A Moment for Chinese Music

Temple of Heaven

A Moment for Chinese Music

28 May 2018 / William Anderson / On the Beat

A Triumph for Chinese Music

LIU Li — LIANG Nan — Zhang CHUN — Tan Dun

Beijing Modern Music Festival Hosts ISCM World Music Days, 2018 in Beijing

  • This is a personal response to the 2018 Festival and does not reflect an official Roger Shapiro Fund positon.

May 20 to 26 in Beijing, at beautiful state-of-the-art concert halls at Beijing Central Conservatory, and venues nearby, the Beijing Modern Music Festival presented ISCM World Music Days 2018. Delegates from ISCM sections from all over the world easily learned to use Beijing’s clean, air-conditioned subway system to get to more distant venues like Beijing Concert Hall, near Tianenmen Square. We had rain on Monday, followed by two windy days, and so the air was clean, cool and pleasant for the entire week.

The ISCM sections submit 6 works to the festival, expecting one to be selected. The festival curates, makes a case for the composers in its purview, while also trying to make sense of the diverse musical values evidenced by the music submitted from all around the world.

ISCM delegates are sent to the general assemblies by their local composers’ guilds and leagues. ISCM sections represent nations, but also organizations that support new music, such as the Roger Shapiro Fund. The delegates arrive armed to the teeth with agendas. Some delegates are composers representing their circle of composers within their organization. Other delegates are curators or arts administrators. All love music, few can agree on what good music is. The festival lays bare dirty realities of musical value-creation. [….if you love law or sausage…] No one is objective, but many think they are, and that is dangerous. Not only do some think they are objective—some think they are right. There are curatorial paradigms, some prevalent, others unique.

Beijing Modern Music Festival gave me hope.

At any given time music takes many and various downward spirals for every step in a good direction. Despite those many musical pathologies at work around the world today, I am aways pleasantly surprised by one or two works that I encounter at the WMD festivals. I would like to draw attention to a few wonderful works, and thank Beijing Modern for introducing me to these works.

Putting it this way is one-sided. I’ll try another approach: there is a generation of composers who distinguish themselves by eliminating aspects of music. They set fire under a cauldron, boiling music into their own distinct extract. [….very often it’s an extract of what they happen to understand, what lights a fire under them, for the moment…] They tend to eliminate musical modalities that feel old or passé. A fashion emerges in favor of these musical distillates that exclude what was valued by predecessors. […See Franz Kafka’s Hunger Artist….] The arts establishment looks for young up and coming artists; they look for an unstoppable force of nature, and often these forces of nature are the ones who are distinguishing themselves by selective elimination of musical modalities. There is not one minimalism. The EU composers are minimalists. Their music is boiled-down into texture and noise. Don’t bow the strings, bow the wood. Don’t play the keys of the piano, rub the frame, or hit it. Don’t get a pitch from the clarinet, no, get an un-pitched, windy noise. They severely limit the variety of harmonic speeds. […often the harmonic rhythm is the duration of the piece….] Many, many forces contribute to the groupthink that compels young EU composers to pay homage to Lachenmann, Huber, and the spectral composers. The hegemony of this musical groupthink cannot succeed without the arts administrators, the apparatchiks. I have no problem with minimalists, and a great fondness for much of it. […There is value in examining one musical element at a time….] It is only sad and dangerous when fashion and the arts establishment digs a rut that excludes music that is doing other wonderful things that are, for the moment, rendered uncool.

Girded for these difficulties, I was surprised and delighted by three stand-out works performed on the 24th of May:

LIU LiBeyond the River

LIANG NanSong Feng

These two were performed beautifully and with real conviction by NZTrio at 2pm.

Zhang CHUNPiano Trio Four Happiness

This work was performed, gracefully, with great understanding by members of the Tianjin Symphony Orchestra, pianist CHEN Lin, violinist Jingye ZHANG, and cellist WANG Zheng

Piano Trio Four Happiness ended the 7:30 program and caught me while swooning from jet lag, but the work gradually pulled me in and finally shocked me with its brilliant ending.

I jotted three remarks in the program:

  • a sense of humor! —distinct and winning
  • real development
  • a killer ending—a series of striking harmonic shifts

Earlier in the day we heard the NZ Trio. They rearranged the program, so I hope I am talking about the right pieces. LIU Li’s Beyond the River projected an endearing musical wit, a sense of humor. I thought of a Viennese scherzo, but then realized that it might be something distinctly Chinese, a truly Chinese sense of humor that I was experiencing through music? It was that, or it was a distinct LIU Li sense of humor. [….how can we know?…..] Very refreshing to discover that this young composer has a reasonable mastery of harmonic rhythm. He lingers somewhere, moves on, he is in control. The scherzo section propelled us into a bright new sound. His harmonic palette is not restricted to a dry narrow slice of the harmonic universe. That said, it could be restricted still less. For example, he does not venture very far into the open harmonies that pervade LIANG Nan’s Song Feng, although such a move was not at all necessary, and I may have to eat my words if I hear the piece again and find myself mistaken.

I asked LIANG Nan about the speech rhythms so clearly articulated on the cello and violin in his Song Feng. He explained that they are from a Chinese dialect. The two strings have something very important to say in this dialect, and the timings of these statements seem to fall with interesting asymmetry over a harmonic scheme that accelerates climactically to the end. Get some fun changes going *and then up the speed of the changes*. That can be done without increasing the tempo, btw. The end is capped with a final statement in dialect by the strings. De-worded speech is music, even when actual words are set to music and sung, the verbal aspect is surpassed by the music, hybridized, largely un-worded. This is vastly more musical than de-musiced music, which is becoming too common. In this piece we were treated to harmonic rhythm and changes in harmonic rhythm. This should not be unusual, it is the way music works when the music hasn’t been wrung out of the music.

Zhang CHUN’s Piano Trio Four Happiness employs an impressive range of harmonic colors. It may be that the work encompasses all the colors we heard in LIANG Nan & LIU Li’s works combined. I suggest that this is the direction we are going in the 21st Century, while the 20th C. was obsessive-compulsive about unity and intervallic consistency. I am among those who are ready to put that behind us. We are exploring the dramatic potential of crossing between contrasting harmonic worlds. Moreover, we are not interested in music that screams, “octotonic” or “whole tone”. A work can develop its own distinct contextual harmonic profile. These three works are, to various degrees, successful examples of the achievement of harmonic *profile*. I suspect Zhang CHUN goes the furthest in this direction. Deplorably, in few other works throughout the festival was a strong, distinct harmonic profile evident. The norm was to hear pitches in stasis, pitches drawn in a complacent, facile manner from easy sources, usually the octotonic scale.

With pitch so drastically reduced, we were sad to hear, so often, something like:

  • Crazy texture & inchoate harmony # 1 starting loud and getting softer
  • Crazy texture & inchoate harmony #2, starting soft and getting louder
  • Crazy texture & inchoate harmony #3, starting soft, getting louder and then getting soft again

And the transitions between are non-existent, and so the music-things stand awkwardly against one another like mismatched couples.

In the music of LIU Li, LIANG Nan, and Zhang CHUN we do not think of scales and sections, we hear a story. Their works are three arrows in my quiver to guard against the frustrating reality that one by one, powerful musical modalities are being dismantled and discarded, or worse—they are being rendered unfashionable. What works is now being put-on the defensive.

This contagion is spreading. Music without the music is enjoying a moment of hegemony. We am fortunate, blessed, and grateful to have found some composers in a far away place who speak powerfully, answering our hopes for music’s potential.

—If music is brought down completely in the West, I feel, hopefully, it will survive in China—

Alarm Has Sounded

On the 26th, at 4pm, the US group Alarm Will Sound gave a concert. Alarm Will Sound has an aesthetic, and it has a festival in the midwest. I get the impression that composers work closely with the group at their festival to create works that fit in with their aesthetic. The first piece by Andrew Norman struck me as paradigmatic. Parataxis on crack—sharp shifts—that Zorn ethos where nothing persists for more than 15 seconds.

Two works stood out on the A program. First Vinyl by Charles Peck. The piece began with AWS-brand craziness, but found its way to something substantial and personal—a minor third/major third move that the composer was able to keep going, to sustain to the very end. It was a harmonic/melodic thing with real power. It made me very happy.

AWS’s violinist Caleb Burhans wrote a short and sassy work in high Steve Reich mode, but with a twist. He calls it Escape Wisconsin. I found it got off to a clunky start, but just after midway (I think), the Burhans blew me away. He gave us a series of shifts from one pedal tone to another—a Steve Reich/Perotin trick. As Reich acknowledges his debt to Perotin, we can say that this kind of modal inflection goes back a millennium. It is one of the tricks that has been discarded that doesn’t need to be discarded, even if it’s applied in a post-tonal context. Each pedal tone casts a new light on the whirring, shimmering material above. The surprise twist came when Burhans gave us a non-diatonic pedal tone. “Tonal” (better described as *diatonic*) harmonies persisted in the piece until that moment when non-diatonic harmonies thrust themselves to the foreground—like a splash of magenta over a grey background. Two things happen when harmonies are effectively mixed up like this: 1-foregrounding; 2-propulsion, his move motivated the rest of the piece. Such a simple thing to do, and yet there was too little of this on the AWS program, too little throughout the entire festival.

Be on the lookout for the recording of AWS’s evening-length Scott Johnson piece. Johnson is a thing unto himself. I am grateful to AWS for commissioning Scott Johnson. Scott has it all.

The Big Finale

Harue Kunieda’s Floral Tributes III employed a wonderful version of Caleb Burhans’ trick, but unfolding much more slowly. The harmonies progressed through a non-diatonic moment that rocked the house in a gentle way, and introduced the congas. So, she demonstrated something that music can do that’s wonderful and rich: don’t just bring in the conga’s; gie birth to the congas through a deep and memorable harmonic event. Musical events can be overdetermined. In fact there can be innumerable confluences of perceptible contrasts that can make a musical moment pop–a counterpoint of musical events that accent the flavors. There is too little of this kind of mastery.

I laughed I cried, it was better than Bolero!

The program finished with a passacaglia by Tan Dun. A knockout. An easy thing done exceptionally well. I capitulate to Tan Dun because music needs all the tricks. Cheap tricks, like his bird calls, for example, can work together with his other construction skills, his craft, his accumulated compositional wisdom. Moreover, and most striking, are his moments of swirling microtonal glissandi in the strings, a modernism which he has integrated into a work with broad appeal and a sense of humor. He is an integrator. The moment also strikes me as distinctly Chinese magic realist. This work is way better than Ravel’s Bolero, and distinctly Chinese.

One might object, “it’s just a stupid passacaglia!”. This reminds me of what Nadia Boulanger said to Astor Piazzola: do what you know, what you do best (and he said, I know tangos). There are armies of young composers who were promoted and selected for incusion on this festival, and many of them would benefit from writing passacaglias for five or ten years.

–William Anderson, RSF delegate to ISCM 2018 World Music Days