神游 (shen you) can be described as an out-of-body experience, a form of ‘mental visitation’ of a place – in this case, stepping into the painting). 上河 (“shang he” or upstream), is an allusion to the painting 清明上河图 (roughly translated as “A Picture of the Upstream during Qingming Festival”). The painting is a unique, priceless work of art measuring 1152cm wide and 35.6 cm in height and is the primary inspiration for this work. Conceived to show the painting during the performance in a “scrolling manner”, it must be noted that the music is not meant to correspond exactly to the scenes in the painting and is to be taken as “absolute music”. “Bian zhong” (ancient Chinese bronze bells) music also informs some of the sound world in this work.
Commissioned by Damien Lim for the Ministry of Bells, this is an unusual “song without words” for mixed choir, handbell choir and percussion. The choristers are given lines that require them to vocalise poetically (without actual poetry) – a deliberate attempt to strip away extraneous material, in spirit, akin to the white spaces found in many Chinese paintings, giving observers space for one’s own imaginations. At Damien’s request, a percussion instrument was included from the onset of conceptualisation as he is an experienced percussionist and musician and is thus given leeway in improvising suitable accompaniment to the music. 大鼓 (Chinese bass drums, 花盆鼓 huapengu or大堂鼓 datanggu) are recommended.
Like the chosen title of this musical work, it is hoped that the audience may get an otherworldly experience and be transported into a different time and space in this piece. This work was premiered on 27 January 2018 at the Drama Centre Theatre, Singapore at MOB11 by Melodie Ng (Percussion), Grace Kuo (Soprano Solo), Ministry of Bellz, Schola Cantorum Singapore conducted by Albert Tay.