We went into an entirely different world when we were making this record,” says Damon Albarn by way of an introduction, and then out it all comes: another collaboration with his long-standing creative partner Jamie Hewlett, time spent immersing themselves in a culture that will soon be leading the world, a Chinese story-cum-legend originally written in the 16th century, and the already-successful opera that has been performed in the UK, France and the USA. And now this: a record altogether truer to Albarn and Hewlett’s original visions, brought into being in London and Beijing, and brimming with invention and imagination.
From the start, then. The stage production of Monkey: Journey to the West was jointly created by Damon, Jamie and the Chinese actor-director Chen Shi-Zheng. To even begin to strip down its elements to a crude plotline is something of a nonsense, but it’s based around the story of a passage to India involving the Monkey King Sun Wu Kong: a vain, headstrong hero whose testing experiences en route – in the company of the Buddhist monk Tripitaka - offer him a chance of being “triumphant in strife”, and thus achieving redemption. It’s a tale of spiritual change and growth, which inevitably casts light on the human condition and the temptations and shortcomings that get in the way of us achieving our potential, though it also delivers much more straightforward pleasures. Fleshing out its universal appeal, Damon characterises it as “King Arthur-meets-Beowulf”.
Thanks to the BBC’s screening of the Japanese TV version of the Monkey story in the late 1970s, Damon and Jamie were familiar with its broad outlines – but to increase their understanding of the culture that produced it, they made five lengthy visits to China, firstly with Chen Shi-Zheng in 2005. They talk about their time there with understandable enthusiasm: visiting the province of Sichuan (scene of the recent horrific earthquake), spending time with Buddhist Monks and rural tribespeople, recording in Beijing – and, in just about everything they did, being introduced to a “whole new dynamic of social behaviour”.
For both of them, all this made for jaw-droppingly inspiring experiences. “Originally,” says Jamie, “my starting point was the Monkey TV show. But during the three years when we were visiting China, so many of our reference points came from what we saw when we were travelling – just so much stuff. We spent a lot of money on lots of wonderful books, and we went to so many places and took thousands of photographs. Spending time with local people, climbing mountains – we just did so many things. We went to a monastery on top of this mountain called Monkey Mountain – and when we got the top we were above the clouds. It was like being in heaven.” (On the way back down, Damon became separated from the main party, and found himself faced with no option but to complete a 42 kilometre solo hike).
For Damon, such experiences provided the backdrop for his work on Journey to the West’s music. It’s usually the way of Western musicians to devour outside influences, and then irreverently use them in any way they see fit – but here, there’s an altogether more respectful sensibility at work. At its heart is his strict(ish) use of the pentatonic (i.e five-note) scale that is one of Chinese music’s oldest rudiments, used as the basis for just about all the music he composed; as a symbolic bonus, its five notes (C, D, E, G and A) chime with the five-pointed star that is China’s most iconic emblem. “Working like that is a real discipline,” he says. “That’s why I did it. It was really exciting to have those boundaries. If you’re sticking to the pentatonic scale, you can’t just start adding things. It was good to be really hardline about the record I was making.
“I’m not entirely sure how a lot of really traditional Chinese music does what it does,” he goes on, “but I’ve worked out a few of the really old rhythms, and I’ve learned them, and stuck with them. I went to see a Chinese composer who lived about 100 miles from Beijing, and asked him if there were rules, because I was really interested in learning the elements of Chinese folk-song. He showed me these anthologies of folk songs – 20 thick books. He said, ‘Well, this is what you’ve got to get your head through if you want to learn about that. But don’t worry about it. It’s really quite simple.’”
Prior to the opening of the opera (whose Mandarin lyrics were adapted from a sixteenth century text, by director Chen Shi-Zheng), Damon recorded many of the elements of this record in China. The basis of the music for Heavenly Peach Banquet was put to tape in at Beijing’s Musical Conservatory – in “a proper ‘60s, Maoist studio”, replete with “huge great propaganda speakers”. At a former Communist Party HQ, he recorded the 60-piece choir who define the strident drama of March of The Iron Army. Elsewhere, in such pieces as The Living Sea, Monk’s Song and Pigsy in Space, by allowing Chinese singers a real interpretive freedom, Damon managed to fuse his own compositions with authentic Chinese musical sensibilities. “They’re singing one of my tunes, but as they would normally do,” he says. “So you’re listening to absolutely state-of-the-art Chinese traditional music.”
When he talks about the fine details of combining his music with such seemingly exotic elements, one thought is voiced time and again: that despite Chinese music perhaps seeming very distant from the way things are done in the West, the spread and power of Chinese culture has long been such that outsiders are often a little more au fait with it than they would suspect. “It’s really not as alien as you might think,” says Damon. “The world we live in is very clearly driven by China, in many, many ways.”
Monkey: Journey to the West began its public life at the Manchester International Festival in June last year. In the Autumn of 2007, it moved to Paris’s Theatre Du Chatelet. It received its US premiere at the Spoleto festival in Charleston, South Carolina, and it’s about to begin a run at London’s Royal Opera House. A sensory feast whose musical richness is reflected in its spectacular choreography, costumes and visuals (based on Jamie’s ideas and designs), it received admirably positive notices. That said, though its reviews overflowed with enthusiasm (“I can’t recommend it highly enough,” said the man from the Daily Telegraph; “A must-see show in every sense,” reckoned The Stage), Damon and Jamie were eventually keen to render the story in ways that for all its magic, the stage production ruled out.
“The way the music was played couldn’t be that electronic, because it’s all played by a pit band,” says Damon. “And if you’ve got people doing acrobatics, if they mess up, you can’t say ‘Can we press the rewind button and start again?’ In that sense, the music has to be much more organic. But that wasn’t how I originally envisaged it. I did a lot of demos while I was writing it, and this record is based on them. I’d no idea what you do to create a stage production. I know how to make records, so that’s how I started it. The energy of this record – like the simple SP-12 drum machine, and the keyboards…. that all comes from my time in the studio.”
For Jamie, giving Journey to the West a life beyond the theatre gave rise to a similar feeling of liberation. “All the things I did for the opera were concept drawings for designers to make into costumes and sets. Apart from the poster, I didn’t get to draw any real pictures. Everything visual was started by us in my studio – down to the stuff on the Peach Banquet table and Pigsy’s wagon, which was a ridiculous amount of work, but I never got to do any pictures. So when we started doing the record, we got to do our take on this wonderful story.”
The result is a song cycle and accompanying visuals that evoke not just the Monkey story, but much more besides. Sometimes, it all serves to shock and unsettle; on other occasions, it soothes. The music uses both orthodox Chinese arrangements, and the aforementioned electronic elements. There are moments that tilt towards traditional forms, and others that push things into altogether more iconoclastic territory – as when the penultimate track, Monkey Bee, begins with metronomically-precise harmonies, and eventually resolves itself as a frenetic musical hybrid that nods to the European style known as motorik. Jamie’s visuals are in tune with all this, respectfully drawing on traditional Chinese elements, but also of a piece with the more modern elements of his work.
As a result, what burns through everything is a beguiling sense of both centuries of Chinese history, and a culture now fusing with influences from the wider world as never before. As Jamie puts it, “this project feels like we are presenting music, images and films from a never-before-seen 1970s Chinese, Kung Fu, spaghetti western version of Journey to the West.”
And so to a particularly interesting aspect of all this. Aside from the matter of its musical and visual magic, this record comes at a fascinating historical moment: when China’s ascent to superpower status is being frantically talked about, and more enlightened voices in the West are urging us to acquaint ourselves with its culture - a theme that Damon and Jamie are only too happy to talk about. “I can’t make a record unless I’ve got some sort of politics in my head about it,” says Damon. “With this record, it was a mater of being in the West, and rediscovering one of the most ancient, influential and enduring civilisations on the planet. Put it this way: China is not going away. It’s not this year’s trendy subject. And in that context, it’s time we realised that our imperial days have morphed into something very different, and we can’t afford to be brought up within our very small society looking inwards, because all that amounts to a lie.
“This is what I love about China,” says Jamie. “We can’t do anything about what they want to do. They can do what they like, when they like: there are one and a half billion of them.” Damon continues: “They are opening up, bit by bit, but they won’t be dictated to by any other system telling them what to do. It’s, ‘Well, we’ve been around a lot longer than you have, mate.’”
Relative to wider developments, then, Journey to the West shines light on all kinds of very modern themes. In the context of contemporary music, it also throws something else into sharp relief: that so few musicians and artists push themselves into such singular territory.
To quote one Chinese leader, "the present problem is that many people consider it impossible to accomplish things which could be accomplished if they exerted themselves." As students of 20th Century history may know, Chairman Mao said that.