Arts and Entertainment
Like most facets of Imperial culture, the artistic endeavours are divided between the traditional forms that follow rigid rules (mostly found in the Imperial Heartland) and the newer forms that are more free-form. Discussed here are music and theatre.
The Four Voices of Concordant Heavenly Harmony
Older, traditional music, used primarily for religious and magical rituals, is based upon the geomantic system and controlled by rules set down by the College of Harmonious Art. An orchestra consists of four groups of instruments, each with a symbolic purpose.
North: Geomantically represented by Jade Gibbon. Also referred to as "Mountains" or "Greater Earth". Symbolically linked to earth, fertility, farmers etc.. The instrument used is the Bharmanshan, or stone chime - a collection of smooth, roughly axe-head shaped stones suspended from a common frame. They give a ringing note when struck with metal or wooden strikers. Song-Stone is a magical type of stone that is best for this purpose (said to resonate with the ten syllables of Syllabic Magic).
East: Represented by Glass Frog, loyal guardian of the Sun. Also known as "Rivers" or "Lesser Waters". Symbolically linked to soldiers, loyalty, guardianship etc. The musical instrument of the East is the Coronshan, a bag-pipe inspired by the inflating throat pouch of a frog (which can also be used as a martial instrument).
South: Bronze Porpoise. Also "Seas" or "Greater Waters". Water chimes (Llapsharal)are the instrument of the South. Ceramic (or sometimes bronze) bowls of different sizes are filled to different depths with water and struck to produce a soft ringing note. It is possible to get distinctive sounds by altering the volume of water in a bowl whilst striking it.
West: Ruby Horse. "Hills" or "Lesser Earth". Ruby Horse is said to gallop through the sky and create wildfire with her burning mane and tail. The instrument of the West is the Vormonshan, a harp with the strings colored red and orange to symbolize the flaming mane of the horse.
Each instrument can be played by itself if specific geomantic effects are required. For example, when the Emperor visits the Sea Temple in the City of Ten Thousand Ships, to confer with the Divine Minister of the Iridescent Pearl, he is accompanied by the finest water chime players in the Empire. In Ut'Bharma, when the wheat fields are tilled by ox plow, and a piece of jade is ritually planted at each corner to ensure fertility, it is done so to the sound of stone chimes being beaten. Alternatively, the Four Voices can be played together for greater rituals, and occasionally entertainment.
Music, like architecture, reflects the order and stability of the Empire. The names of the scales, and their use in music are also based upon geomantic principles:- Jade Gibbon's slow tempo but steady, ongoing persistence, or Ruby Horse's galloping, powerful, and passionate beat. The newer styles emphasize entertainment over ritual, and are unafraid of adding in other instruments, altering tempo when they shouldn't, not sticking to the prescribed scales and so on. Elements such as Dronish woodwind, the salsham'ai charo and Obrenje choral sounds have been added.
History of Imperial Theatre
The theatre in the Empire was derived from religious life; the earliest plays were reenactments of popular myths. Later plays also covered historical events, but in much the same style. The stage was almost bare; a single curtain formed a backdrop behind which actors exited and entered (this is called a cyclorama). The ancient Imperial tradition called for four characters, who mostly made grand speeches and sang songs but did little to interact with one another. Some of these "plays" could be performed by one actor, changing masks with the characters.
Later playwrights transferred their productions from temples to auditoriums, and while the cyclorama remained, it was frequently made with multiple entrance and exit points. The four actors remained, but were increasingly supplemented with extras, and the plotlines involved more interaction among them.
A revolution in drama began at the City of Ten Thousand Ships, led by playwrights such as Nebherstaal who introduced fiction to the stage for the first time. These took the form of morality plays, mostly, but a small breakaway sect began writing satires and social comedy. Along with fiction came the use of props; set pieces like chairs, tables and doors; elaborate costumes besides the traditional mask; and experimentation with lighting techniques. These plays included any number of actors and actresses, and added dancers or a chorus for added effect.
The next big change came with the construction of the first theatres strictly for drama. In the temples, plays were conducted on altars raised above the audience; in the auditoriums and amphitheatres, it was the audience or house which sloped up from a flat stage area. Imperial theatres returned to level seating in the house and utilized a sharply raked stage to make the actors visible to everyone. A few theatres experimented with designs, including sharply thrust stages, area-style seating, or stages with tiers or balconies.
The biggest by-product of the stage was to increase the effectiveness of spectacle on the stage. The cyclorama curtain was retained, but now travelers and a proscenium were added which could alter the width and height of the stage (respectively). Large set pieces could be brought in from the wings or lowered from the ceiling; actors could enter through trap doors in the stage itself; and for the first time, mirrors, lamps, and glass of sufficient quality were available to make stage lighting an art form. (This coincided with an increase in the number of plays put on in the evening or night, as theatres no longer had to rely on sunlight coming through and open roof.)
Modern Imperial Drama
Modern Imperial theatre has been split into three camps. The "true" theatre is based on the earliest styles, but with all of the spectacle that can be garnered from modern technology. Costumes are elaborate and gorgeous, but heavy and awkward. The masks tend to muffle the actor's voices, but since most of the plays are conducted in High Imperial anyway, not much is lost. Each production is lavishly prepared, with pyrotechnics, a huge cast, and as many novelties as can be devised. Sometimes live tembu are ridden into the stage; one company showered the audience in gold. They can afford it, since very little in the way of blocking or other direction is needed; each play had a traditional set of rigidly stylized movements and inflections, which young actors learn from the old masters.
The second camp consists of young artists and intellectuals, who write their own scripts or re-interpret older ones. These plays are more naturalistic than the spectacles, and some are truly powerful; they often address issues at hand in the Empire today. As with any avante-garde movement, however, there are playwrights and directors out for shock value. An entire theatre company was once imprisoned when the lead actor slaughtered a goat on the stage and threw its blood on his costars and the audience. Stylistically, this school is a conscious rejection of the trappings of the spectacles, with simple costumes and little in the way of sets.
The third group is the popular drama, plays put on for the lower classes to titillate and entertain. Some are based on myths or history, but so aggrandized that they are barely recognizable; others are original blends of comedy, drama, romance and singing that get churned out by the dozens every year. These are low-budget productions that manage as much spectacle as they can; this frequently involves using real blood in fight scenes and skimpy constumes. Few are presented in theatres, but wagons or portable stages can be put up in a jiffy.
The worst of the worst (from the perspective of the "real" dramatists, whoever they are) are plays based on the Llaza tale (a misnomer) in which each actor has a wildly exaggerated character with which they improvise the entire production. The general rule of these plays: bawdy humor, lots of fighting, lots of romance and a whole lot of slapstick. The Anhuine states were heavily influence by Imperial theatre, but since the rebellion have begun to break the mold in unexpected ways.
Since theatre was originally designed with an informative purpose, then in a properly laid out geomantic town the theatre should be in the western quarter with the schools etc. Such a place may well refuse to allow the more "entertaining" plays to be put on within its walls.