Unknown, Unheard: Where Are All the Chinese Composers?
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2016-06-08 06:52:30

When Seth Boustead — leader of a Chicago-based music ensemble — wanted in 2006 to commission via the internet a new composition from a Chinese composer working in China, he had trouble finding one. Speaking about his difficulty in finding a composer via the internet, he said, “I found many Chinese composers, but none were based in China.”

Was nobody living in China composing music 10 years ago? Of course they were, although most were completely unheard of. But to what degree has Chinese music entered the consciousness of the global community?

Two of the most famous pieces of Chinese classical music are the mid-20th century “Yellow River” and “Butterfly Lovers” concertos. Those with an interest in contemporary music would also know works by the Central Conservatory of Music’s legendary class of 1982, which included Tan Dun, Qigang Chen, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Ye Xiaogang, and Guo Wenjing — although only Ye and Guo remain based in China.

He wanted the composer to deliver the piece in installments, so that the ensemble could publicly rehearse every new part before it was completed, record the rehearsals, and put them online for viewers to see how a composition was born.

There are of course many more names, but most are relatively obscure. And even in China it is difficult to come by recordings or see any of them performed, although in recent years the number of performances has been slowly increasing.

In April 2016, the National Center of Performing Arts in Beijing hosted the fifth biennial China Orchestra Festival. The Chinese title of the festival is the “Spring of Chinese Jiaoxiangyue” — jiaoxiangyue directly translated means “symphonic music.” In practice, it encompasses all music performed in concert halls, such as symphonic music and chamber music, among others. The festival showcased an overview of Chinese orchestral music, which is celebrating its centenary this year — in 1916, Xiao Youmei became the first person from China to compose an orchestral piece with his “Funeral March.”

Apart from a lack of performances, much of the writings about Chinese symphonic history remain inaccessible to the public. Although it has been well-documented by academics — thousand-page music histories and dictionaries list hundreds of names that never appear on concert programs — complex histories of China’s orchestral music history remain locked away in university libraries and private databases.

One such example is The China National Knowledge Infrastructure — an information database storing thousands of papers that is restricted to universities or to individuals willing to pay the high membership fees. This is not the case in Europe, where many countries provide free online resources designed to promote and disseminate information about music.

Most music lovers don’t know about the existence of a large number of Chinese composers and their works simply because they are not offered access to information about them.

In the 1940s, Chinese composers tried to create what they called “Chinese New Music” — a new type of Chinese music inspired by Western classical traditions. After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, this new music flourished out of artistic, educational, political, and diplomatic needs, and effectively became the voice of the nation. Even under the Cultural Revolution — when Western music was effectively banned — jiaoxiangyue served as the backbone of the revolutionary art and survived.

The opening up of the country in the 1980s saw China’s market flooded with popular music — both Western and Chinese. In defiance of this, many composers tried to revive jiaoxiangyue. China Conservatory’s class of 1982 was one such group, but the artistic difficulty and experimental nature of their music alienated many non-connoisseurs.

Popular music’s fan base has only been growing in the past several decades. Thus, are classical Chinese composers doomed? Not necessarily. Jiaoxiangyue, along with other traditional music forms, has been classified by the government as high culture by the term gaoya yinyue, or “elegant music.” This classification shows that China holds jiaoxiangyue in high esteem, even if the majority of citizens prefer popular music.

Furthermore, most of the exposure to music that children receive in school is jiaoxiangyue, albeit on a very limited scale. I believe many of these students harbor a genuine curiosity in learning more about the art, especially since they are taught how important high culture is.

The fact that the information is hard to come by and monopolized by institutions only heightens this curiosity. This mindset — the desire for knowledge — may rescue Chinese composers from obscurity.

World-famous soloists and conductors must consciously work to take on more Chinese works instead of paying lip service to concertgoers who only want to hear well-known pieces. After all, if British orchestras can get away with playing “Celtic Symphony” and Americans “The Grand Canyon Suite,” is there anything wrong with the occasional performance of “Yangtze River Capriccio” or “The Spring Festival Suite” by the Chinese?

There is a lot of Chinese classical music out there. But it needs to be exposed to the world. Making music analysis papers freely available to the public, including Chinese music in performances, and publishing scores — whether this be for free in a library or for sale to conductors — may serve as a beginning. The tens of millions of children who play instruments may well pick up a tune or two by Chinese composers if they are readily available.

In the end Seth Boustead found and commissioned Ye Xiaogang for the composition. Ye composed “Datura” for Boustead’s ensemble, and flew to Chicago for its first performance.

Boustead had made a point to commission the piece via the internet. The project, as he explains in the documentary, was not merely about getting a composition and having it performed. He wanted the composer to deliver the piece in installments, so that the ensemble could publicly rehearse every new part before it was completed, record the rehearsals, and put them online for viewers to see how a composition was born.

Commissioning the piece from a composer who was working in a similar industry, but in a different culture — and whom Boustead had never met before — would “maximize the impact of working through the internet.” The digital age has brought about endless new possibilities of cultural exchange, and the voices of Chinese composers shouldn’t be missing from the scene.

(Header image: Yang Liu/Corbis/VCG)