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David Robertson talks about the influences of China on Western music.
© 2009 The Carnegie Hall Corporation.
Focus On: Tan Dun
Unlike other Chinese composers of his generation who emerged mostly from urban centers, Tan Dun never quite came in from the fields. Before Beijing’s Central Conservatory opened his ears to an entirely new musical world, Tan spent his formative years steeped in Peking Opera on one hand and in peasant ritual culture on another. As such, his work blends the avant-garde with ancient spirituality, the experimental with the theatrical, fearless innovation with crowd-pleasing populism.
It may seem incongruous to hear words like “experimental” or “spiritual” coming from someone who’s won an Oscar (as Tan did in 2001 for his score to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). In fact, few composers Chinese or otherwise have achieved such a fine balance between concert music, operatic scores, and film soundtracks. Fewer still have developed their own musical vocabulary, as Tan has done in his organic music, a broad sonic palette derived from the sounds of water, paper, and stones. For his reconciling of these worlds, we have partly to thank the great American master of incongruity, John Cage.
Few of these organic sounds are original in and of themselves, as Tan freely admits. With little provocation he will launch into memories of the Cultural Revolution, where musicians in his home village made music with whatever materials they found at hand. But after coming to New York to continue his studies at Columbia University, it was a concert of Cage’s music that reopened Tan’s ears to the sounds of his youth. “Far from home in New York City,” he recalls, “I was convinced that John Cage was my village colleague.”
In His Own Words
On writing "Chinese" music:
"We were all taught to use civilized elements-the ‘good’ colors or the ‘good’ texts. But beyond this level there’s so much more—ritual culture, for example—that is perhaps even more important, because it touches everyone, not just the educated people.”
On musical life during the Cultural Revolution:
“During the Cultural Revolution, [the Party Secretary] liked our performances, so we could work in peace. There was always an enormously happy and free atmosphere. We could sing and play whatever we liked. But because of the politics of the time, our work was usually about the Revolution …”
“When we first went to conservatory, art didn’t play an important role. I was admitted to the conservatory with a piece called Dreaming of Chairman Mao … I was the first violinist in a string quartet, but I only had three strings. I played that violin for a long time. I still don't play the fourth string very well, because I never had one for so long.”
Focus On: Bright Sheng
As the first member of the Class of 1978 to gain professional attention in New York City, Bright Sheng has always stood apart from most of his Chinese colleagues because he studied at the Shanghai Conservatory—rather than Beijing’s Central Conservatory—and emigrated to the US with his family, not through the graces of professor Chou Wen-Chung of Columbia University, where he later studied after two years of study at Queens College.
During the Cultural Revolution, Sheng’s musicianship landed him a position in a song-and-dance troupe in remote Qinghai, on the Tibetan plateau. Musically able, he spent much of his time collecting folk tunes in the region and had a vague notion that he wanted to be a composer. “Back then, I thought all you needed to do was come up with a good tune,” Sheng says.
Although the Shanghai Conservatory and his subsequent American education refined that notion, Sheng found his musical voice under the ongoing tutelage of Leonard Bernstein, whom he first met at Tanglewood. “I remember showing Mr. Bernstein a work I was proud of,” Sheng recalls. “He asked me, ‘For whom did you write this? Yourself? The conductor? The musicians? Your colleagues?’” And I couldn’t answer. I’d never thought about it … Now, of course, the question is silly, but in the early 1980s there was still so much ‘Who-cares-if-you-listen?’ [mentality] in the air that it wasn’t easy to admit that you write for an audience. Now, of course, I write for myself first, then the audience. If I get excited, then I think the audience has a chance.”
In His Own Words
On Western music in China:
“What was Western music like in China? It was like Chinese food here—not very authentic. Well, perhaps you get better Chinese food here than Western music in China, because at least here the chefs are Chinese. In China, the music teachers were often brilliant, but most of them had never left the country. They learned everything by the book. Music is not like science. You have to be part of the culture.”
On the Cultural Revolution:
“When I came to America, I was still very angry about the Cultural Revolution and what it did to China. But at the same time, I also felt guilty about selfishly leaving the motherland in search of a better life for myself. Common sense held that China was hopeless, but at the same time my future in the US was also unsure. As I began making headway here, however, China also began picking up, which makes me feel very happy, even though I had no part in it.”
IN THE ARTIST’S OWN WORDS
When I was asked to be a part of Ancient Paths, Modern Voices, I was both delighted and immediately petrified. The influences of China on Western art music are relatively sparse. The communication has not been two-way: You either get pieces that are really bad, touristy postcards, or you enter into this world of orchestral music where there is an extraordinary fantasy on the part of the composer—a sound world that they imagine would be one that they’d find.
We get this very clearly in Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin ballet, where the sense of the other—the sense of something foreign to the people who form the basis of the ballet—is incarnated by the mandarin, so this musical meeting is one that is both strange and familiar at the same time. Song of the Nightingale, from Stravinsky’s opera, works in the same way, although here the parallel is not so much Chinese versus Western European music, as much as it is the music of the very simple life versus the music of the court. This takes it away from an East-West type of confrontation and much more into the realm of what is genuine.
It seemed to me that this was a perfect way to start the conversation, because, in fact, the other two composers on the program are Chinese composers who have entered into this dialogue with the notion of Western instruments and Western musical forms—the Water Concerto in the case of Tan Dun, or Colors of Crimson in the case of Bright Sheng. Here is this combination of Chinese composers who have mastered Western orchestration and yet are able to bring their cultural heritage and their aesthetic—born of a very tightly knit and infinitely deep cultural history—to bear on the very rich and wide-ranging history that informed both Stravinsky and Bartók.
I’m so excited for this evening, because to some extent I don’t really know what it will feel like to be there until I’ve actually played the concert. To me, these are the most fascinating types of discoveries possible. We’ve never done these four pieces together. And I think the sense of rhythmic acuteness of all four composers—and the sense of the color of the sound and the use of the orchestra—will make something whereby we’ll both see all of the differences and be impressed by the similarities.
IGOR STRAVINSKY (1882–1971)
Chant du rossignol (Song of the Nightingale)
approximately 19 minutes
About the Work
Stravinsky’s symphonic poem Chant du rossignol (Song of the Nightingale) grew out of a chamber opera begun in 1908. The composer completed the first act of this setting of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Nightingale in the summer of 1909, but further work was interrupted by his engagement as composer to Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the Paris-based dance company for which Stravinsky would create his landmark early ballets. The composer did not return to his opera until 1913, when a Moscow theater troupe offered to produce the work.
Inevitably, the opera’s second and third acts, written in the winter of 1913–1914, were distinct in tone from the earlier first act. Stravinsky had arrived at a quite modern artistic viewpoint since beginning Le Rossignol, and his compositional style had changed enormously. In 1917, he determined to resolve the stylistic discrepancy of the opera by fashioning an orchestral work drawn from the music of only its last two acts.
A Closer Listen
The opening section suggests the scurrying of palace servants as they make preparations for the visit of a Nightingale, celebrated for its beautiful song. The bird’s appearance is indicated by a florid melody for flute, and the Emperor makes his entrance to a pompous “Chinese March.”
In the next episode, the Nightingale enthralls the court with its singing. Presently, however, envoys from the Emperor of Japan present a mechanical nightingale, and when this novelty proves entertaining, the real bird slips away unnoticed.
But the toy nightingale proves an ephemeral thing. Its machinery breaks, and it sings no more. Soon the Emperor takes ill, and Death sits by his bed. At last the real Nightingale returns. Its song enchants even Death, and when the courtiers come to bear the Emperor to his funeral, they find him well and robust again.
TAN DUN (b. 1957)
approximately 27 minutes
About the Composer
Tan Dun was born in Hunan, the ethnically diverse province in Central China. As an adolescent, he was assigned to work on a farming commune as part of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. There he listened to folk songs of the local villagers and started playing violin in a folk-music ensemble. Tan performed with this group at weddings and other village ceremonies, often arranging their music using homemade instruments and found objects such as cooking pots, farm implements, and even stones. He subsequently toured as a musician with a Peking opera troupe.
With the end of the Cultural Revolution, Tan gained a place in the reconstituted Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. But he heard no Western concert music until 1973, when The Philadelphia Orchestra made a historic visit to China. That event was revelatory for Tan, convincing him that he wanted to compose in a manner that blended Chinese and Western resources. In 1986, he left China for New York, where he attended Columbia University.
After completing his studies, Tan quickly attained a stellar reputation, along with performances and commissions from major orchestras and other organizations. He gained widespread recognition, and an Academy Award, with his score for Ang Lee’s film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and in 1998 he won the Grawemeyer Award, the most prestigious international prize for music composition.
About the Work
Tan’s music often employs nontraditional resources—unconventional playing techniques, unusual instruments, natural or “organic” sounds, video projections, and more—in combination with established Western orchestral or opera performance practice. A notable instance is his Water Concerto.
Tan wrote this piece in 1998 on commission from the New York Philharmonic. The composition is essentially a percussion concerto, but with an important difference: Many of its most important sonorities are produced by water. Tan finds poetic uses for the sounds of water splashing, water pouring, and water altering the timbres of gongs and other percussion. He also uses other instruments in surprising and creative ways. The strings play rustic glissandi that imitate the sound of Chinese folk instruments. The vibraphone is “prepared,” in the manner of John Cage’s famous prepared piano, with pennies taped to it, producing a curious twang.
Still, it is the water sounds that produce the most striking auditory, and visual, impressions. Tan holds that such sounds have deep and universal significance. In an interview, he observed that “water sounds are the sounds for everybody, heard first, even before we came out to the world.” On a more personal note, he explained that “this piece is based on my childhood memories, and that time [when] I was a barefoot boy in the village of my grandmother, and we washed vegetables, rice, clothes, whatever, in the river, and [made] a lot of river music. And that kind of water sound, colors, always remained in my journeys … always reminds me where I came from and where I want to go.”
BRIGHT SHENG (b. 1955)
Colors of Crimson
approximately 20 minutes
About the Composer
Bright Sheng was born in Shanghai, where as a boy he studied piano with his mother. During the years of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, he was exiled from his native city and, like Tan Dun, lived for several years in a rural part of China, where he absorbed the local folk music. He subsequently returned to Shanghai and became one of the first students at the Shanghai Conservatory.
In 1982, Bright Sheng emigrated to the US and pursued graduate studies at Queens College and Columbia University in New York. There he became a protégé of Leonard Bernstein and eventually orchestrated the late composer-conductor’s last major work, the song cycle Arias and Barcarolles. His own music has been performed by most of the leading American orchestras, as well as at major music festivals. Since 1995, the composer has taught at the University of Michigan.
About the Work
Colors of Crimson is, in the composer’s description, a “fantasy for solo marimba and orchestra.” Like much of his music, it is rooted in his experience as a young musician in China, and in his familiarity with, and affection for, Chinese folk music. Its thematic material derives from a love song the composer wrote during his adolescence. “At the time,” Bright Sheng notes, “I was living in Qinghai—a remote province of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, in northwest China—where the folk-music tradition has always been abundant.”
Regarding his treatment of his melodic material in this work, the composer observes: “To me, one of the most challenging aspects in writing for the marimba is the instrument’s small range of timbral variety. In this work, I have attempted to adjust this limitation by using different devices in orchestration; some of them are subtle while other times bold. What I hope to provide is a diversity of tonal shades within the overall monotonic timbre of the marimba—colors of crimson.”
BÉLA BARTÓK (1881–1945)
The Miraculous Mandarin Suite, Op. 19
approximately 20 minutes
About the Work
Bartók wrote his pantomime-ballet The Miraculous Mandarin during the winter of 1918–1919, though he revised the score intermittently over the next seven years. Like many dramatic compositions that emerged from central Europe during the dark period surrounding World War I, The Miraculous Mandarin employed a kind of lurid Expressionism in which sex, violence, and the macabre contributed to an air of decadence and mystery.
The ballet’s story takes place in a shabby room in the slums of some nameless city and centers on a trio of thieves and a young woman in their keeping. Finding themselves short of money, the thieves force the woman to sit provocatively in a window and lure passersby inside, where the trio can rob them. Her first victim is an old libertine who has seen more prosperous days. He comes up to the room and flirts with the woman, but when he indicates that he has no money, the thieves throw him roughly out. Next comes a student who proves equally impoverished, and who is given the same rude exit.
The third catch is a strange‑looking man in Eastern dress, a Mandarin, who stares with piercing eyes as the woman entices him with an erotic dance. His lust finally aroused, the Mandarin reaches for his temptress, but she, alarmed by his appearance, starts to flee. A frantic chase ensues. Suddenly the thieves, armed to the teeth, jump out of hiding. Astonishingly, the violence they wreak on the Mandarin has no effect: He just continues to stare passionately at the woman. Even when the thieves string him by the neck from a ceiling beam, he does not perish but only glows with an eerie blue light. At last the woman takes him in her arms and kisses him. Only then do the Mandarin’s wounds begin to bleed, and he perishes in an ecstatic love-death.
The sordid character of this plot derailed the planned premiere of The Miraculous Mandarin in Bartók’s native Hungary. When a production finally was mounted in Cologne, in 1926, the ballet received such scathing notices that it was withdrawn after a single performance. A subsequent performance in Prague fared no better.
A Closer Listen
In 1927, Bartók extracted a concert suite from the full ballet, hoping thereby to gain a wider hearing for the composition. Aside from omitting the music for the final scene, beginning with the thieves’ attack on the Mandarin, this suite differs but slightly from the original score.
Bartók’s music for The Miraculous Mandarin follows the outline of its story closely. The opening moments establish an atmosphere of violence and gritty urban energy, using driving rhythms and hard-edged harmonies. Bartók portrays the woman’s game of seduction in a series of rhapsodic clarinet solos. Her victims also are vividly represented. A lush melody introduced by English horn captures the wantonness of the old libertine. The shyness of the young student brings a wan oboe solo and, soon, an awkward waltz that combines the bassoon in its high register with harp tones, a most unusual mix of timbres.
Finally, the Mandarin enters to brass figures that suggest his Asian provenance. The woman’s dance for him evolves from slinky languor to energetic eroticism. When the Mandarin pursues her, their chase assumes the character of a wild Balkan folk dance, with running passagework over a heavy foundation of percussion. The suite ends at the moment in the ballet when the Mandarin catches the woman. He embraces her while she tries to escape, their struggle occasioning a veritable paroxysm of orchestral sound.
Program notes © 2009 by Paul Schiavo
Paul Schiavo writes frequently on music and is the program annotator for the Seattle Symphony and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.