How Amateur Choirs Reshape China’s Musical Landscape
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2016-09-12 03:48:12

In China, the first hit song of 2016 came from an unlikely source: an amateur choir. In the song, “Zhang Shichao, Where the Hell Did You Put My House Key Last Night?” a man is left stranded outside in the middle of winter after his roommate Zhang runs off with a girl and the only key to their house.

The song made its composer Jin Chengzhi and his choir, the Rainbow Chamber Singers, instant celebrities. Then, Jin and the choir doubled down with the release of another choral hit last month.

The new song is a humorous take on a hot social issue. Called “My Body Is Hollowed Out,” it tells the story of the millions of young people known in China as “overtime dogs,” who are pressured into working extra hours at their jobs. The public ate it up, and the video recording of the song garnered 10 million views within 14 hours of its release. 

Chinese choral music dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, scholars in China began to prefer Western music over Chinese traditional music since it was considered a more refined art form. The style of Western songs was copied by Chinese composers and added to school curriculums to teach children important life lessons, and patriotic large ensemble pieces were created and performed to inspire nationalism. The influence of Chinese choral art peaked with composer Xian Xinghai’s “Yellow River Cantata” in 1938.

For the statesmen and intellectuals trying to modernize China after the fall of the monarchy in 1911, much of the value in this new music lay in its use as propaganda. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, musicians were encouraged to study revolutionary music, Soviet music, and Chinese folk music, and large-ensemble songs and choral music, most often folksy, laudatory or revolutionary, flourished.

This music has since been passed down to my “overtime dog” generation. Our parents still sing those songs. We heard them in music appreciation classes and we performed them at school in collective activities, like in the obligatory monthly military training required for all college freshmen.

Meanwhile, the popularity of choral music continues to persist, and our repertoires are further enriched by the influx to China of world-famous vocal ensembles, like the King’s Singers. 

This popularity is all too obvious in Shanghai, where a few amateur choirs have managed to make a name for themselves, despite only performing concerts once or twice a year. The B.G. Choir, now 11 years old, is an all-around group. The Shepherds Ensemble specialize in the Christianity-inspired Renaissance polyphonic music. Echo Chamber Singers, founded in 2009, has explored an extremely wide repertoire of different musical styles.

According to Zhao Yifan, a choir conductor and also a founder of A Cappella China — a group that organizes concerts and gives music lectures — even the technically and culturally demanding genre of contemporary a cappella music has attracted a small but steady following across the country in recent years.

Tian Yubin, ex-director of the Chinese Chorus Association, estimated in 2012 that there could be more than one million amateur choirs in the nation.

However, as Hong Chuan, the conductor of Echo Chamber Singers, told me, an influential contemporary Chinese choral repertoire is sadly lacking. More artistically inclined composers are looking to traditional Chinese culture for inspiration, but the works they end up creating are often beyond the abilities of amateur choirs. To my knowledge, before Jin and the Rainbow Chamber Singers, no Chinese composer considered everyday life a suitable topic for choral music. In this regard, Jin has accomplished far more than two hits.

Jin founded the Rainbow Chamber Singers in September 2010, but he also established a workshop to research and experiment with contemporary choral music, especially Chinese works. In the same concert that premiered the 2016 hit “Zhang Shichao,” Jin also performed a set of songs called “Album of Zeya,” which paints the picture of peaceful rural life in the scenic mountainous area of Zeya, in eastern China’s Zhejiang province. Jin’s music speaks of home-cooked meals, a dog lying on the road, cicadas singing in the trees, and an old man slipping on a stone path. 

With the “Album of Zeya” the composer shows himself to be a master lyricist adept at classical Chinese and colloquialism. Often, in a distinctly Chinese way, simple images suggest untold happenings.

In his music, Jin goes far beyond the five-note scale and non-musical vocalization to convey a sense of “Chineseness.” In “Bamboo Forest,” for example, simple, immobile chords envelope the listener in a mysterious atmosphere. Many of my friends compare the songs to ink-wash paintings in sound, and many Chinese listeners abroad have expressed how homesick his music makes them feel. One could argue that what Jin creates is simply an evolved form of traditional songs, but this is truly something new, and profoundly Chinese.

Choral singing has been developing rapidly in China since the 1980s. Tian Yubin, ex-director of the Chinese Chorus Association, estimated in 2012 that there could be more than one million amateur choirs in the nation. Their audiences are often comprised of the large circles of family, friends, and colleagues that typically make up Chinese social circles. Most of these associates are not music buffs, but simply proud of their loved ones, and yet the choirs pique their interest in choral music that they would otherwise rarely pay attention to. Original compositions like Jin’s odes to everyday life, serious or humorous, draw people closer to this art form.

Some choirs are also going above and beyond art by taking up social responsibilities. Notably, some LGBT communities in China have founded choirs as a tool of expression. One such group in Shanghai, the Hyperbolic Singers, have actively taken part in the LGBT pride event Shanghai Pride since 2012. Its conductor, a dedicated chorister, finds it to be the most zealous choirs he has ever come across. Indeed, one’s own voice — the instrument most easily at our disposal — offers one of the best forms of expression possible.

(Header image: Members of the Rainbow Chamber Singers perform at a music hall in Shanghai, April 17, 2016. VCG)