The story of the engagement of China with Western classical music is long, complex and fascinating. For nearly a century it has been a battlefield on which sometimes violent ideological conflicts have been conducted. It is a story of individual heroism and cowardice, of bureaucratic intrigue and political oppression, of tragedy and farce; great material indeed for a novel yet to be written.
The wholesale repression of Western music during the Cultural Revolution is a distant memory. The millions of young Chinese now studying the piano or the violin—more, it is said, than the entire population of Australia—were not even born then. But the ideological battles of the past cast a long shadow. The apparently insatiable appetite of the Chinese for bourgeois European music of the 19th century has not led to a corresponding interest in the music of its own composers, who have assimilated the techniques of the Western avant garde.
It is significant that the Chinese composer best known in the West today is Tan Dun, who settled in the United States and made his reputation there. Tan Dun was a celebrity in the West before he became well known in China. There is a parallel here to the Western fascination with contemporary Chinese art; it is primarily Western collectors paying big money for works by Chinese artists who are on the fringes of their own society. Tan Dun’s C-A-G-E (Fingering for Piano) is a tribute to John Cage, a composer whose fascination with chance procedures and the ancient classic I Ching could be expected to appeal to Chinese musicians, just as his reasoned espousal of anarchism would be anathema to the Chinese authorities. It was considerate of John Cage to be born with a surname of pronounced pentatonic character, allowing Tan Dun to use the letters of his name in a composition that alludes equally to Cage’s own innovative treatment of the piano, and to techniques of playing the pi’pa. It was superbly interpreted by Gabriella Smart.
Guo Wenjing creates an engaging piece of choreography in Parade, a work performed by three percussionists standing around a table on which are arrayed a collection of Chinese cymbals. It’s quite a tour-de-force for the players as they weave in and out of the narrowly constrained performance space; on this occasion a music stand prevented most of the audience from seeing exactly what was going on. Fortunately the work is as intriguing to the ear as it is to the eye.
The largest work on the program was Flavour of Bashu by Jia Daqun, which required the combined forces of two violinists, three percussionists and pianist. The title alludes to the province of Sichuan, famous for spicy food, the rapidly disappearing scenery of the Three Gorges, and its own unique brand of traditional opera. The latter two of these three themes are directly alluded to in the music—and if food is not specifically mentioned, that can only be because it is the ever-present subtext for all Chinese culture. This was an exciting performance, in which one could sense that the performers were taking risks in order to convey the vitality and intensity of the composer’s vision. James Cuddeford and Natsuko Yoshimoto were particularly effective in their use of portamento and microtonal intonation to convey the uniquely Chinese flavour of their parts. The percussion parts are full of colour, including the obligatory cymbal crashes with their distinctive pitch-bending character, while the piano seems to fulfil a continuo role in holding it all together.
The remainder of the program included Toru Takemitsu’s Rocking Mirror Daybreak, a series of four connected pieces for two violins—played by Cuddeford and Yoshimoto—which, in contrast to the highly coloured music around it, was a model of monochromatic restraint and a haven of tranquillity. It was certainly far removed from the convulsive gestures of White Shadow by Korean composer In-Sun Cho, who has thoroughly imbibed the language of the Central European avant-garde. This thorny piece, bristling with multiphonics and sudden, violent disruptions, was played with conviction and intensity by Seung-Eun Lee and Gabriella Smart.
OzAsia Festival: Soundstream Contemporary Music Ensemble, White Shadow, piano Gabriella Smart, violins Natsuko Yoshimoto, James Cuddeford, percussion Claire Edwardes, Vanessa Tomlinson, Paul Lin, oboe Seung-Eun Lee, Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, Sept 25
RealTime issue #82 Dec-Jan 2007 pg. 14
© Stephen Whittington; for permission to reproduce apply to email@example.com