Video Premiere: Shi-An Costello Performs “Opening (like you’re high on opium)” from The Orient

“Opening (like you’re high on opium)” begins with washes of gently pulsating chords that reverberate as they descend and dovetail, creating an almost trance-like atmosphere. The first movement from The Orient by pianist-composer Shi-An Costello is a reference to the effects of the 19th century Opium Wars on China, and the video, which we’re thrilled to premiere today, features Shi-An as the performer. The opening haze transforms into fantasia-like motives that fly through a frenzy of angular contours. When the meditative calm returns, an increasing sense of urgency builds on earlier melodic motifs before being subsumed by deep, rattling tremolos.

The Orient is a large scale solo piano composition about Asian American racial identity that was premiered earlier this year at Constellation in partnership with Asian Americans Advancing Justice | Chicago. Each of the five movements addresses a different facet of the political history of East Asians in the United States, from the pressure to assimilate for the sake of survival, to the dangerous labor of constructing the first transcontinental railroad.

Shi-An Costello -- Photo by Phil Parcellano

Shi-An Costello — Photo by Phil Parcellano

The entire work is built on the problematic “Asian riff” that has been used in video games, movies, and commercial music since the 1800s to mockingly refer to martial arts and other elements of Asian culture. Subtitled “a reacquisition of a fantasy,” The Orient reclaims this symbol of racism and xenophobia, and ultimately offers a message of hope and resilience for future generations of oppressed peoples.

Here’s what Shi-An had to say about the first movement of The Orient:

The Orient is a five-movement work based on the pitch content of the “Asian riff,” and says pretty much everything I want to say about my own racial identity as an Asian American. The first movement, “Opening (like you’re high on opium),” is a reference to the British smuggling of opium into China, which led to two Opium Wars in the 19th century and left an indelible mark on China and Chinese Americans for generations to come. This first movement is carved out through trippy episodes, creating the sense that the music is both moving quickly and not moving at all, like racialized identity in the United States.

This recording is partially supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council Agency

About Shi-An Costello

Shi-An Costello is a classical concert pianist and composer of film, video and concert music. He has recorded four albums: Rounded BinaryPosthumous, water, and [alloy]. His film credits include Flight of the Butterflies, Softly – A GIANT STEP, and Are You Happy With The Answer? He has received positive press coverage in WBEZ Chicago, The Reader, and I Care If You Listen, among others. He currently lives in Chicago, IL, and holds a private music studio for both in-person and online students in piano, composition, and music theory.


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