Musical Composition: The Story of Variance

painting by Cynthia Tom

 

My new instrumental piece Variance is the latest piece in my creative exploration of Ancestral Roots. The piece, like the theme, was not one I was searching for. Instead it was a secret being revealed to me in glimpses and images over this past year.

The call to uncover my roots began last summer during my week with American Conservatory Theater’s Back to the Source Educator Institute. During a phone call to my mom about my experience, she revealed to me for the first time ever her secret teenage dream of being a performer. I was shocked and surprised by this discovery. First, because my mom had always pragmatically advised me to see my creative passions only as childhood hobbies. But second, because despite her warning, my mom’s unnurtured dreams had been taking root inside my soul this whole time.

That summer ignited a passion in me to continue pursuing my love for performance. I embarked on a creative exploration with Dohee Lee on her creation of ARA Ritual I: Waterways. In this performance, Dohee invokes the Goddess of Tears and weaves us through the Goddess’s relationship with humanity, in all its brokenness and strength. As a collaborator on the project, I had to delve into my own family’s migration story as well as the larger struggles of immigrants and refugees that come to this country.

That work culminated a year later, just last month, at CounterPulse Theater in SF. We explored with our Bhutanese Youth Group the question, “What did your ancestors pass down to you?“And I myself reflected about my own physical body and specifically my hands. It made me wonder about the hands of my grandfather (a builder and secret writer) and father (a laborer turned scientist) and what known and unknown skills I inherited from their sets of hands.

I also wrote and performed “Another Name for Opportunity” a collective poem that brings together the stories, dreams and voices of newcomer immigrants and refugees I have worked with over the last nine years. The poem offers a personal account of the often unspoken shame and disappointment that newcomers experience in arriving to this new country.

Just this past month, I had the opportunity to display this poem next to the visual stories of Cynthia Tom in her exhibit Discards and Variances, tales of human trafficking from a Chinese American perspective. The images of Cynthia’s maternal grandmother, her mother and other women on canvas are haunting. They do not tell pretty stories of migration and adaptation. Their eyes speak of deception and loss and uncertainty. As I hand wrote my poem on a 10 ft. tall wall, these spirits led me into imagining the brutal chaotic world they landed upon off the beaches of San Francisco. But they also showed me the visions and secret dreams they wanted for themselves, not as enslaved Chinese women, but as individual human souls seeking liberation.

My piece Variance is an homage to the Book of Stories of our ancestors past-present-future. Their unnurtured dreams, the waterways they have traveled, the bodies they have passed onto us, the opportunities, discards and variances of their lives. And their visions and secret dreams.

As we take time to remember our loved ones and those who have already passed to the other side, I hope we take a moment to listen to their stories.  And see how their stories are echoed in our lives today.

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