Bringing a Cat's Tale to Life

Scarlet Cheng is an occasional contributor to Calendar

"Music has always fascinated me," says novelist Amy Tan, whose children's book "The Chinese Siamese Cat" is being transformed into part of a multimedia concert at the Hollywood Bowl tonight. "For a long time I had this fantasy--living somewhere where there was this big, black Steinway, and someone was playing this very beautiful music, and you were transported into another world."

In fact Tan, author of "The Joy Luck Club," was raised on 13 years of piano lessons and once considered a different career. "I've always harbored a secret desire to be a musician," she says, speaking by telephone from San Francisco, "but my fingers are too clumsy--the computer is more forgiving than the piano."

So two years ago, when conductor and music producer George Daugherty approached Tan with a proposal to create a staged version of "The Chinese Siamese Cat"--complete with symphonic score--she took to the idea like a cat to catnip.

The production, a world premiere, will feature Tan reading the text from her book, accompanied by projections of its illustrations by Gretchen Schields on an overhead screen, and Daugherty conducting the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in an original composition by Nathan Wang.

"The evening has been designed to be a kind of musical storybook that takes kids [and their parents] on a trip around the world," Daugherty says, "from England, to China, then to Russia and back."

"It's the kind of cross-cultural project I really thrive on," he says. "It's a whole new hybrid--combining the literary, the artistic, the musical elements. And the music itself is broken down into Western and Eastern music."

"Cat" will be sandwiched between two other presentations--readings by Peter Dennis from A.A. Milne set to the music of Edward Elgar and Sergei Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf," with animation by Chuck Jones.

It is one of three projects Daugherty has designed for the Hollywood Bowl to attract children and families to the symphony orchestra; the other two are "Bugs Bunny on Broadway IV" (Aug. 8) and "From the Bowl to the Moon--and Beyond" (Sept. 3-4) featuring music such as Holst's "The Planets."

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It was just this spring that Daugherty contacted Wang, 42, a Los Angeles film and television composer, to write the music for "The Chinese Siamese Cat." Wang had been recommended based on his scores for the TV show "China Beach." Daugherty liked the samples he heard and also thought it appropriate to try to involve a Chinese composer in the project. To begin, Wang read Tan's book over and over again, and broke it into scenes that would become movements. He also visualized Schields' illustrations "in animated motion."

Wang has been mixing image and music since he was a child. At age 5, he had his mother borrow 8-millimeter films from the library--the silent classics of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were his favorites. As they were projected, he would sit at the piano and try his hand at composing music for the scenes flickering before him.

At 9, he was admitted to a special program for gifted children at USC, where he studied performance, theory and composition. As a young adult, he won a Fulbright Fellowship to Oxford in 1979. Two years later, he returned to the U.S. and began music for theater. Eventually, he broke into television and film. Since then Wang has also done music arrangements for Hong Kong pop mega-stars Faye Wong and Jacky Cheung, as well as the Asian versions for three Jackie Chan films.

For "The Chinese Siamese Cat" project, one of Wang's reference points was "Peter and the Wolf," which he listened to often when he was growing up. "Prokofiev's one of my favorite composers," he says.

He knows it so well that the moment he sits down at the glistening grand piano in his South Pasadena living room, he knocks out the tripping-through-the-green-woods melody for Peter in "Peter and the Wolf," then the dark, forbidding one for the Wolf.

"Prokofiev assigned certain instruments to certain characters--the duck was an oboe, the bird was a flute," he says, "but because Prokofiev did that, I tried to stay away from that, knowing that 'Peter and the Wolf' would be in the second half of the [Bowl] program."

Instead, Wang has created distinct musical themes for the characters in "Cat": Sagwa, the title character; her parents; an arrogant magistrate; and his slavish assistant.

The themes will be played by different instruments and in different moods as the story shifts. Sagwa's theme is light and bouncy, and just a little naughty; the magistrate's is introduced by a bombastic, trumpeting blast, then softens when he mellows at the end of the story. Wang has also interwoven Chinese-sounding melodies throughout the symphonic score: "[These passages] sound Asian because they're pentatonic [based on a five-note scale] rather than the 12-note scale of Western music," he explains.

Interestingly, while Wang and Daugherty have talked over the score--they agreed early on that Chinese instruments would be a part of it--Wang and Tan have never met and have never spoken. Yet Tan has inspired Wang not only through her words on paper but also through her voice.

After a month of thinking about the score, Wang received a tape of her reading the story. "She's a great reader, so all of a sudden her words took on a lot more animated meaning," he says enthusiastically. "It came to life. She gave me a lot more color to work from, and I started thinking orchestrally--before I was just thinking thematically. Once I heard her, it became a more complete story for me."

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The story of "The Chinese Siamese Cat" relates how long, long ago a naughty little cat named Sagwa ("silly" in Chinese) changed the fate of a whole village.

The unhappy town was dominated by the bloated ego of the magistrate, who passed one oppressive edict after another, just to show who was in charge. Two white cats, Sagwa's parents, had the grim task of writing out the magistrate's ridiculous laws with their tails. One day Sagwa fell into the pot of ink by accident, then wiped her nose on the Scroll of Rules, inadvertently crossing out the "not" in the line forbidding people to sing. She realized that in doing so, the edict would command people to sing. As a finishing touch, she used her inky paws to blot out the names of people cited for punishment.

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When the new rule is read aloud by the magistrate's assistant, it sends a wave of relief and happiness through the populace, and the story provides one explanation for the dark markings Siamese cats have on their paws and muzzles.

"I had a dream one night and this was the story," Tan recounts. "Several years ago, I had a cat, 17 years old at the time, and her name was Sagwa. She was my baby and she was dying--everything was wrong with her, you name it." Tan wrote down the dream in one sitting and read it to the real-life Sagwa. "And she liked the story well enough," Tan says. "She decided to live for another four years."

Two weeks ago, Tan heard a working recording of the score for her book. Wang had created it on his synthesizer, minus the three Chinese musicians he will be using onstage. "I already find it wonderful, and also a bit overwhelming," she says. "Nathan has created music that is so visual. [It] is humorous, dramatic, moving and full of wonderful surprises--violins crying like cats, pizzicato cat paws prancing around the magistrate's house, the full orchestra as people arrive."

Music remains a key part of her daily life--she writes while listening to it. "I am always on the search for music that will suit the mood of whatever I am writing," she says. "So to hear music perfectly scored to a story of mine--that's the ultimate dream come true for this failed-musician-turned-writer. Now if only Nathan could write music to help me write my next book."*

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"A MUSICAL STORYBOOK" with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave. Date: Tonight, 7:30. Prices: $3-$85. Phone: (323) 850-2000.

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