Asian Performing Arts on Stage and on Screen Symposium Embraces Cross-Cultural Communication

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On May 13-15, the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music will host a symposium exploring the performing arts of India, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, China, Japan, and Korea. In addition to live music, theater, and puppetry, scholarly panels will engage subjects ranging from the Hong Kong indie music scene to gender and sexuality in Indian and Vietnamese music.

The symposium has attracted widespread attention. The consul-general of Thailand and the consul-general of Indonesia will both be in attendance. Saturday’s events will include a reception featuring Thai food (courtesy of the Royal Thai Consulate) and Sunday’s events include a lunch serving Indonesian food (courtesy of the UCLA Center for Southeast Studies).

All events are free and open to the public. Those who wish to attend in person should review the symposium schedule. Virtual attendees are encouraged to register in advance for Zoom links to see panel sessions on Friday, May 13, Saturday, May 14, and Sunday, May 15. Concerts in Schoenberg Hall and Lani Hall will be livestreamed during the symposium.

The symposium kicks off on Friday, May 13 at 1:00 p.m. in Lani Hall with a performance by the Korean Music Ensemble followed by paper presentations, panel discussion, and another performance of Chinese folk song. The keynote address for the conference, which will be broadcast via zoom, will be delivered by Jarernchai Chonpairot, a Thai ethnomusicologist who has spent fifty years documenting varieties of Thai performing arts. Professor Chonpairot’s talk, “The Uniqueness of Isan Performing Arts and the Emergence of the Pong Lang Ensemble” will explore the distinctive tonal system, melodic inventiveness, and compositional structure of the poonglaang ensemble. The first day will conclude with two live performances from the UCLA Music of China and Music of India Ensembles in Schoenberg Hall.

In the symposium’s keynote address, Jarernchai Chonpairot, Ph.D. investigates the unique elements of Isan performing arts, and discusses the emergence of the poonglaang ensemble in particular, based on his ethnographic research in the region.

The symposium’s second day will feature scholarly panels and artistic performances. Particularly exciting will be a performance of the Japanese Gagaku ensemble of the University of California at Santa Barbara, directed by Professor Fabio Rambelli, chair of religious studies and East Asian cultures. The performance will be a sort of homecoming, as the instruments that UCSB students will play belong to UCLA. They were loaned several years ago so that UCSB could start its own Gagaku ensemble.

The Royal Thai Consulate-General will sponsor a reception at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 14 featuring traditional Thai cuisine. Consul-General Tor Saralamba will be in attendance for the reception and the concert that will follow at 7:00 p.m., when UCLA’s Poonglaang ensemble will perform under the direction of Supeena Adler. The performance will feature UCLA’s extensive collection of Thai musical instruments and special repertoire based on her research of Thai folk music. Adler, who has taught the Music of Thailand Ensemble course at UCLA since 2015, has repaired, restored, and expanded the school’s collection of Thai instruments, now one of the largest in the United States.

“We will have special guests with the ensemble,” said Adler. “Young musicians from northeast Thailand are currently teaching Thai music and culture at Thai temples in San Francisco and San Diego.” Along with dancers from southern California, these Thai musicians will be joining the Poonglaang ensemble for its May 14 performance.

The symposium concludes on Sunday, May 15. Panel sessions will focus on theater and film from across Asia. The day will also feature a Balinese puppet performance, accompanied by live music. Indonesian consul-general Saud Purwanto Krisnawan will attend, and the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies will sponsor a lunch featuring Indonesian food. Concluding the program will be a lecture, demonstration, and live performance of kulintang music and dance from the Philippines performed by the Pakaraguian Kulintang Ensemble of Southern California (PKE).

The symposium’s embrace of cross-cultural communication could not be more timely. 

“With everything happening in the last several years,” said Supeena Adler, the symposium’s organizer, “it was the right time to talk about pan-Asian culture.” Turmoil stemming from the pandemic, politics, and the alarming increase in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans imparted a sense of urgency.

“Learning and exploring musical traditions are ways of creating cross-cultural empathy and understanding,” said Adler. She took care to emphasize the generous support of all the symposium’s sponsors, including the UCLA Chancellor’s Arts Initiative, and the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music’s Center for Musical Humanities, World Music Center, and ethnomusicology department. “We are fortunate to have so many amazing scholars and musicians and artists at this symposium.”