The Five Elements as vital elements of life
The end of January brings with it cold air, more snow and ice, and the Utah Symphony’s performance of Wu Xing (the Five Elements) by Chinese composer Qigang Chen. Wu xing is a Chinese philosophy that five elements (or five phases, or five movements, or five agents) control and explain the phenomena occurring in the world. The five elements are fire, wood, metal, water and earth. A combination of these can help in medicine and cure ailments, create serenity in one’s home through the art of Feng shui, and create peace and balance in someone practicing martial arts. Even the way flavors combine in cooking is considered part of wu xing.
Each element is related to a color: fire is red, wood is turquoise, metal is white, water is black, and earth is yellow. In addition, each element is related to a state in nature: fire is summer, wood is spring, metal is fall and water is winter. Earth is considered to be the moments between seasons.
These elements cooperate together: wood creates fire, fire creates earth, earth creates metal, metal creates water, and water creates wood.
And these elements fight together: wood destroys earth, metal destroys wood, fire destroys metal, water destroys fire, and earth destroys water.
The elements even have connections in music. On the solfege scale (do re mi fa la ti do), fire is sol, wood is mi, water is la, metal is re and earth is do.
This connection is the inspiration to Qigang Chen’s composition Wu Xing. Chen was born in Shanghai in 1951. He has been conducting and composing since the 1970s. In 1998, Radio France commissioned a work, and Chen began working on Wu Xing. The process of putting the five elements into music is best explained by the composer himself. Of the commission, Chen said, “The challenge pleased me and I took it up as a style exercise, supported by the pressure of the duration and making it a rule for new pressures to me. Such was the original idea which led me to write five pieces of two minutes each. Before to go further in my process, I undertook to characterize each piece by one different symbol. From there was born the idea of representing the 5 elements (Wu Xing). … To characterize musically a symbol in an extremely short time and to present a tangible material in an abstract language were my lines of strength. But even more, to establish relationships between the materials, so that each element generated the next one as if the last was the consequence of the first.”
The key to this composition, like the key to the five elements, is how they all work together, how they flow from one 2-minute piece to the next. Come and join the Utah Symphony for this premier performance of Wu Xing on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 at 8:00pm at Abravanel Hall. Experience and strengthen the ways that music is a vital element in your life.
Five Elements is part of this years Silk & Spices Festival. Read more about the festival!