Madame Ching, Lady Pirate – Program notes

At the prime of her career, Madame Ching (鄭一嫂 / 石香姑) (1785-1844) roamed the Chinese seas and rivers with 2,000 ships in her fleet manned with over 80,000 pirates under her command. She required her pirates to adhere to a strict code of humane conduct (also toward women) as they plundered ship after ship, village after village, slipping by the Chinese admirals time and again. Ching Shih is considered by some to be the most successful pirate in history.

I came across this story last summer in an Alaskan water called Cross Sound where one of the boats fishing the rich salmon run was called the Madame Ching. The skipper and her deckhand were both women and the story was that, after her ship was so named, the captain had been immensely successful year after year in bringing in bigger and bigger catches -- more than any other boat. My fantasy was inspired.

When Sagye approached me for a composition I thought of this story and made it the focus of my work. In a Western romantic view of a pirate's life -- as in the current popular film "Pirates of the Carribean" --  we stress the freedom of the life outside of law and society. In a transcendent way, to me, the sound and build of the kayagûm has a certain wildness. Pitches are always on the move as the great Korean composer Lee Geon-yong once pointed out to me. Playing the kayagûm to me seems like dealing with a living organism, trying to tame it and make it work for the beauty of the music, much like sailing, where you use the winds, streams, and tides that are to your advantage and avoid those that are against you.

My composition reflects emotions and experiences from this dense net of references. There is the momentum of striking fate. At other times the music seems to careen heroically, then it mourns, takes sudden turns, or goes to fringes of the kayagûm sound.

The piece requires a great mastering of the kayagûm. Each of the four kayagûm -- two of the traditional 12-stringed instruments and two of the more modern 25-stringed ones -- is tuned in a traditional way, but in my piece each is tuned to a different key.

(Stefan Hakenberg, 2006)