Taiwan Mussorgsky Project

The Hut on Bird's Legs (Baba Yaga)
Taiwan Mussorgsky Project

© 2008 Alton Thompson

The Taiwan Mussorgsky Project imagines Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition as images from modern Taiwan. The exhibit will be shown tomorrow night in National Concert Hall, Taipei, as part of a concert by Apo Hsu and the NTNU Symphony Orchestra.

You are invited. I hope you can join us.

2008.12.15 Monday 19:30
National Concert Hall
Taipei, Taiwan

NTNU Symphony Orchestra
Apo Hsu, conductor




Moon, Venus, Jupiter

Clear skies last night allowed viewers in Taiwan an exquisite view of the dance of planets. Jupiter and Venus appeared close together near a crescent moon.

Hsinchu County Coast, Taiwan
© Alton Thompson 唐博敦


Conductor's Notebook


Pictures in Music

Puccini & Mussorgsky Highlights

2008 December 15 Monday 19:30 (7:30 pm)
National Concert Hall
Taipei, Taiwan

NTNU Symphony Orchestra
許瀞心 Apo Ching-Hsin Hsu, conductor

NTNU Choir
Tswei-Yu Huang, conductor

Ying-Tung Hsueh, baritone
Rong-Kwei Chen, tenor
Alton Thompson, photography


Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition
Orchestration by Maurice Ravel

- Intermission -

趙菁文 Ching-Wen Chao
Mirror of Time

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Credo from Messa di Gloria

'O Mimi, tu più non torni,' from La Bohème, Act 4
- Rodolfo, a poet (Ying-Tung Hsueh)
- Marcello, a painter (Rong-Kwei Chen)

'Recondita armonia,' from Tosca, Act 1
- Mario Cavaradossi, a painter (Ying-Tung Hsueh)

'Tre sbirri, una carrozza,' from Tosca, Act 1
- Baron Scarpia, chief of police (Rong-Kwei Chen)


National Concert Hall 兩廳院售票系統
02.3393.9888 (011.886.2.3393.9888)

National Taiwan Normal University
Department of Music
02.2362.5197*14 (011.886.2.2362.5197 *14)


I hope you can join us!



Hu Jia wins Sakharov Prize

Hu Jia, a Chinese human rights activist now serving a jail term imposed by China's government, has been awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Union. The move has been hailed as a fitting tribute to the courage of Mr Hu and a triumph of principle over politics on the part of European lawmakers.

The Washington Post report by Ariana Eunjeng Cha:

The European Parliament on Thursday awarded its top human rights prize to jailed Chinese dissident Hu Jia despite warnings from China that its relations with the 27-nation bloc would be seriously damaged if it did so.

In selecting Hu to receive the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European lawmakers said they are "sending out a signal of clear support to all those who support human rights in China." Hu has advocated for the rights of Chinese citizens with HIV/AIDS and chronicled the arrest, detention and abuse of other activists.

The award honors Andrei Sakharov, a Soviet physicist and Nobel Peace Prize winner who was a leader in the country's pro-democracy opposition party.


"Hu Jia is one of the real defenders of human rights in the People's Republic of China," European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering said in announcing the award.

When Hu was revealed earlier this month to be among the three finalists for the Sakharov Prize, China's ambassador to the European Union, Song Zhe, sent a letter to Poettering asking him to use his influence to make sure Hu did not win. She said honoring Hu "would inevitably hurt the Chinese people and once again bring serious damage to China-EU relations."

"Not recognizing China's progress in human rights and insisting on confrontation will only deepen the misunderstanding between the two sides," Song wrote.

Hu, 35, has been speaking out for the rights of Chinese since his college days, when he was active in several environmental organizations. In 2000, he began pushing for better treatment of people suffering from AIDS and orphans who lost parents to the disease. His efforts were focused on Henan province, where thousands were infected in the 1990s through unsafe blood transfusions. Hu has said that through his work on behalf of AIDS patients, he began to see larger abuses by the Chinese government and started to chronicle the harassment and detention of activists.

In the lead-up to the Olympics, Hu used the Internet to report on abuses related to preparations for the games. Chinese authorities arrested Hu at his home in Beijing in December on charges of subverting state authority through the articles he published online and through interviews with the foreign press.

In April, he was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison and has been in government custody ever since. Human rights groups have called for his release, saying that his arrest was politically motivated and that his trial did not follow due process.

Yu Jie, a writer whose banned books have challenged the Communist Party's view on such controversial topics as the 1989 confrontations in Tiananmen Square, said that the E.U. took a bold stand Thursday that places human rights over politics in China. "In the short-term, the bilateral relationship between the two will be intense because the Chinese government needs to protect its face," Yu said.

Calls to the mobile phone of Zeng Jinyan, Hu's wife, went unanswered Thursday, and the phone appeared to have been turned off. In her most recent blog entry, dated Oct. 23, Zeng did not mention the award but provided a summary of her 30-minute meeting with her husband Wednesday. She said he still had not been allowed to take hot showers but had not been assigned to labor, and that he had been studying every day.


Her note on Sept. 25 was more emotional. "I learned that because Hu Jia had spoken about human rights with the other prisoners, on Aug. 13 he was placed in hand and foot shackles and held in solitary confinement for 24 hours," she wrote. Zeng went on to say that she confronted the prison guards about the situation, but they said that they had created "the most comfortable physical circumstances" for Hu because of his health. Hu suffers from liver disease and needs medication on a daily basis. She said she was urged to "to write about more felicitous aspects of society in my letters to my husband, so as to expedite his return to a normal life in society."

Zeng, who has also been active in speaking out for human rights, and the couple's infant daughter were taken from Beijing the day before the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Olympics on Aug. 8. They were allowed to return in early September.

When Hu's name came up as a possible front-runner for the Nobel Peace Prize this month, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang called Hu a "criminal." Qin repeated similar remarks Thursday afternoon, saying of the Sakharov Prize decision that China expresses its "strong dissatisfaction and objection" and that it is a "plot to intervene in Chinese internal affairs."

Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, said the selection of Hu "sends a powerful message to the Chinese government."

"Beijing pledged to improve human rights and to show the world a 'harmonious society' during the Olympics, but instead silenced and locked up peaceful rights defenders," Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for the group, said in a statement

Researchers Zhang Jie and Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.

Profile of Mr Hu and Ms Zen (Human Rights Watch)

Open Letter for Human Rights Reform
An appeal signed by Mr Hu and 41 of his colleagues in China.

The Real China and The Olympics
A call for human rights reform released by Mr Hu in 2007.



Oedipus in Everyone

Ralph Fiennes, the actor perhaps best known internationally for his work in films like The English Patient and Schindler's List, is now tackling the role of Oedipus the King in the iconic play by Sophocles. The new stage production by Frank McGuinness opened in London's National Theatre on October 14 and runs until January 4.

The Times Online offers a discussion between Fiennes and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. Together they explore the work's lasting power and the risks involved in intimacy, curiosity, relationships and self-confrontation.



'The Bonesetter's Daughter' in Review

The Bonesetters Daughter, a new opera by Stewart Wallace based on the novel and libretto by Amy Tan, recently enjoyed its premier production by the San Francisco Opera.

The opera's story spans three generations. The narrative begins in 1997 with the story of Ruth (sung by Zheng Cao), a native Californian, and traces back through the years the story of her immigrant Chinese mother LuLing (sung by Ning Liang), and LuLing's mother, Precious Auntie (Qian Yi). Other characters introduced in the story include Chang the Coffin Maker (Hao Jiang Tian), Ruth's husband Art (James Maddalena) and a Taoist priest (Wu Tong). In the process, ghosts and skeletons of all kinds are uncovered, and the importance of story in preserving memory is affirmed.

Here are links to reviews, generally in the order of detail offered:

More links to related stories may be found at The Opera Critic.



Grey and Black: A Tale of Two Audiences

Diane Haithsman investigates the myth of 'the greying audience' for classic music in America in this weekend's Los Angeles Times. Classic music is thriving. Audiences for classic music have been growing for years. At the same time, she reports, this audience does skew older than the general population. It always has.

"A colleague of mine says the audience isn't graying -- it's always been gray," says Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, a national service organization for American nonprofit theaters.

Marc Scorca, president and chief executive of Opera America, a nonprofit service organization, grumbles that journalists who pontificate about the graying audience see more gray hair because they've been comped into the most expensive seats, the ones young adults can't afford. "I always encourage photographers and writers to go upstairs and see who's there," Scorca observes.

That said, Scorca is among many who cite two logical reasons for a noticeable lack of young adults in all seats. Quite simply, ticket prices can be steep -- and even if they have the money, young people often don't have the time. People in their 20s, he says, are late-night clubbing or off on ski weekends. The question for them is seldom, "Dude, where's my 'Carmen'?" And people in their 30s may be consumed with toddlers and careers.

More highbrow entertainment doesn't generally get on the agenda "until someone on this trajectory gets to be in their mid-40s, when the kids are old enough to leave on their own and the knees won't take the skiing and they want to be home by 11 o'clock at night," Scorca says.

And, despite all the hand-wringing over youth, performing arts organizations need patrons who have the time and wherewithal to commit to subscription packages instead of the last-minute single-ticket purchases favored by younger audiences. "It's more expensive to sell single tickets," says John Tavenner, director of marketing for Los Angeles Opera, because finding single-ticket buyers often involves display ads or radio or TV promotion instead of mailing or telemarketing to the usual subscription base.

Susan Medak, managing director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, notes that 20 years ago, busy parents were 20 to 40 years old. Now that group is aged 30 to 50 -- suggesting that those who are "too young" to have time for live performance are no spring chickens themselves.

Medak's theater can boast success in attracting the youth audience. She says that for the last several years, 20% of Berkeley Rep's single-ticket buyers have been under 30. Still, she points out that being older can deepen the theater experience. "While pop music and TV is really geared toward a specific generational moment, in theater, the older you get, the more points of entry you have to the material," she says. "You have more life experience, and, frankly, more history of seeing other work that gives you a larger context."

The complete article may be viewed at the Los Angeles Times web site.

Culture is a factor here. As Scorca and others confirm, popular life patterns--characteristic ages at which persons finish their education, get married and raise children--are involved. So are economic issues such as income and the price of tickets.

In Taiwan as elsewhere in Asia the classic music audience is overwhelmingly black-haired. And a high percentage of that audience wears school uniforms. Classic music concerts hold great appeal for children of minor age who are themselves studying piano or violin or voice. They often know someone on stage personally (frequently, their teacher) and enjoy being 'in the know' about everything they see happen during a concert. Obviously, the concerts appeal to their parents as well. Some cultural factors involved? Lack of urban sprawl and the availability of public transportation make it easy for young families to attend a concert and get home by 11. Relatively low ticket prices make concerts an affordable option for families. Arts organizations in Taiwan are generally less dependent than their American counterparts on subscription ticket sales. Widespread availability of music education for elementary age children is, of course, a huge factor. Another ingredient is the high number of professionally performing musicians who are simultaneously active as teachers.

What will the future bring? It will be interesting to see. And hear.



Joy and Luck after Fifteen Years

The Joy Luck Club appeared in cinemas in 1993. The film, directed by Wayne Wang, was one of the first Hollywood films to feature a cast of predominantly Asian stars. The screenplay, by Amy Tan and Ron Bass, was based on Tan's popular novel of the same name. The cast included Rosalind Chao, France Nuyen, Tamlyn Tomita, Kieu Chinh, Lisa Lu, Tsai Chin, Ming-Na Wen, Lauren Tom, Chao Li Chi, and Victor Wong.

Asia Pacific Arts (UCLA) offers a fascinating look back in the form of a group interview. Four Asian-American women who never saw the film were asked to view it for the first time and give their reactions.

At Rotten Tomatoes The Joy Luck Club scores an ultra-fresh 90%.



'Bonesetter's Daughter' as Opera

The San Francisco Opera will present the premier this weekend of The Bonesetter's Daughter, a new opera by Stewart Wallace based on the 2001 novel by Amy Tan. The director for the production is Chen Shi-Zheng; Ms Tan wrote the libretto.

The Los Angeles Times quotes the composer:

Our objective was never to bridge cultures... If we've managed to do this, it's the unintentional result of the relationships we've built along the way. The cathartic journey of the three women in the story transcends history and politics. It's personal and emotional.

As one who read and loved this novel, I agree completely. The Bonesetter's Daughter is a poignant and at times wrenching story about the power of stories to carry memory across generations. Here's wishing the new opera all success.




Manga Mania

The National Taiwan University was host again a Taipei manga convention. The campus was taken over by colourful cosplayers bringing their favourite characters to life.

What drives a fan to don a ridiculous costume on a scorching hot summer day? What compels a fan to spend weeks slaving over homemade costumes and prop weapons? Some do it to show off, loving the attention of flashing cameras and adoring fanboys and fangirls. Others do it to meet and befriend fellow hard-core fans. The most pure reason could be for the love of the character they cosplay.

William Hong
'The Cosplaye Psyche'
Asia Pacific Arts, 2008.08.08


Poem by Kay Ryan


by Kay Ryan




Closing the Furnace

The ritual of offering money to ancestors and deities is well established in Taiwan. Adherents of traditional religions acquire special money, sold at temples especially for this ritual purpose, and burn it in a furnace.

In recent years public health officials have begun confronting the environmental toll exacted by the widespread practice. The smoke, now known to be full of carcinogens, goes up in vast amounts during holy days with little thought given to dissipation. The smoke has plainly negative effects on the health of people exposed to it.

The Taipei Times reports that a temple in Taoyuan County found its furnace closed last week.

Citing air pollution, the Taoyuan County Government's Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) posted a notice sealing a Land God Temple's (土地公廟) furnace that was used for burning 'ghost money' on Wednesday, shocking many locals.

The temple, located in Bade Village (八德) in the county's Lungtan Township (龍潭), has been there for almost a century, village chief Chang Yun-huan (張運煥) said.

'For the Environmental Protection Administration to seal the furnace is not only hard for the villagers to accept, but how would the Land God feel about it?' he asked.

Although the temple does not have an administrative board, it represents the religious beliefs of nearly 1,000 village residents, Chang said, adding that the sudden sealing of the furnace upset villagers, as it prohibited them from practicing the traditional, everyday ritual of burning ghost money and incense.

The bureau fined the temple NT$5,000 for violating the Air Pollution Control Act (空氣污染防制法).

The bureau said a notice was posted at the temple at the beginning of the month, requiring that an administrative board be organized to maintain the temple and prevent pollution if the furnace were to remain in use. However, in the three weeks prior to Wednesday, no one took on the responsibility, forcing the EPA to seal the furnace, it said.

A number of temple administrators will take the closing of the furnace in Taoyuan County as a cautionary signal. Next month brings the Chungyuan Festival (中元節), or Ghost Festival, when huge amounts of smoke are produced. The Taipei Times reports that bureau officials are making suggestions for environmentally safer practices 'such as worshipping without incense or virtually burning incense or paper money via the Internet.'

The suggestion may be naive (I'm new here), but I've always wondered if an environmental improvement couldn't be made as the ritual is still observed by changing the form and denomination of the currency. Could a worshipper offer a suitably vast amount of money in a more compact form? One sheet of paper is prefereable to a stack, certainly. Could a coin, made of some suitably environmentally friendly material, do the work of a paper stack?

It willbe interesting to see how things work out. It's another situation of long-standing traditions being challenged by modern awareness. Every culture gets its turn at jolts like this, as attested by the number of people in the United States who still find it hard to accept that they live on a planet four billion years old. The Taiwanese have often proved adaptable and resilient, though. The new transition, though as difficult for some, is unlikely to prove as chronic.



Taipei Performing Arts Centre

The Taipei City Government yesterday announced plans to find top international architects to design the new Taipei Performing Arts Centre.

The 2.2-hectare venue will be located on Chengde Road near Shilin Night Market. It will meet a need in the city for a facility that accommodates large and long-running performances by Taiwanese performing arts organisations. The structure will house a 1,500-seat theatre and two smaller 800-seat theatres. Construction of the Taipei Performing Arts Centre is scheduled to begin in 2010 and be completed in 2013.

An international competition will be held next year and the winning design team will be chosen by a committee headed by Mohsen Mostafavi, dean of Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. The city plans to allocate NT$4.3 billion (US$140 million) for the project, with around 15 per cent of that amount going to the winning architectural team.

The city government will also invite international architectural teams to design two other cultural facilities — the Taipei Centre for Popular Music and the Taipei City Museum.



Mo Yan-chih. Taipei Times. 2008 07 25.

Deutsche Presse-Agentur. 2008 07 24.


Cloud Gate 2's 'Oculus'

Cloud Gate 2 will present Oculus at LIberty Square. The dance performance takes place tomorrow evening (Saturday) at 19:30. Admission is free to the public.

Details are reported by Diane Baker of the Taipei Times:

It is almost impossible to watch Oculus and not think of what might have been, for its creator died of leukemia just as he was making a name for himself as a choreographer. He had been diagnosed with the disease in 2004, only months after becoming artistic director of Germany’s Staatstheater Kassel Dance Company.

Cloud Gate founder and artistic director Lin Hwai-min (林懷民) established CG2 in 1999 to foster young choreographers and dancers and provide education and outreach programs for schools and communities throughout the country. Under the leadership of the troupe’s late director, Lo Man-fei (羅曼菲), Wu was one of those young choreographers tapped to create works for CG2.

[ . . . . ]

Oculus explores the very human desire for love and acceptance. Wu’s unique choreographic language is a mixed bag of tics, flat-footed shuffles and scurrying, hunched shoulders, clasped hands and awkward leaps — it is not the graceful, airy movements so often thought of as dance. Wu’s movements, like Lin’s, are more firmly rooted in the earth and draw energy from it, even as he appeals to the heavens. He set a frenetic pace for the dancers, interspersed with moments of stark stillness. The 12 sections are divided into carefully structured solos, duets and ensemble work.

Screens will be set up to ensure a view for the entire audience. Still, early arrival is recommended. Cloud Gate performances routinely sell out and free performances can draw crowds of over 10,000.

Parental advisory: the performance features 'bare breasts.' (But that's nothing your kids haven't seen before, is it?)



Ai Weiwei

China's most famous living artist speaks his mind in 'Cultural Revolutionary,' an interview in today's Guardian (UK).
In the West, Ai's name was once known only in art circles. After his collaboration with the architects Herzog & de Meuron on Beijing's Olympic stadium - it was his idea to make it look like a bird's nest - his fame spread, especially when he gave an interview in which he announced that he had 'no interest' in the Olympics or in the Chinese state's propaganda - and that, no, he would not be attending the opening ceremony. Even so, it remains hard to convey the extent of his fame in China. .... Ai Weiwei is not only an artist but also an influential architect, a publisher, a restaurateur, a patron and mentor, and an obsessive blogger (he is read by 10,000 people every day).
And then, on top of everything else, there are his politics. Ai Weiwei's father was Ai Qing, the great poet who, during the Cultural Revolution, was exiled to a desert labour camp for being the wrong kind of intellectual. For many years his son lived in another kind of exile, in America. Then, in 1993, Ai returned to Beijing to the bedside of his dying father. But if the authorities imagined he would now retire quietly to his studio, they were wrong.

Ai says that people who think he now 'hates' the stadium he designed are mistaken. He feels fine about the quality of the design. But, as he tells Rafi Cooper, the planning of the city, and the nature of the regime behind that planning, is another story.

While some gasp at Beijing's extraordinary new skyline, with its statement buildings and rows of cranes, Ai remains singularly unimpressed. 'It's like another revolution,' he says. 'The speed of it. But if you look at the scale of it, you can tell that no time has been devoted to thinking. It has not been done gracefully. It's rough and short-sighted and temporary. Cities always reflect human history. We can't really judge it now but I'm sure there's going to be a lot of saying sorry later. [What we need to know is] who's building it? How do the developers get the land? It's so political. In 1949 most properties lost their owners. They were either kicked out or killed. The nation owned the property. Since then the state has just sold it to people who can afford it. So property should be [according to the government] for the whole nation, yet the government takes the profit. No political, philosophical or moral aesthetic is involved. It's just: let's be rich first. Except that people are finally starting to question: who is getting rich?'

In the past Ai has likened the government to the Mafia. Does he worry about saying such things? He looks quietly dismissive. 'I will not be held back. Not saying things is not good for anybody. I believe every citizen should state their mind. China has never been a democratic society, so candour and responsibility have never been encouraged. People feel hopeless, even about trying to take part in the political process, and they have done for generations.'

More than anything else, Ai believes that the nation is still paying a price for having collectively punished the intellectual classes during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. 'The nation is in bad shape,' he says. 'We are still paying the cost in terms of public discussion. We are still paying in every respect.'

Ai describes his life in America fondly. He returned to China in 1993 when his father became ill.

'Friends had told me how it had changed. Yes, there were new roads, more products, cars. But some things had not changed. No freedom, no exchange of ideas. It's still like that today, and it makes me sad. I don't mind material change but how people's minds change is the most precious thing.'

Will this ever change? 'Eventually.' In his lifetime? He grins. 'I will never die when there is not democracy!'

The complete article provides a compelling description of life in three environments: China in its Cultural Revolution period, America in the closing decades of the twentieth century, and China today. Ai Weiwei is a telling observer and chronicler of humanity. Rafi Cooper provides a chronology of the artist's life and work.



Spotlight on Oppression

Andrew J Nathan, in a new article in The New Republic entitled 'Medals and Rights,' looks at the China that will soon be hosting the Olympics.

The efflorescence of creativity that foreign visitors will see in Beijing in August is not a challenge to Party control. It enables that control. The lively art and music scenes, colorful newsstands, crowded bookstores, stylish clothing, experimental dance, innovative architecture, sexy advertising, rampant consumerism, luxurious housing, ebullient schlock, even the considerable scope for academic inquiry: this lightly patrolled free zone is not the antithesis but the twin of the permanent crackdown on the political frontier, where the few who insist on testing the regime are crowded to the cultural margin and generally ignored. In this sense the energetic new Chinese art that has caught the imagination of Western buyers, with its pictorial irony and cynicism, repudiation of history, detachment from the world, and love of stunts, is not the challenge to those in power it is sometimes construed to be. Rather, it is a secret joke that the regime shares with the artists and their audience--part of a new social contract that allows the children to have their sly fun so long as the grown-ups run the house.

. . . .

To be sure, the Olympics so far have not entirely worked out the way the planners intended. Beijing's bid in 1993 for the 2000 games was defeated at least partly on human rights grounds (although Frank Ching implies in China's Great Leap that bribery from the winning city of Sydney had more to do with it). It is not clear whether Beijing made explicit human rights commitments in its second bid. [. . .] Whether or not human rights were explicitly included, Beijing certainly made pledges that it would not fulfill.

. . .

Nathan is the co-editor of How East Asians View Democracy (Columbia University Press). The full article, a book review, may be viewed here.



To My Students:


And thanks for everything you taught me.



Hsinchu Philharmonic: Wings of Gold

2008 June 15 Sunday 14:30
Concert Hall of the Hsinchu Cultural Arts Centre
Hsinchu, Taiwan

Wings of Gold
A concert by the Hsinchu Philharmonic
Orchestra and Guests

謝孟潔 Meng-Chieh Hsieh, soprano
龔彥銘 Yen-Ming Kung, piano
唐博敦 Alton Thompson, conductor

蕭泰然 Tyzen Hsiao (b. 1938)
Angel from Formosa

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto 4 in G Major, opus 58
Yen-Ming Kung, piano

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
Aria: 'Caro nome' from
Meng-Chieh Hsieh, soprano

Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1804-1908)




Earth and Moon

Yesterday you were caught on video.

Wide angle, to be sure--courtesy of Nasa's interplanetary Epoxi spacecraft.



A Classic Hazard

A new law in Europe protects people from enduring dangerous levels of sound in the workplace. The law is having an effect on orchestras and their repertory. Sarah Lyall, writing in London, describes one example for the New York Times:

They had rehearsed the piece only once, but already the musicians at the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra were suffering. Their ears were ringing. Heads throbbed.

Tests showed that the average noise level in the orchestra during the piece, State of Siege, by the composer Dror Feiler, was 97.4 decibels, just below the level of a pneumatic drill and a violation of new European noise-at-work limits. Playing more softly or wearing noise-muffling headphones were rejected as unworkable.

So instead of having its world premiere on April 4, the piece was dropped. “I had no choice,” said Trygve Nordwall, the orchestra’s manager. “The decision was not made artistically; it was made for the protection of the players.”

The complete article offers a look at the little-publicized ways orchestra musicians deal with the hazard of dangerously high decibel levels in the workplace.



Oslo Opera House

Norway's new center for ballet and opera opened with a flourish this past weekend. The Norway Post reports:

The building was opened by King Harald [V], who said the new Opera House has become a monumental landmark. . . Among the guests were Denmark's Queen Margrethe, Sweden's Crown Princess Victoria, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as Iceland's President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson and Finland's President Tarja Halonen.

The construction of the new 38,500-square meter (415,000 sqare feet) opera house is the largest single cultural-political initiative in contemporary Norway. It took five years to build and the cost is estimated to 500 million Euros. The result is an extraordinary building in white marble with a slanting roof surface that rises directly from beneath the waters of the Oslo fjord. In addition to a variety of performances in a 1,350-seat auditorium and two smaller auditoriums, this will also be the first opera house in the world where visitors can take a walk on the roof.

. . . .

The Oslo Opera House is designed by the acknowledged Norwegian architectural firm Snoehetta.

After the gala opening on Saturday, the first performance in the new opera house is the world premiere of the ballet A Modern Place by renowned Norwegian choreographer Ingun Bjørnsgaard on Stage 2. This is followed on May 24, when Worlds Beyond by the celebrated Czech choreographer Jirí Kylián will open on the Main stage. Orfeo will be the first opera to be performed in the new opera house, with its Stage 2 premiere on May 29. From April 26 there will also be held Operafest on the Main Stage with selected arias, duets and choruses. The first opera on the Main Stage will be Don Carlo in September 2008, a co-production with The Royal Opera House Covent Garden and The Metropolitan Opera in New York.

The opening season lasts from April 2008 till June 2009 and will be a showcase for Norway and its cultural life, offering top singers, dancers and musicians. Among the guests this first year is Cecilia Bartoli, Bryn Terfel, Berliner Philharmoniker with Sir Simon Rattle, René Pape, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim and Neeme Järvi.

The event was commemorated in a new government stamp.

Official Site: Oslo Opera House



The CSO Resounds

The Internet offerings of the Chicago Symphony have really sprouted lately. I've mentioned other venues for audio here, courtesy of the London Symphony, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, Deutsche Grammophon and other providers. Now the Chicago Symphony, under principal conductor Bernard Haitink, has successfully launched its own label, CSO Resound, featuring recorded performances by the orchestra. The initial offerings include:

Bruckner: Symphony 7
Mahler: Symphony 3
Mahler: Symphony 6
Bernard Haitink, conductor

Shostakovich: Symphony 5
Myung-Whun Chung, conductor

'Traditions and Transformations'
Schelomo, Hebraic Rhapsody for Solo Cello and Large Orchestra
Sharav: Legend of Herlen
Harrison: Pipa Concerto
Prokofiev: Scythian Suite, opus 20

Silk Road Ensemble
Yo-Yo Ma, cello
Wu Man, pipa
Miguel Harth-Bedoya and Alan Gilbert, conductors

These audio records are available for download at the iTunes store and on disk from the CSO site. Choose from standard CD stereo audio or SACD, a five-channel stereo hybrid from a five-channel stereo hybrid developed by Sony. SACD an be played on your standard CD player, but it has aural data encoded on the disk that helps to 'reproduce the precise acoustic signature of the performance space.'

The site also offers free audio of BP Chicago Symphony radio broadcasts.

You will find free video as well. The CSO has begun making available video files documenting the orchestra's acclaimed Beyond the Score multimedia series. All series productions feature the orchestra and narrator and series director Gerard McBurney. Discussions currently available online include:

Bartók: Miraculous Mandarin
Pierre Boulez, conductor
Daniel Allar, actor

Mozart: Piano Concerto 27 in B-flat Major, K 595
Jeffrey Kahane, conductor and piano
Susanna Phillips, soprano
Tim Gregory, actor

Video files may be downloaded in either Windows Media (.wmv) or QuickTime format (.mov).

The orchestra also has its own video page at YouTube.

Some people in the Windy City have been busy. Make a bookmark and enjoy!

CSO Resound
1 312 294 3333



Ancestors Day

Here's wishing all my friends in Taiwan a peaceful day with family of all generations.

2-28 Peace Park
Taipei, Taiwan 台灣 台北

©2007 Alton Thompson 唐博敦


Considering Tibet

More on Tibet in this editorial from Manik Mehta in the Taiwan Journal. A few observations offered in the article include these.

The killing of demonstrators, reportedly by members of the secret police force, was a major embarrassment for China, especially with the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games less than five months away. Outrage was expressed in many parts of the world, including the United States, where there was widespread unanimity among all sections of society that the PRC should not only stop its oppression of the Tibetan people, but also enter into dialogue with the Dalai Lama and his exiled parliament in Dharamsala, India.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed her deep sadness about the killings and urged Beijing to "exercise restraint" when dealing with protesters. She also called for detained monks to be released. "We urge China to respect the fundamental and universally recognized right of all its citizens to peacefully express their political and religious views, and we call on China to release monks and others who have been detained solely for the peaceful expression of their views," she said March 16. "I am also concerned by reports of a sharply increased police and military presence in and around Lhasa."

Rice's choice of words deliberately reminds China's government of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. China, as a member of the United Nations Security Council, is supposed to lead the world in support of these principles. Instead, as we all know, it is one of the globe's most regular violators of the document's most basic tenets.

The events in Tibet serve as a stark reminder to the world that China's government has really made no progress toward greater respect for human rights. The same people who answered Chinese students with tanks in 1989 are still in charge.

That the Lhasa shootings happened under the very nose of the international community should remind people of the tendency of the PRC to act aggressively toward any form of dissent. The world should also take recent events as an example of the systematic destruction of Tibet's ancient culture and way of life--referred to as "cultural genocide" by the Dalai Lama.

The behavior of Chinese security forces in Lhasa belied China's claims that it had modernized and helped Tibet by "liberating" the people from centuries of feudalism and poverty. Instead, many experts say that China has done little except tightening its grip on the mountainous area by constructing strategically important roads and airports that only bring Tibet closer to neighboring Chinese regions and provinces. Even the new Qinghai-Tibet railway that leaders in Beijing have said will improve the livelihoods of the Tibetan people is the cause of much contention. It is considered by many people as a way to facilitate the transfer of the Han Chinese population to Tibet. This mass "migration" has seriously diluted Tibetan culture, making ethnic Tibetans a virtual minority in their own land.

Contrary to claims that China has Tibetan interests at heart, statistics tell another story: approximately 80 percent of Tibet's monasteries and temples were destroyed by 1966. Indeed, after the Cultural Revolution in China, only 13 monasteries remained in Tibet, an area that once boasted several hundred monasteries and temples. Beijing maintains that Tibet has historically always been part of China, yet Tibetans state the region was independent long before the PRC took over the reins.

Mehta commends two leaders who have stood strong against China's rights violations.

On Sept. 23, 2007, Angela Merkel of Germany received the Dalai Lama in Berlin, and Nancy Pelosi, the U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives, called on the monk at his home in the aftermath of the Lhasa killings. Pelosi even had to conduct her visit to the tune of heated remarks made by Zhang Yan, the PRC's ambassador to India.

China is worried that the Tibetan protests could escalate into wider unrest amongst China's rural masses, who are losing patience with their leaders for failing to provide them with a better life. There are also concerns about the Muslim Uighurs who primarily live in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and who harbor deep resentment against the Communist regime. The Tibetan issue could therefore have a disastrous effect not only on China's economy, but also on law and order in many other provinces.

Reflecting these fears is Lhasa itself. Today the city looks more like an impregnable fortress where prying journalists and activists are prevented from talking to local people. Three of the capital's biggest monasteries have even been sealed off by the authorities.

China has rejected the Dalai Lama's past offer of holding talks on autonomy for Tibet, instead calling him a "splittist" who is intent on trying to separate Tibet from the "motherland." China hopes that the next generation of Tibetan leaders, after the Dalai Lama's death, would be more accommodating than the present one. However, according to a number of experts, the next generation may actually turn out to be far more militant and less accommodating than the Dalai Lama, who has done nothing but advocate peaceful means for settling differences.

In Taiwan we are all too familiar with the Chinese government's surreal representation of things and the toxic rehetoric it directs at 'spittists.' Mehta, too, sees implications for Taiwan. It is crucial, he says, that desire for economic exchanges with China not be allowed to compromise Taiwan's freedom and sovereignty.

Government Information Office Minister Shieh Jhy-wey has categorically stated that the people of Taiwan do not want the "same fate as Tibet." His remark mirrored the general sense of unease among many Taiwanese people who see the incidents in Tibet as a stark reminder that China cannot be trusted to preserve Taiwan's democracy.

Taiwan's people should stop and think twice before backing any kind of arrangement with China. The fruits of Taiwan's economic prosperity and the country's free and democratic society should be cherished above all else.



Sound Art

The Sunday Times (UK) featured an intriguing look at the integration of sound and visual art. Tim Cooper writes:

Remember when art appreciation used to be a simple, straightforward affair? You walked into a gallery, looked at some pictures, or maybe a few sculptures, and that was that. Then came photography, followed by film, the emergence of performance art and all that conceptual stuff... Now, thanks to 21st-century technology, sound art – art for the ears, as well as the eyes – is bringing a new dimension to the art world.

Actually, 'art for the ears' has been with us a long time. We call it music. More on this in a minute.

Cooper reports some of the imaginative ways aural and visual elements are integrated:

You walk into a white room in a fashionable Oxford art gallery. A fractured, fragmented version of the [Beethoven] Moonlight Sonata echoes from an unmanned grand piano at one end. On the opposite wall is a white-on-white neon display of a telephone number. You dial, then listen. Down the line, you hear a whooshing, splooshing sound. You are connected, live and in real time, to a glacier melting in Iceland.

Meanwhile, at the Science Museum, in west London, displayed on a huge futuristic grid, you can see and hear thousands of messages sent by strangers in internet chat rooms all over the world as they are intercepted, live, in a work aptly entitled Listening Post. And soon, in a warehouse in central London, you will find five grand pianos, insides out, playing on their own over the disembodied voices of William S Burroughs, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Malcolm X. This is the splendidly titled Stifter’s Dinge, created by a German composer called Heiner Goebbels. It, too, is a work of sound art.

The full article gives fascinating details about these pieces.

Cooper goes on to consider historical influences:
If sound art has a beginning, it seems to lie with postwar avant-garde composers such as John Cage, the start of a line that follows through to Brian Eno’s ambient music, the sound collagists Christian Marclay and John Oswald - forefathers of the “mash-up” - and electronic composers such as the Japanese minimalist Ryoji Ikeda.
Edgard Varèse also belongs on any short list of this kind.
Yet most of those are primarily musicians with artistic inclinations.
Oops. Gaffe alert.

musicians have artistic inclinations. This is true by definition. Music is art. Making music is thus making art. The 'artistic inclination' of musicians is thus a given.

It's a tic among visual artists to use the word art as a synonym for only visual art. It is useful enough as a verbal shorthand when talking to other specialists. But it crashes and burns when you step out of the gallery and start discussing aesthetic issues. Here, it doesn't do to let gallery shorthand do your thinking for you. Categories are already understood. Art consists of creations in all sorts of media. Music is a subset of art, just as visual art is.

Here the tic leads to a working definition that is actually irrelevant to the art itself. The text asks us to understand sound art as 'sound structures created by primarily visual artists.' This is in contrast to music, understood here as 'sound structures created by primarily aural artists.' But this focus on the resumes of the individuals cannot be sustained. Where does it leave the work of Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, for example? She a was neither a musician nor a visual artist by profession. Was she making 'sound contemplation' and 'sight contemplation' instead of music and visual art? There is no need to let oneself in for this. Hildegard remains a noteworthy figure in the realm of both music and visual art. But it's not her resume, however we define it, that puts her there. It's the work itself.

Either way, the subject here is sound structures. The arrangement of sound for artistic purpose is music. Music is sound art. Sound art is music.
Rubin, 43, who cites Cage and Marclay as influences, sees sound art as having more distant roots. “In the early 20th century, the Russian futurists were doing orchestras with noise-making machines,” he says. “And within experimental music, there is a tradition of composers doing spatial-installation projects that push far outside what you would consider music, towards what we now consider sound art.”
The assumption is that sound structures sufficiently original to 'push far outside what you would normally consider music' are 'not music' for that reason. But this is another distinction that makes no difference. Music does this all the time. The music makers of the world are forever pushing boundaries 'far outside what you would normally consider music.' I could offer many names, but just one closes the case. John Cage.

Music is the art of sound. Where sound is art, music exists. The two are the same.


Taiwan's Election

An editorial that appeared in the Boston Globe yesterday.

Taiwan's Message for Beijing

The triumph of the Kuomintang candidate Ma Ying-jeou in the recent presidential election in Taiwan augurs a welcome reduction in tensions with mainland China. The winner's 17-point margin of victory also reaffirms a virtue of democratic accountability: a free people's power to change leaders when those leaders and their policies lose the confidence of the electorate.

There is a danger that Beijing will view Ma's victory merely as a rejection of his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, and his pursuit of formal independence - and as confirmation that China's policy of threats and pressure produced the desired results. China's leaders are sure to be gratified that only 35 percent of Taiwan's voters said yes to a referendum, proposed by Chen's Democratic Progressive Party, that called for the island to seek United Nations membership under the name Taiwan. Beijing would consider that a virtual declaration of independence by its breakaway province.

But the authorities in Beijing would be making a mistake if they indulge in too much self-congratulation. The voters of Taiwan could hardly be indifferent to China's pre-election meddling, but they were acting on their own practical self-interest when they chose the moderate Ma over the DPP's Frank Hsieh.

Much of Ma's appeal was rooted in pocketbook issues. The former mayor of Taipei wants to boost the island's faltering growth rate by expanding commercial relations with the mainland. He favors direct air and maritime connections across the Taiwan Strait and lower barriers to investment in mainland enterprises, which already totals more than $100 billion. He called for a "one-China common market" and the signing of a tension-reducing peace treaty with Beijing.

China's President Hu Jintao and his ruling circle should read Taiwan's vote not simply as a rejection of Chen's intemperate call for de jure independence, but also as popular support for continuing the status quo. Ma recently summarized, as a policy of three "nots," how he intends to fulfill the popular will: "not to get independent, not to be united, and not to use military."

China did not win the election in Taiwan. On the contrary, the voters of Taiwan were showing their neighbors on the mainland what they are missing by living under an unelected authoritarian regime. By cracking down recently on dissent in Tibet - instead of granting that region genuine autonomy within China - Beijing has only damaged its case for reunification with Taiwan. And if China's rulers want someday to lure Taiwan into rejoining the motherland, they will first have to allow their citizens to choose their own government.

The authors read the post-election tea leaves well. This is an accurate assessment of why Taiwan's people voted as they did. Only time will tell whether the predictions ('China didn't win') are as accurate.



First Outing

Today the Hsinchu Philharmonic Orchestra and I performed our first gig together. The event was the Hsinchu International Glass Art Festival, an annual event hosted by Hsinchu City at its famous Glass Arts Museum.

Our concert, which took place outdoors, featured light classics and some environmental Sturm und Drang courtesy of the planet Earth. Hsinchu is not called Taiwan's 'Windy City' for nothing, and when you throw in a tropical spring thunderstorm you're in for a mighty afternoon of clipping music to stands. But the players are used to this, and even the youngest musicians handled the challenges with aplomb. The crowd was welcoming, too, even if the elements weren't so much.

All in all, a delightful afternoon. Our first indoor subscription concert takes place on June 15 Sunday.



Eyes on Tibet

The eyes of the world are on Tibet this month, where China's authoritarian government has cracked down violently on protests and is blocking press access to the region. Here are sites that provide information and support.

China Digital Times (Berkeley, California USA) - Tibet Updates

Tibet Government in Exile
Official site of the Dalai Lama's government in exile.

Tibet Online
Sponsored by the international Tibet Support Group community.

Free Tibet

Save Tibet
Related sites:
Human Rights in China

Reporters Without Borders
Olympic officials awarded the games to Beijing only after China's Communist government promised to improve its record on human rights. The whole world knows it now: those Olympic officials were had.



First Recorded Sound

A pioneering moment in audio technology has the world buzzing today. Morag Lyall describes it briefly in today's Gramophone (UK):

The earliest instance of recorded sound will have its first public hearing today at a conference for the Association for Recorded Sound Collections at Stanford University, USA. The phonautograph dates from 1860, 18 years before Thomas Edison invented his phonograph and 27 years before Emile Berliner patented the gramophone.

The phonautograph was created by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville [1817-1879], a French inventor but, unlike the phonograph, it was not intended to create audible sounds. The device, using a needle, etched the soundwaves from the voice onto soot-covered paper from an oil lamp, creating a kind of sheet music.

From this, audio historians have now been able to reinterpret the written soundwaves using a digital scan of the paper, producing an audible score. What results from the 1860 recording is a woman singing a 10-second clip of Au Clair de la lune, never heard before.

The woman is widely thought to be Scott's daughter. More details about Scott's invention may be found in the following reports.
The BBC provides interviews with audio specialists with illustrations.

iTWire carries a detailed report with links to related articles.

America's NPR supplies a photograph and detailed audio report.
And, courtesy of First Sounds, you can hear for yourself the world's oldest recorded sound.



Digital Minimalism

The Saint Louis Symphony is back in the recording business. Gramophone reports that the SLSO and conductor David Robertson have released a new audio record of John Adams 1985 minimalist symphony Harmonielehre. The interesting twist this time around: no CD. This release is for download only.

You will be able find the record at Amazon.com and iTunes (US store). The Saint Louis Symphony is working with IODA on this project. The Adams piece marks the first in a series of planned releases. The next record the SLSO will release for download will be Stravinsky's Symphony in C, due in September.



Ko Fan-Long

One of the delights of living in Taiwan is the new music you discover. On many programs here you will encounter the music of Ko Fan-long (柯芳隆, b. 1947), one of Taiwan's leading composers. His is a versatile muse, equally at home with the idioms of villages and studios, islands and Alps, recital halls and Himalayas.

Ko, a native of Taichung, graduated from the National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei. In 1980 he went on to enroll at the Berlin University of the Arts in Germany, where he studied composition with F. M. Beyer. He joined the NTNU faculty upon his return to Taiwan in 1985. Today he continues to serve his alma mater as music department chairman and professor of composition.In 2002 he received Taiwan's prestigious Wan San-Lien Music Award.

In Ko's compositions you hear a cosmopolitan blend of European and Asian timbres and techniques. He often calls upon performers to switch concepts with in a single piece, sounding first like an instrument from nineteenth-century Austria and the next like an instrument from ancient Tibet. He easily and fluidly shifts gears from the pentatonic scales of traditional Asian music to the free atonality of twentieth-century music. Compositions by Ko that have drawn particular acclaim here include the Quintet II (1992) for chamber ensemble, The Weeping Mermaid (1993) for orchestra, the imposing three-movement Dream of the Year 2000 for chorus and orchestra, and Overture to Taiwan's New Century (2003) for orchestra.

In September 2007 I heard three of his major orchestral works--Taiwan's New Century, The Weeping Mermaid, and Dream of the Year 2000--featured in an NTNU American tour program entitled Formosa Dreaming. Apo Hsu led the NTNU Symphony Orchestra and Formosa Festival Choir. The four soloists for the symphony were Hsieh Meng-chieh (soprano), Lee Yu (alto), Lin Chung-chi (tenor), and Chang Yu-hsin (bass); the massive choir was prepared by Huang Tsui-yu. The tour program also featured the music of Taiwanese composer Tyzen Hsiao.

  • 1971 Sacrificial Ceremony for violin and piano
  • 1972 Chang'e as a Rocket for solo piano
  • 1973 Duet for Clarinet and Piano
  • 1974 Ripples in Ma-Zu for solo piano
  • 1980 Change for cello and piano
  • 1981 Trio for Oboe, Violoncello and Piano
  • 1982 Growth and Decline of Five Elements for four cellos
  • 1982 Sextet for Flute, Clarinet, Bassoon, French Horn, Violin and Violoncello
  • 1983 Septet for Flute, Clarinet, Strings and Percussion
  • 1984 String Quartet no. 1
  • 1984 Sedan Chair of the Gods for full orchestra
  • 1985 Duet for Oboe and Violoncello
  • 1986 Sedan Chair for a Wedding for flute, oboe, horn, violin, cello and piano
  • 1988 Mend the Torn Silk for chorus
  • 1992 Quintet II for violin, cello, flute, trombone, and percussion
  • 1993 The Weeping Mermaid for orchestra
  • 1994 Four Hakka Ballads for clarinet, violin, cello and piano
  • 1996 First Time (Taiwanese song)
  • 1997 Sacrifice for piano trio
  • 1998 Artistic Conception for solo piano
  • 1999 Formosa String Quartet no. 2
  • 2000 Dream of the Year 2000, a three-movement symphony for chorus and orchestra
  • 2000 Love Story for seven bassoons
  • 2001 When the Bugle Calls for trumpet and four horns
  • 2002 Taiwanese Folk Song Suite for strings
  • 2003 Water Lantern on February 28 (Taiwanese song)
  • 2003 Overture to Taiwan's New Century for full orchestra
  • 2008 2-28 Requiem (April premiere)

A variant of this post was submitted to Wikipedia and Answers.com in 2007 as an encyclopaedia entry.


Ariel Moscovici & Sylvie Rivillon

I was delighted to receive a friendly message this week from Ariel Moscovici, the Romanian-born French sculptor. He had spotted a photo I took of one of his works and wanted to say hi.

Everyone in Taiwan knows Between Earth and Sky, the circle of stones by Moscovici that graces Taipei 101's north plaza.

Taiwan is home to several sculptures by Moscovici, including works in Taipei, Hualien and Taichung.

Our island also claims two monumental works by his wife, Sylvie Rivillon, sculptor of Elevation in Kaohsiung and Construction Around a Wave in Hualien.

You can find fascinating tours of their work at two new web sites:


Appréciez votre visite!


Centre of the World

The axis mundi (also cosmic axis, world axis, world pillar and centre of the world) is a ubiquitous symbol that crosses human cultures. The image expresses a point of connection between sky and earth where the four compass directions meet. At this point travel and correspondence is made between higher and lower realms. Communication from lower realms may ascend to higher ones and blessings from higher realms may descend to lower ones and be disseminated to all. The spot functions as the omphalos (navel), the world's point of beginning.

The axis mundi image appears in every region of the world and takes many forms. The image is both feminine (an umbilical providing nourishment) and masculine (a phallus providing insemination). It may have the form of a natural object (a mountain, a tree, a vine, a stalk, a column of smoke or fire) or a product of human manufacture (a staff, a tower, a ladder, a staircase, a maypole, a cross, a steeple, a rope, a totem pole, a pillar, a spire, a pagoda, a statue). Its proximity to heaven may carry implications that are chiefly religious (pagoda, temple mount, church) or secular (obelisk, minaret, lighthouse, rocket, skyscraper). The image appears in religious and secular contexts. The axis mundi symbol may be found in cultures utilizing shamanic practices or animist belief systems, in major world religions, and in technologically advanced 'urban centers'–wherever the impulse exists to link a column with the idea of a centre.


The image originates in a natural and universal human psychological perception: that one's native land and home stand at 'the centre of the world.' Home is indeed the centre of one's known universe, the point at which all experience of the larger reality begins. From this spot we may venture in any of the four cardinal directions, make discoveries, and recognize new centres. The name of China, 'the Middle Kingdom,' expresses the perception of that land's ancient occupants that they stood at the world centre, with other nations lying in various directions relative to the spot.

Within the central known universe a specific locale–often a mountain or other elevated place, a spot where earth and sky come closest–gains status as center of the centre, the axis mundi. High mountains are typically regarded as sacred by peoples living near them. Shrines are often erected at the summit or base. Japan's highest mountain, Mount Fuji, has long symbolized the world axis in Japanese culture. Mount Kun-Lun fills a similar role in China. For the ancient Hebrews Mount Zion expressed the symbol. Sioux beliefs take the Black Hills as the axis mundi. Mount Kailash is holy to several religions in Tibet. In ancient Mesopotamia the cultures of ancient Sumer and Babylon erected artificial mountains, or ziggurats, on the flat river plain. These supported staircases leading to temples at the top. The pre-Columbian residents of Teotihuacán in Mexico erected huge pyramids featuring staircases leading to heaven. Jacob's Ladder is an axis mundi image, as is the Temple Mount. For Christians the Cross on Mount Calvary expresses the symbol. The Middle Kingdom, China, had a central mountain, Kun-Lun, known in Taoist literature as 'the mountain at the middle of the world.' To 'go into the mountains' meant to dedicate oneself to a spiritual life. Monasteries of all faiths tend, like shrines, to be placed at elevated spots. Wise religious teachers are typically depicted in literature and art as bringing their revelations at world centres: mountains, trees, temples.



Because the axis mundi is an idea that expresses a subjective experience through a variety of concrete images, no contradiction exists when multiple spots on the planet serving as 'the centre of the world.' The symbol can operate in a number of locales at once. The ancient Greeks regarded several sites as places of earth's omphalos (navel) stone, notably the oracle at Delphi, while still maintaining a belief in a cosmic world tree and in Mount Olympus as the abode of the gods. Judaism has Mount Sinai and Mount Zion, Christianity has the Mount of Olives and Calvary, Islam has the Temple Mount (Dome of the Rock) and Mecca, said to be the place on earth that was created first. In addition to Kun-Lun the ancient Chinese recognized four mountains as pillars of the world.

All sacred places constitute world centres (omphalos) with the altar as the axis. Altars, incense sticks, candles and torches form a column of smoke, or prayer, that unites earth with heaven. Shrine architecture reflects this role in many ways. The stupa of Hinduism, and later Buddhism, reflects Mount Meru. Cathedrals are laid out in the form of a cross, with the vertical bar representing the union of earth and heaven as the horizontal bars represent union of people to one another, with the altar at the intersection. Pagoda structures in Asian temples take the form of a stairway linking earth and heaven. A steeple in a church or a minaret in a mosque also serve as connections of earth and heaven. Structures such as the maypole, derived from the Saxons' Irminsul, and the totem pole among indigenous peoples of the Americas also represent world axes. The calumet, or sacred pipe, represents a column of smoke (the soul) rising form a world centre.


A plant can serve as the axis mundi. The tree provides an axis that unites three planes: its branches reach for the sky, its trunk meets the earth, and it roots reach down into the underworld. In some Pacific island cultures the banyan tree, of which the bodhi tree is of the Sacred Fig variety, is the abode of ancestor spirits. The bodhi tree is also the tree under which Gautama Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, sat on the night he attained enlightenment. The Yggdrasil, or World Ash, functions in much the same way in Norse mythology; it is the site where Odin found enlightenment. Other examples include Jievaras in Lithuanian mythology and Thor's Oak in the myths of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples. The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis present two aspects of the same image. Each is said to stand at the centre of the Paradise garden from which four rivers flow to nourish the whole world. Each tree confers a boon. Bamboo, the plant from which Asian calligraphy pens are made, represents knowledge and is regularly found on Asian college campuses. The Christmas tree, which can be traced in its origins back to pre-Christian European beliefs, represents an axis mundi.

Human form

The human form can function as a world axis. World religions regard the body itself as a temple and prayer as a column uniting earth to heaven. A statue of a human figure in meditation combines the image of body, altar, temple and tower. Some of the more abstract Tree of Life representations, such as the sefirot in Kabbalism and in the chakra system recognized by Hinduism and Buddhism, merge with the concept of the human body as a pillar between heaven and earth. Disciplines such as yoga and Tai Chi begin from the premise of the human body as axis mundi. Astrology in all its forms assumes a connection between human health and human affairs with celestial bodies. The Renaissance image known as The Vitruvian Man represented a symbolic and mathematical exploration of the human form as world axis.


Houses also serve as world centres. The hearth participates in the symbolism of the altar and a central garden partipates in the symbolism of primordial paradise. In Asian cultures houses were traditionally laid out in the form of a square oriented toward the four compass directions. A traditional Asian home was oriented toward the sky through Feng shui, a system of geomancy, just as a palace would be. Traditional Arab houses are also laid out as a square surrounding a central fountain that evokes a primordial garden paradise. The nomadic peoples of Mongolia and the Americas more often lived in circular structures. The central pole of the tent still operated as an axis but a fixed reference to the four compass points was avoided.

Shamanic Function

A common shamanic concept, and a universally told story, is that of the healer making use of the axis to navigate between earthly, celestial or nether realms to bring knowledge back from another world. The theme appears in stories of Odin and the World Ash Tree, the Garden of Eden and Jacob's Ladder, of Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel. Such a journey forms the essence of The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The epic poem relates its hero's descent and ascent through a series of spiral structures that take him from through the core of the earth, from the depths of Hell to celestial Paradise.

Anyone or anything suspended on the axis between heaven and earth becomes a repository of potential knowledge. A special status accrues to the thing suspended: a serpent, a victim of crucifixion or hanging, a rod, a fruit, mistletoe. Derivations of this idea find form in the Rod of Asclepius, an emblem of the medical profession, and in the caduceus, an emblem of correspondence and commercial professions. The staff in these emblems represents the axis mundi while the serpents act as guardians of special knowledge.

Traditional Expressions


  • Bodhi tree
  • Pagoda
  • Stupa
  • Mount Meru in Hinduism
  • Mount Fuji (Japan)
  • Mount Kailash regarded by several religions in Tibet, e.g. Bön
  • Jambudweep in Jainism which is regarded as the actual navel of the universe (which is human in form)
  • Kailasa (India), the abode of Shiva
  • Mandara (India)
  • Kun-Lun (China), residence of the Immortals and the site of a peach tree offering immortality
  • Human figure (yoga, tai chi, a figure in meditation)
  • Central courtyard in traditional home
  • Bamboo stalk, associated with knowledge and learning

Middle East
  • Garden of Eden, four rivers
  • Tree of Life and Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
  • Ziggurat (Tower of Babel)
  • Jacob's Ladder
  • Jerusalem: the Temple Mount
  • Mount Calvary
  • Cross of crucifixion
  • Steeple
  • Mecca: the Ka'aba; focus of Muslim prayer and locus of Adam's descent from heaven
  • Dome of the Rock where Muhammad ascended to heaven
  • Minaret
  • Dilmun
  • Land of Punt
  • Paschal candle
  • Garizim (Samaria)
  • Alborj (Persia)


  • Yggdrasil (World Ash Tree)
  • Mount Olympus
  • Delphi, Oracle of Delphi
  • Colossus of Rhodes
  • Montsalvat (Grail legend)
  • Maypole
  • Christmas tree
  • Jack's Beanstalk
  • Rapunzel's Tower
  • Hearth
  • Altar
  • Human figure, especially praying or crucified

The Americas

  • Teotihuacán Pyramids
  • Black Hills (Sioux)
  • Totem Pole
  • Tent
  • Calumet (sacred pipe)
  • Bamboo (Hopi)

Modern Expressions

Axis mundi symbolism abounds in the modern world. A symbolic connection between earth and sky is present in all skyscrapers, as the word itself attests. Spire structures readily come to be regarded as symbolic centres of a culture and as icons of its ideals. The first skyscraper of modern times, the Eiffel Tower in Paris France, exemplified this role in the nineteenth century, as did the Empire State Building in the twentieth. Taipei 101, a twenty-first century descendant, unites the images of staircase, bamboo, pagoda, and pillar; at night, it also evokes a candle or torch. The Washington Monument in the United States and capitol buildings of all sorts fill this role. The Burj Dubai (United Arab Emirates) will fill the role when it opens.

The design of a tower emphasizes different elements of the symbol. Twin towers, such as the Petronas Towers standing in Kuala Lumpur today and the World Trade Center towers erected in Manhattan in the 1970s, maintain the axis symbolism while more obviously assuming the role of pillars. Some structures pierce the sky in phallic fashion, implying upward movement or flight (Chicago Spire, CN Tower in Toronto, the Space Needle in Seattle). Others emphasize the more lateral elements of the symbol, in implying portals (Tuntex Sky Tower in Taiwan's southern port city of Kaohsiung, the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis, Missouri USA).

Ancient images find new expressions in modern structures. The Peace Pagodas built since the 1947 unite religious and secular purposes in one symbol drawn from Buddhism. The influence of the pagoda tradition may be seen in the newer skyscrapers in Asia (Taipei 101, Petronas Towers). The ancient ziggurat has likewise reappeared in modern form, including the headquarters of the National Geographic Society in Washington, DC and The Ziggurat which houses the California Department of General Services. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright conceived the Guggenheim Museum in New York as an inverted ziggurat.

Artistic representations of the world axis abound in modern art. Prominent among these is The Endless Column (1938) an abstract sculpture by Romanian Constantin Brâncuşi. The column takes the form of an umbilical or pillar linking earth to sky even as its rhythmically repeating segments suggest infinity.

The association of the cosmic pillar with knowledge gives it a prominent role in the world of scholarship. University campuses typically assign an axis role to a campus landmark such as a clock tower, library spire or bell tower. The landmark represents as the symbolic centre of the academic world and becomes the emblem of its ideals on seals, stationery, and diplomas. The colloquial picture of the academy as an 'ivory tower' derives from the same image.

The image may still take natural forms, as in the American tradition of the Liberty Tree located at town centres. Individual homes continue to act as world axes, especially where Feng shui and other forms of geomancy are practiced.

Axis mundi symbolism may be seen in much of the romance surrounding space travel. A rocket on the pad takes on the symbolism of the tower and astronauts enact a heroic story. Astronauts, 'star voyagers', embark on perilous journeys into the heavens and, if successful, return with boons that benefit all. The insignia for the Apollo 13 mission stated the shamanic aspect of the endeavour succinctly: Ex luna scientia ('From the Moon, knowledge').

Modern Stories

The axis mundi continues to appear in modern stories as well as in modern structures. Appearances of the ancient image in the tales and myths of more recent times include these:

  • The ash tree growing in Hunding's living room, in Act 1 of Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), is one of many appearances of the image in the operas of Richard Wagner. Hunding's tree recalls the World Ash visited by Wotan, a central character in the Ring cycle of which this opera forms a part (1848-1874).
  • The sphinx in the science fiction novel The Time Machine (1895) by H. G. Wells serves as centre for the world of the far distant future. The time traveller's explorations begin with it and the structure unites the planes of future human society.
  • The Emerald City in the land of Oz, depicted in the popular book by L. Frank Baum (1900) and the subsequent MGM film (1939), stands at the centre of the four compass directions.
  • Orodruin, location of the creation and destruction of the One Ring, is one of many representations of the symbol in The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien (1937-1949).
  • Two Trees of Valinor in Tolkien's tellingly named Middle-earth produce the light of the Supreme God (1937-1949).
  • The wooded hilltop and ascending and descending staircases in The Midsummer Marriage, an opera by English composer Michael Tippett (1955), explore Jungian aspects of the symbol.
  • The ark of the covenant and its accompanying pillar of fire link heaven and earth in the climax of Steven Spielberg's film Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
  • The huge sheltering tree on a hilltop that appears near the end of Stealing Beauty, a 1996 film by Bernardo Bertolucci, crowns a series of images evoking the primordial Paradise garden.
  • The surreal urban world of Bruce Wayne's Gotham City has the Wayne Building as its symbolic centre in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005). A fantastic cathedral, incorporating the images of skyscraper, spiral staircase and ladder, fills the same role in an earlier film by Tim Burton (1989).



J. C. Cooper. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols.
Thames and Hudson: New York, 1978.

Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrandt. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols.
Editions Robert Lafont S. A. et Editions Jupiter: Paris, 1982. Penguin Books: London, 1996.

Mircea Eliade. The Myth of the Eternal Return. Bollingen, 1971.

Photo of Taipei 101 by Alton Thompson. All rights reserved.

A variant of this post was submitted in 2007 to Wikipedia and Answers.com for publication as an encyclopedaia article. Please see those sites for more substantial illustrations, cross-references and links.