A Book of Lost Orchids

A Book of Lost Orchids (for Percussion and Piano)

Some years back I was invited to work in Taiwan and was dazzled on my arrival by its natural beauty and cultural richness and diversity. Our house was a little way outside Taipei, in the mountains surrounding the capital, and to get to work I had to walk through tea and grapefruit plantations, past a Buddhist monastery and a Taoist temple (with bananas growing in its courtyard) and that was just to reach the bus stop! Blue, black and gold butterflies the size of paperback books, lizards, monkeys, giant tree-ferns and heliconias made our garden look like something painted by Rousseau. Downtown Taipei, however, is as different as it could be: crumbling post-war buildings and hyper-modern, Manhattan-style high-rises packed cheek-by-jowl into the geological basin that defines the city’s limits. Taipei real-estate prices are amongst the highest, and its stock-market is both the busiest and most volatile, anywhere on earth. As one approaches Taipei by air, a brown bubble of pollutants can be seen to hang over the entire city.

It was against this background of preservation and change that I learned of Lanyu Island, officially named Orchid Island by the Taiwanese government in 1946 on account of its uniquely rich variety of indigenous orchids. There are ten aboriginal tribes in Taiwan, the Yami those being native to Orchid Island (about 70 kilometres off the southern tip of the mainland). The Yami called Lanyu Island Ponso-No-Tau, meaning “Our Island.” By 1960 the orchids had all gone, either sold to Western dealers and propagators or simply eradicated to make way for the LA-style surfers’ paradise which Lanyu Island has since become. By 1985 the Yami population numbered only 3,545, localised to six village reservations administrated from the mainland. By the time the traditional Yami folksongs on which I based A Book of Lost Orchids were recorded (1992-3), those who remembered them well enough to sing numbered a few dozen in their 60s and 70s.

I was struck by the emotional diversity of Yami folksong. As well as the work and agricultural themes one would expect, there were songs revealing touching perceptions on nature and life. Expecting My Husband to Return (Anohud no Milalawan) was one such example. A fishwife grieving after her lost husband by kindly chiding him day after day for being late for dinner has a sense of gentle humanity and even gentler humour which shows a unique attitude to bereavement. The Hair Dance (Valachingi ya Ganam) is performed with an accompanying song, by two rows of women on the beach. They shake their heads gently in the breeze to make their hair flow harmoniously with the motion of the waves. Simply as a piece of Music Theatre I can imagine few things more alluring or beautiful.

The song I have used in A Book of Lost Orchids is of loneliness – Yanowunashia. It tells of the miserable life of a lonely Yami woman. Her husband went fishing at Dziteiwan fishing field and died accidentally. No matter how hard she cried, her husband would never come back. The sentiments of the song seemed to me to resonate beyond its immediate subject and to touch upon a broader sense of loss. I have tried in A Book of Lost Orchids to recapture a little of the colour and exotica which must once have been so abundant on Lanyu Island.

Yanowunashia is strophic, though the melody is embellished and varied each time it recurs. I transcribed the melody from a recording made in 1993 and used it as the basis of a rondo-style piece, with each episode individualised by percussion instruments falling into various timbral categories. The refrains of the folksong provide the “rondo” theme, which in themselves for a set of variations.