library of sounds and instrumental timbres and programmed them directly onto the timing and nuances of the voice-piano recording. This sound design reconceptualizes Ravel’s orchestra score - itself a transcription of an abstract idea - replacing the imitation-timbres with the vivid colours of various Asian traditional instruments and natural elements like the sound of waves and sea birds. This performance is presented along with animation using cut-outs from traditional Persian miniatures, created in collaboration with Iranian filmmaker Mahan Khomamipour.


This presentation articulates the values, process and techniques used to create this recording, sound design and animation, challenging traditional performance practice with new technology and a contemporary South-East Asian outlook. We will also screen the completed short film (approximately 10 mins long). Our reimagination of Asie “artfully interrupts” the Oriental fantasy of Klingsor/Ravel by confronting it with real images and sounds from the Orient.