Dragon Skies Soundtrack & Exhibit Music


Notes by the composer:  Joyce Whitelaw

For infomation about the exhibit: Chabot Dragon Skies

    About the soundtrack music:

      Creating Chinese sounding music for "Dragon Skies" was not as difficult as one might think for a composer from Scotland.  The pentatonic (5 note) scale is common to China and Scotland. Robert Burn's "Auld Lang Syne" is a perfect example of this scale.  In fact, the Chinese have an instrument, the suona, similar to the chanter of the Scottish bagpipes.  

       Traditional Chinese music is tonal and melodic, but not harmonic and can be a bit jarring to the unaccustomed Western ear.  I used a combination of traditional Chinese instruments with the Western orchestra, something not uncommon in modern Chinese music. The sparse unison (non-harmonic) sounds of the yangquin (~ dulcimer) and pipa (~ Chinese lute) are set against the contemporary string orchestra that adds more harmonic density to the music.  I also mixed various special effects for the "astronomical" feel, and these appear in the comet and supernova scenes - more on those later.  

      "Dragon Skies" consists of three main characters: the boy Emperor, his astronomer teacher, and the Azure Dragon.  In total, sixteen scenes tell the history of Chinese astronomy.  I composed the soundtrack music to be attractive to a youthful American audience; one probably more interested in Astronomy than the history of Chinese music, so I blended instruments and musical styles from both cultures.  At times, instruments play music from the opposite culture.   Composing music for astronomy - space- presents a problem:  there are no sounds in the vacuum of space.  However, our Western culture has developed its own traditions about how space sounds, especially through the Sci-Fi movies.  The "Dragon Skies" music takes my culture blending  approach a litter further, at various times combining traditional Chinese, Western, and "Space" music, or as I like to say, it is East meets West in Space.

      I begin the title theme with a xiao (bamboo flute) and bianzhongs (Chinese bells) while stars are connected as a constellation in form the shape of a dragon that comes to life.  A cello (~ ge-hu) plays the main melody accompanied by a slow drum beat with the gu-zheng (~ Chinese harp) playing a counter melody ending with a zither glissando going into the next verse.  Later on, I add the erhu (~ Chinese violin) and yanquin (~ dulcimer) accompanied by a Western string orchestra.

    About the exhibit music:

      The Dragon Skies exhibit is an impressive array of ancient Chinese astronomical artifacts including the Equatorial Armillary Sphere, Celestial Globe, and Su Song's Water Clock - all very big instruments.  The artifacts are displayed in a large space where people wander around viewing and reading about the items.  The task was to create music evocative of the astronomical pieces and their historical era, yet compatible with contemplative viewing.  Various gongs along with the bianzhong (3,000 year old tuned bronze bells) suggest the Water Clock.  The pipa (pear-shaped lute and one of the leading instruments in the Chinese orchestra) and ruan (round-shaped lute that sounds like a cello) form the plucked strings, and erhu (~ violin) and ge-hu (~ cello) form the bowed strings play sparsely against each other to evoke an atmosphere of ancient China.