Classical and New Music Culture in Taiwan

As a composer, I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to live in and personally get to know many different musical cultures and communities. Eight years ago I met two people who have given me a personal connection to the broader new music community in Asia. I have now been living in Taiwan since last August, teaching composition and music technology at National Chiao Tung University.

Written By

Jacob Sudol

While it’s relatively easy to find English language articles about new music ensembles, new commissions, or festivals that take place nearly anywhere in the West, I rarely ever find any information about such activities happening in Asia. This disparity in coverage is somewhat unnerving to me considering that the combined population of China, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (over 600 million) is about double that of the USA (~318 million) and nearly the same size as Europe (~750 million). I am certain that the lack of coverage is partially the result of language barriers and socio-economic issues, as well as political complications between various Asian and Western countries, but there clearly must be a lot of fantastic new music from Asia that we just don’t hear about in the West.

As a composer, I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to live in and personally get to know many different musical cultures and communities. I mostly grew up in and did my undergraduate studies in Tucson, Arizona, where I got to know a smaller and mostly academic-centered new music community that largely focused on new American music and earlier 20th-century music. When I did my master’s degree, I moved to Montréal, a vibrant and diverse new music community that largely programs and focuses on music from Europe and Canada. I’ve also had contrasting experiences when doing my doctorate at the University of California, San Diego, and when I moved to Miami in 2011 to teach at Florida International University. Through these experiences, I’ve come to understand that the only real way to get to know a music culture is to actually interact with and become part of that culture’s community.

Following this, I feel very fortunate that eight years ago I met two people who have given me a personal connection to the broader new music community in Asia. One of these is my mentor, the Cambodian-American composer Chinary Ung, who has many connections to Asian composers both abroad and in the USA. The other person is my wife Jen Chen-Hui (任真慧), a young and very talented Taiwanese composer who didn’t live outside of Taiwan until she began her doctoral studies in San Diego.

In 2009, I began to regularly travel to Taiwan with Chen-Hui and now usually spend my entire summers there. During these trips, we attend multiple new music concerts and often meet her former teachers and many of her performer and conductor friends. While making these connections, I’ve developed a strong interest in both traditional and contemporary Asian music. Wanting to learn more about Asian music, I applied for and won a Fulbright Taiwan Senior Scholar grant for the 2015-16 academic year. I have now been living in Taiwan since last August, teaching composition and music technology at National Chiao Tung University.

Over the years, I’ve realized that many people don’t know that much about Taiwan. Despite its contentious status with China—which considers Taiwan a rogue province and has repeatedly prevented the UN from recognizing it as separate country—Taiwan has a completely autonomous government and most Taiwanese people I’ve met will tell you that they consider Taiwan a country. Taiwan is very small, with only about 23 million people and a geographic size similar to the state of Maryland. Despite this, Taiwan is also one of the world’s largest economies. When it comes to music, if you consider the population, Taiwan also produces an exceedingly large number of highly talented classical musicians who live and perform all over the world. As a personal example, nearly all of my wife’s classmates from throughout her schooling later went abroad to the USA or Europe to study and most of them have remained abroad as professional musicians. I’m often surprised that Chen-Hui seems to know a former classmate living in every large American city we visit. In addition to moving abroad, many Taiwanese musicians also return after their studies to live in Taiwan and, as a result, the skill level of Taiwanese performers and composers is very high.

As a composer, I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to live in and personally get to know many different musical cultures and communities

Now at this point I don’t want to generalize too much, as I still am very much a foreigner in Taiwan and don’t speak or read enough Chinese to fully interact with the culture. This said, I’ve made a few observations over the years about classical and contemporary music here that I think are worth sharing:

1. Classical music concerts are very well attended.

Nearly every concert of classical music or new music that I’ve attended in Taiwan (as well as everywhere else I’ve traveled in Asia) has had an audience that filled two-thirds to three-fourths of the seats. It’s also worth noting that these audiences include people of all ages. This has been the case for concerts in medium to large halls performed by Western and Chinese orchestras, choirs, and even small chamber ensembles.

I was also recently quite surprised when I attended the 2016 ISCM World Music Days in Tongyeong, South Korea. Tongyeong is a small and remote town and is over an hour by car from the nearest big city, Busan. Despite this, the concert venues were relatively large, beautiful, and yet the audience attendance at these concerts was also usually quite sizable.

2. There are not many new music ensembles in Taiwan.

In contrast to some large North American cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, or Montréal that have multiple new music ensembles, Taiwan has only a few. I’ve spoken to some composers from China who have said that there are also very few new music ensembles in China. It’s worth mentioning that three of the most active groups in Taiwan that regularly program contemporary music—Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra, C Camerata Taipei, and Chai Found Music Workshop—all feature traditional Chinese instruments.

3. Most concerts in Taiwan are at least two hours long.

When I help with programming or producing new music concerts in the United States, I try to keep all the concerts around one hour long and never include intermission. I’ve also found that many of my friends programming new music concerts in the USA also keep their concerts at a similar length. From my experience, I’ve found that most people consider this near the perfect length for a concert of new music, because it doesn’t overly tax one’s concentration or appreciation. By contrast, the two-hour concerts I often hear in Taiwan are often exhausting listening experiences. I’ve asked my wife and a number of my other local friends why people usually program such long concerts, and most of them suggest that concerts are so long because audiences expect to get their money’s worth when purchasing tickets.

4. There is almost no DIY approach to new music in Taiwan.

When living in the USA and Canada, many of the most exciting concerts I’ve attended have been performed at small non-traditional venues like art galleries, lofts, studio spaces, bars, or even people’s living rooms. Often many of these venues will host these events at no cost just to help promote the music or build the community.

In Taiwan, almost no concerts are produced in this manner. Also, one usually has to pay large fees to rent any performance space for a concert, including smaller art galleries. Also, music departments at universities don’t own their own concert or recital halls and therefore have to apply to their own university’s concert hall or performance space for the right to produce a concert. This makes it difficult even for faculty and students to program concerts. For example, the concert hall at the university where I teach in Taiwan rejected nearly every concert application our department submitted for the spring semester.

Personally, I think these restrictive concert procedures and costs prevent a lot of new music concerts from happening in Taiwan. In my opinion, it would really benefit the Taiwanese new music community if more people here would try to follow the sort of American and Western DIY approach to concert productions.

5. Western classical music is very popular in Taiwan.

A few things I’ve mentioned before—namely how many classical musicians Taiwan produces, as well as how many people attend classical music concerts—already demonstrate the popularity of Western classical music. I’ve also noticed that when I survey my classes of non-music students in Taiwan, that more than half of the students had studied classical piano or violin and mention that Western classical music is their favorite music to listen to. Also, when I’ve mentioned this observation to a number of my local friends, some have said that listening to classical music is often viewed as a symbol of higher social status in Taiwan.

Related to this last observation, I am sometimes a bit bothered when I consider that the most popular classical music in Taiwan, like most of the rest of the world, is from the classical and romantic periods—a time when the same Western countries were committing terrible colonial atrocities. To me, there seems to be something strange with associating a higher cultural status to an art form that comes from the foreign nations that gained most of their wealth and influence by military force. I don’t mention this to deny the beauty of Western classical music, but rather to state my own perceived reflections on how an over-exaltation of Western culture might corrupt or alter the way the Taiwanese or other Asian cultures view their own classical traditions. For example, I think of how this exaltation has influenced the modern Chinese orchestra, which sought to “improve” traditional Chinese instruments by conforming them to Western classical music models of the symphonic orchestra and equal temperament.

This question of Asian musical and cultural identity in relation to the West is actually a topic that is widely discussed in Taiwan and a lot of Asia. For example, three senior composers—Hsu Tsang-Houei (許常惠, 1929-2001), Ma Shui-Long (馬水龍, 1939-2015), and Pan Hwang-Long (潘皇龍, b. 1945)—have served as models for younger generations by researching and incorporating traditional Chinese and Taiwanese music cultures and instruments into their works. In addition, as educators these composers have included training in traditional Chinese music, such as the guqin, in college composition curricula throughout Taiwan. In my opinion, this sort of hard work to develop what Chou Wen-chung (周文中) calls a “confluence of musical cultures” is far more intriguing than when one just uses Western classical techniques or attempts to westernize Asian musical instruments and ensembles.

In my next few posts, I am going to share some more about my experiences in Asia. I plan to share some contemporary Asian works and music for traditional Chinese instruments, talk about some concert and festivals I’ve heard and have been a part of in Taiwan, as well as share some experiences I’ve had working on developing new music in Cambodia. Also, please feel free to share your comments, thoughts, or observations below!

Jacob Sudol performing at an electronic keyboard.

Jacob David Sudol

Jacob David Sudol writes intimate compositions that explore enigmatic phenomena and the inner nature of how we perceive sound. His music has been performed over one hundred times across the USA as well as in Canada, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Germany, China, Thailand, Japan, Singapore, and Cambodia. In 2012, he founded a cello/electro-acoustic duo with distinguished cellist Jason Calloway and, since 2010, he has been in a piano/electro-acoustic duo with his wife Chen-Hui Jen. He also regularly collaborates on interdisciplinary projects with architect Eric Goldemberg, visual artist Jacek Kolasinski, and Cambodian dancer/choreographer Chankethya Chey. For free sounds, videos, and more information visit his website and his Soundcloud page.