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Sample Track 1:
"Dancing Moon" from Life Death Tears Dream
Sample Track 2:
"Life Death (Tears Dream)" from Life Death Tears Dream
Layer 2
Orchid Ensemble, 2013 US Fall Tour Free Verse: Words Weave Other Worlds for Orchid Ensemble on new album Life Death Tears Dream

Taiwanese/Canadian Intercultural Chamber Trio Tours Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Virginia, and North Carolina Debut

Words can create a new, uncanny world. They can tie down the meaning of a musical piece—or inspire and liberate its performers. The poetry and words that underpin the Juno-nominated Orchid Ensemble’s live repertoire and new recording, Life Death Tears Dream, conjure otherworldly landscapes, wandering spirits, and ethereal loves. All while integrating traditions rarely considered compatible.

In this new world, erhu (two-stringed fiddle) echoes a flamenco lament (“Ay la llamo”). Stark electronics and earthy marimba (“Ghostly Moon”), full choir and zheng (zither with moveable bridges, “Life Death Tears Dream”) unite the spiritual and sensual, the terrifying and wonderful, drawing on Hebrew, Spanish, British, and Chinese texts, citing poets from China’s 8th-century wordsmith Li Bai to the Romantic Dante Rossetti.

“Many of the pieces we wanted to include on the album included or were inspired by poetry, but stylistically were wildly diverse,” explains Orchid’s marimba player Jonathan Bernard. “As the process evolved, we felt liberated from a musically-defined theme and found cohesion through the world of poetics, which we feel allows for realms beyond rational or logic, beyond earthly constraints.”

Life Death Tears Dream has met great success over the airwaves, charting on Earshot's top 10 'International' lists in, as well as making the top 10 lists for radio stations in Toronto, Guelph, Lethbridge, Calgary, and Edmonton. The ensemble also recently won the 12th Annual Independent Music Awards in the “Eclectic Song” Category , as well as picking up a nomination in the "World Traditional Album" category. The CD has also picked up reviews in many print publications, including Songlines, Georgia Straight, Exclaim, and Penguin Eggs.

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Based in Vancouver, Orchid Ensemble has quietly created new possibilities, both for traditional Chinese instruments and for small chamber-style groups. Lan Tung, the ensemble’s founder, virtuosic erhu player, and respected composer, found a different approach to her instrument, for which there was no small ensemble repertoire in the Chinese classical tradition. Bernard later joined the group and brought a rich palette of percussive timbres and the only chordal instrument to the ensemble.

Along with discovering, composing, and commissioning new repertoire, the group faced other musical challenges. Bernard, for instance, had to learn to navigate fascinating differences in intonation between his marimba and his two fellow members’ Chinese instruments, to avoid unwanted clashes.

Their mutual, adventuresome exploration yielded a richness and unexpected combination of timbres and techniques well suited to a wide range of pieces, from the contemporary to the age-old, from East, West, and everywhere else. While the ensemble shines on classical Chinese works like “Three Variations on Plum Blossom,” guided by a 4th-century melody, they open striking new territory with contemporary composer Barry Truax’s “Ghostly Moon,” an eerie dialogue between male and female voices, as well as electronic and acoustic elements.

In the repertoire featured on Life Death Tears Dream, as with the ensemble’s ongoing collaborative projects to bring more Asian-language repertoire into the choral canon, texts inform and infuse the sound. “In China, as in most other places, poetry wasn’t just on paper. It was recited,” notes Tung, whose improvised, tradition-based recitation of a Li Bai poem can be heard on “Dancing Moon.” “The tonal quality of many Asian languages has affected the music. You hear a lot more bent notes, perhaps echoing the rise and fall of the tones.”

Pieces like “Life Death Tears Dream,” based on a contemplative poem by a contemporary Taiwanese poet, showcase how the musical and poetic mirror each other, and form the leaping off point for collaborations like the one planned for this tour with The Treble Chorus of New England at the Rogers Center in North Andover, MA.

At the Rogers Center and the Colonial Theater in Bethleham, NH, Orchid Ensemble will present its “10,000 Miles to Keifeng” program, shedding light on historic and contemporary interaction between Jews and Chinese, from the Persian Jews of 11th Century Keifeng, to the Russian Jews of Harbin, and the Shanghai Jews of WWII. This program includes panel discussions shared with religious and scholarly leaders from the local Jewish and Chinese communities, and screenings of Vancouver film-maker Jacqueline Levitan's 'Mahjong and Chicken Feet'.

The diversity of approaches, materials, and ideas belies the aesthetic unity of the ensemble’s work, its insistence on a common, deeply felt thread tying together the seemingly disparate. “When we present listeners or collaborators with a piece of music, we assume that they want to know where the music is coming from, and are intrigued by the cultural context,” Bernard says. “The music itself is simultaneously a beginning and an end point. We always invite people to go deeper.”