A music theatre piece for erhu, zheng, marimba and digital soundtracks

The Ghostly Moon is a music theatre work inspired by the tradition of Chinese ghost stories, many of which are centred on a female ghost who wishes to return to life.  In this case, the story combines elements and poetry from many different sources from the 16th to the 18th centuries, and portrays the ghost as a wronged woman who returns for vengeance. However, the young scholar she visits is the brother of the man who betrayed her, and once she hears his voice she realizes this is her true lover. To return to life she must join with him as his wife, which is the outcome of many of the traditional Chinese tales. The disembodied theatrical effects from traditional Chinese drama suggested a contemporary treatment with electroacoustic techniques.

The work was commissioned by the Orchid Ensemble with the support of the BC Arts Council, and is dedicated to them. The voices heard on tape telling the story are those of Kathy Borneman and Chris Grigor. The composer is indebted to Prof. Judith Zeitlin of the University of Chicago whose book, The Phantom Heroine, provided much inspiration and several of the poetic translations.

Reference: Judith T. Zeitlin, The Phantom Heroine: Ghosts and Gender in Seventeenth Century Chinese Literature. University of Hawaii Press, 2007.

CD publication of the work, Life Death Tears Dream, by the Orchid Ensemble is available, OE 2012.

A standalone video version of the work can be seen here.


All of the text is heard on tape, the Narrators’ voices being unaltered, and the voices of the two characters processed in a manner that makes them seem unearthly.

Female Narrator:

Love is of origins unknown, yet it runs deep. The living can die for it, and through it the dead can come back to life. That which the living cannot die for or which cannot resurrect the dead is not love at its most supreme.

Nor do we know where desire originates or where it ends, where it results in separation and where union, for desire is drawn to the margin between presence and absence, distance and proximity, existence and nonexistence…. Since we know not how or why desire comes into being, it becomes inexhaustible, and we ought not to be amazed at the power of desire to make the dead live and the living die.

    Tang Xianzu & Pan Zhiheng, 16th c.

Male Narrator:

In the medieval Tang dynasty there lived two brothers who loved a beautiful girl named Autumn Moon. The elder brother, Wang Wen-Chu, was full of ambition and determined to succeed, and so his parents betrothed him to Autumn Moon. The younger brother Wang Ying, was a soft-spoken scholar and poet who after the betrothal never spoke again of his love for Autumn Moon, but pined for her every night, hoping to meet her in his dreams.

The elder brother, Wang Wen-Chu, went to the capital to take the imperial examinations, but once there he married the daughter of an influential government official, and never returned to his home. Autumn Moon waited anxiously, counting every day until the intended day of the marriage, but Wang Wen-Chu never returned and Autumn Moon fell ill and died the night before her intended wedding day.

It is said that the ghost of Autumn Moon can be seen at night roaming near her grave, seeking vengeance on the man who wronged her, her voice wailing in the wind….

As the sound of the wind rises, the stage lights slowly fade up to partially reveal the female ghost figure centre stage, her back to the audience, long sleeves dangling down, blowing towards the audience. Her head remains in the shadow. The ghost is playing the erhu, but the instrument cannot be seen by the audience.

Autumn Moon:

Every day I watch and weep looking homeward from my ghostly tower,
Impatiently I await my enemy.
Slowly as in a swoon I walk,
Swiftly as the wind I come,
Though locked in mists and buried in a cloud,
My ghostly spirit hastens me on.

What agony my delicate weak body suffers in its grave!
Three years already have long gone by
And still my sorrows flow onward like the long Huai river.

    Kuan Han-ch’ing, The Injustice Done to Tou Ngo, Act 4

Time is up,
His oath forsaken,
My body fouled.
Only drop after drop of foolish love undestroyed.
I fly toward the Yellow Springs,
Holding fast to my burden.

Soundlessly, my soul rides the wind as though wandering in a dream.
The road is dark and silent; I cannot tell day from night …

I look back in vain.
This destiny in a dream
Has vanished, like flower petals falling
    Or rivers flowing on.
This drop of past love alone sustains me,
Like a spring silkworm, which even after death,
Keeps spinning a silken thread.

    Hong Sheng, Palace of Lasting Life

Male Narrator:

One night the ghost of Autumn Moon spies a light coming from the house where her lover should be and hears strange music. In the dark she doesn’t see that this is the study of Wang Ying who is playing music to console himself.

Wang Ying is played by a percussionist, seated in front of and to the side of the ghost which he cannot see. He is playing small metal instruments.

Autumn Moon:

Blossoms faded, petals fallen,
Lonely spirit roaming free,
Passion’s ember glowing still
Till earth grow old and Heaven fail.
Now in this eerie shimmering
Between the twilight and the moonglow
Softly I pass the trellised roses
To where a flickering lantern
Its candle dripping waxen tears
Is sole companion to my former lover.
Here I shall have my revenge!

At this point, the lights reveal that the ghost wears a frightening mask on the back of her head.

Wang Ying:

Alone in the cold lamplight
Waxen tears of the candle match my own
Lying here on ivory couch:
Real or unreal, the woman in my dreams?
Image without form
Heart and soul thrust apart
What length of watches through how many nights?
Chill of emerald coverlet,
Sadness of lonely bed.
A sudden rustling outside my window:
Silk-clad feet, surely, softly treading the moss?
No, only a chilly gust
Lightly stirs my papers.

        Meng Chengshun, Mistress & Maid, scene 39

The ghost takes a few steps towards Wang Ying, menacingly, as he turns to see her.

Wang Ying:

Leaves rustle on the trees,
The ground shakes by the wall,
Surely it must be a ghost coming!
A dark wind pierces chill through the window,
My body shivers with the cold.
I’m afraid, I’m afraid!
Are you a fox-spirit?

Male Narrator:

But on hearing his voice, Autumn Moon realizes that this is not the older brother, and her heart melts. Her desire for revenge is overcome by his love and she wishes to return to life.

Wang Ying:

A chilly wind
Threatens the flickering lamp,
Shadows loom as clouds steal light of moon.
I stare at her flowerlike face:
Ghost or not, utterly enchanting.
Surely this is the Autumn Moon I’ve always known?
Eyeing her closely,
True or false revolving in my mind:
Has a sprite by chance descended from the Jade Heaven
To lure my soul to flights of wild desire?
But what if this really is a demon?
I’d take her in my arms, but terror fills me!

Wang Ying falls on his back, his arms wide apart.

Autumn Moon:

Don’t be afraid.
You and I will be man and wife,
Showing our love in a thousand ways.
You and I, life companions,
Stable as the hills
Till rivers cease to flow,
In death itself
Together still, two graves, a single bier.

        Meng Chengshun, Mistress & Maid, scene 41

The ghost and Wang Ying move towards an embrace as the lights fade.
During the rest of the piece, a video shows the couple, hand in hand, walking off into the distance.

Autumn Moon:

I went to him by the moon’s brightness, mounting the steps,
Listening to a music out of this world,
Just like the call of a crane beyond the clouds,
Wild geese chanting at the edge of the sky,
The song of a bird on the branch of a tree.
He was longing to find a bride,
And I fearing to be left a [spirit].
Who could say if it were wise or foolish
Whether we chose to be lovers or not:
At once our thoughts and hearts were one,
Before we knew we were like fish in a stream.

Together hand in hand we mount to heaven again;
Idly we shall watch the Peaches of Immortality redden on the trees,
For we have cast off the World of Dust and its Boundless Bitter Sea.

  Li Hao-ku, Chang Boils the Sea, Act 4

Female Narrator:

Passion can prevent the dead from perishing and make the living forget life itself. Far and near, floating and rippling, it vanishes and no one knows where it goes.

Technical note

The work was realized using the composer's PODX system which incorporates the DMX-1000 Digital Signal Processor controlled by a PDP Micro-11 computer with software for real-time granular synthesis and signal processing (such as digital resonators) developed by the composer in the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University. In addition, convolution using Tom Erbe's SoundHack software was extensively used for sound processing.