New Music for Chinese Instruments

In my opinion, the most exciting new music being composed and performed in East Asia is for traditional Asian instruments. I’m particularly intrigued by the new music people are writing for Chinese instruments. The best works engage with these instruments’ cultural associations as well as contemporary thinking.

Written By

Jacob Sudol

In my opinion, the most exciting new music being composed and performed in East Asia is for traditional Asian instruments.  I’m particularly intrigued by the new music people are writing for Chinese instruments.

A lot of what excites me about these new works is the sound of the Chinese instruments themselves, as well as their rich musical and performance histories.  In fact, in most cases, these instruments’ histories are even older than most contemporary Western instruments.  For example, the “xiao” (a vertical end-blown flute) and “dizi” (a traverse—e.g. horizontal—side-blown flute) both have histories and performance practices that date back thousands of years.  Also, the music and performance practices of Chinese instruments are often deeply tied to Chinese aesthetics and philosophy.

The best new music for Chinese instruments engages with these instruments’ cultural associations as well as contemporary thinking.

For me, the best new music for Chinese instruments engages with these instruments’ cultural associations as well as contemporary thinking.  I also think that compositions that use this kind of informed approach provide a good example of the “confluence of cultures” that composer and thinker Chou Wen-chung (周文中) advocates.

For this post I’m first going to provide some background by describing some of my experience learning about traditional Chinese music and then discuss some of the 20th-century history of Chinese instruments.  Finally, I am going present some new music for these instruments by seven contemporary composers.

I began to study music for Chinese instruments nearly nine years ago while I was earning my doctorate at the University of California, San Diego.  Some of the first new music I encountered for these instruments were pieces composed by my wife Chen-Hui Jen (任真慧), whom I first met at our graduate student orientation.  I later learned more about the history and aesthetics of Chinese music while auditing a course taught by the Chinese-born American composer Lei Liang (梁雷, b. 1972).   Lastly, one of the most meaningful experiences I had with Chinese music at UCSD was taking “guqin” lessons with Alex Khalili – a fellow doctorate student who had studied the instrument in China with the master Zeng Chengwei (曾成偉).

The guqin is a seven-string fretless zither that is often associated with scholars and thinkers.  For example, experts and guqin masters even speak of a “qin tao” (way of the qin) and use the playing the guqin as a way to understand the right way to live, or even reach enlightenment.  The guqin is also one of the world’s oldest instruments.  For example, the oldest extant composition for a solo instrument in the world is a guqin composition that is commonly attributed to Confucius –“Lonely Orchid” (幽蘭 or 碣石調幽蘭).

The guqin also has a rich classical tradition where the many different playing techniques—such as specific strokes of the fingers, various types of vibrato, and the numerous ways one can play each pitch—are each imbued with deep poetic and spiritual significance.  For example, most classical guqin compositions start with plucked open strings and harmonics.  The open strings are supposed to signify the earth, while the harmonics signify the sky or the heavens.  By starting a composition with these sounds, the beginning of the composition provides a definition of the universe.  After this introduction, the performer then begins to play music by stopping the string with his left hand.  These stopped notes, in contrast to the natural images that the open strings and harmonics evoke, symbolize humanity and human will.

Guan Pinghu (管平湖,1897-1967) performing “Flowing Water” (流水), a composition that first appeared in notation in 1425.

While studying the guqin and traditional Chinese music, I was particularly struck by its relationships to poetry and philosophy.  I’ve also found that the symbolic coding of sounds that I first encountered in classical guqin music has now become central to how I compose and think about my own music.

(Before continuing, if you are interested in learning about the different types of Chinese instruments, there are fortunately many online resources.  For example, the Taiwanese ensemble the Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra has a good basic description of the most widely used instruments on the English version of their website.  Wikipedia also has an introductory entry on Chinese instruments that links to entries on nearly every Chinese instrument.)

Most new music for Chinese instruments can be described by the Chinese term “Sizhu” (絲竹, silk and bamboo).  This term refers to the materials that these instruments were traditionally made of.   Historically these instruments were also not widely standardized and performers often played traditional Chinese music together in small ad hoc chamber ensembles.

In 1920s China, there was a movement to modify as well as standardize the tunings and performance techniques of these instruments.  The advocates of these modifications looked to Western instruments as models for ways to “improve” the local instruments.  Some of the modifications included replacing silk with stronger metal or plastic-wrapped metal strings to make the instruments louder, adapting instruments to fit equal temperament, and increasing the pitch ranges of instruments like the sheng (a mouth organ) and the pipa (a four-string fretted lute).

One of the leaders of this movement was the composer and musician Liu Tian-Hua (劉天華, 1895-1932).  Lin studied Western composition and founded “Guoyue Gai Jin She” (The Organization of Chinese National Music Improvement) in the 1920s.  He also adapted the five-line staff for both his compositions and transcriptions for Chinese instruments.  This notation made it easier for Chinese instrumentalists to play together.  In terms of modifying the instruments, he added additional frets to the pipa so that it could play more pitches and play in 12-tone equal temperament. He also borrowed techniques from Western string playing to adapt the erhu (a two-string fiddle) from an instrument that primarily plays accompaniment to a highly virtuosic instrument not unlike the violin.

Today, the modern Chinese orchestra is a firmly established ensemble all over the world, and most major cities in the Chinese-speaking world have their own local Chinese orchestra.

All of these modifications of Chinese instruments also led to the founding of the modern Chinese orchestra, a large ensemble modeled on the Western orchestra.  The Chinese orchestra groups Chinese instruments into different families in a manner similar to how the Western orchestra groups instruments together.  For example, in the Chinese orchestra all of the huqin (different sized two-string fiddles) are grouped into a large string section that sits at the front of the ensemble.

Originally these Chinese orchestras mostly played music based on traditional Chinese music and themes.  People called this music National music in order to distinguish it from the music that a Western orchestra performs.  Today, the modern Chinese orchestra is a firmly established ensemble all over the world, and most major cities in the Chinese-speaking world have their own local Chinese orchestra.

In the past, Chinese instruments were mostly taught and performed within societies  (i.e. groups of people interested in performing, studying, and teaching Chinese instruments).  Although I am unfamiliar with other countries in the region, in the 1970s Taiwan began to offer official Chinese instrument training at universities, high schools, and even elementary schools throughout the country.  As a result of these and similar education programs, there are now many highly skilled Chinese instrument performers through Asia and across the globe. The education programs have been so successful that many young Chinese instrumentalists are just as virtuosic on their instruments as the best Western instrument performers.

A Taiwan elementary school Chinese music ensemble performing National music.

In recent decades, a number of composers have worked to write and promote a kind of “new music” for Chinese instruments that moves beyond the aforementioned National music.  I am going to focus on just a few of the many composers who write new music using this approach. Also, since most of my Asian experience and knowledge of new Asian music is based in Taiwan, I am mostly going to present the music of Taiwanese composers.

Ma Shui-Long: Concerto for Bamboo Flute and Orchestra (1981) for dizi and Chinese orchestra

Ma Shui-Long (馬水龍, 1939 – 2015) was one of the most important senior composers and composition educators in Taiwan, as well as one of the first Taiwanese composers to gain an international reputation.  Ma was also one of the first Taiwanese composers to frequently compose new music for the modern Chinese instruments.  In addition to writing more serious concert music, he also wrote more popular works, such as the Concerto for Bamboo Flute and Orchestra.  As a university administrator as well as a member of the Taiwanese Ministries of Education and Culture, Ma also played a crucial role in developing music composition curricula in Taiwan.

Pan Hwang-Long: East and West VII (2016) for three Chinese instruments and four Western instruments performed by C Camerata Taipei

Pan Hwang-Long (潘皇龍, b. 1945) is one of the most important and influential living composers in Taiwan.  After studying with Isang Yun and Helmut Lachenmann in Germany from 1976 to 1982, he returned to Taiwan to teach, compose, and promote new music in Asia.  Pan also developed a composition technique to synthesize some of his teachers’ methods for writing for instruments with Asian musical approaches and thought.  In this system, he classifies the different types of sounds that instruments make—such as trills, glissandi, harmonics, tremolos, etc.—into different categories.  He then uses these categories as the elements that define or guide the structure and form of a composition.  One of the tremendous advantages of this approach is that it presents a way to merge Lachenmann’s modern deconstructive approach with a traditional Asian focus on sound as a structural element.  This approach also presents an intelligent way to combine different instruments and create novel methods of structural and formal expression.

In the 1990s, Pan Hwang-Long began to regularly collaborate with the Taiwanese Sizhu ensemble Chai Found Music Workshop on creating and promoting new music for Chinese instruments.  In 1998, Pan wrote his first work that combined Eastern (or Chinese) and Western instruments together, East and WestEast and West VII is the seventh piece in this cycle of works that combines instruments from different global cultures.  This composition features a unique, angular, bold, and distinct character that any listener familiar with Pan’s music can easily identify.

(N.B. Although the title of this cycle officially translates to East and West, the original Chinese title 東南西北 translates to “East South West North.”  Unlike the simple opposition that the English title suggests, the original Chinese title carries many additional layers of meaning that are literally lost in translation.)

Tung Chao-Ming: Lotusduft (2008) for solo guzheng

This past Sunday, I attended one of the best Chinese instrument concerts I’ve heard.

This past Sunday (May 15, 2016), I attended one of the best Chinese instrument concerts I’ve heard – a concert of guzheng music by Qin Wenchen (秦文琛, b. 1966) and Tung Chao-Ming (董昭民, b. 1969).  A highlight of the concert was when the tremendous young guzheng virtuoso Kuo Min-Chin (郭岷勤, b.1986) performed the three works I’ve shared directly above.

Qin Wenchen is considered one of the most important living Chinese composers.  He was born in Inner Mongolia and studied at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.  After graduating he was hired to teach composition at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, the most prestigious music school in China.  After becoming a professor, he received a scholarship to study with Nicolaus Huber in Germany from 1998 to 2001.  Qin’s music is very special in that he aims to develop an aesthetic that focuses on Chinese arts and his own Mongolian culture rather than any aspect of Western culture.

Chao-Ming is, in my opinion, one of the best younger Taiwanese composers.  He is also a dear friend and one of my colleagues at National Chiao Tung University.  Chao-Ming was one of Qin Wenchen’s classmates when they both studied with Huber.  While living in Germany, Chao-Ming also studied with Mauricio Kagel.   Besides composing, Chao-Ming plays many Chinese instruments, often works with technology, improvises, and frequently produces large collaborative inter-media theater pieces.  These other activities often influence his compositions.  For example, his music often features theatrical elements and/or experiment with instrumental techniques and the choreography of performance.  Recently, like Qin, he has been working to create a new, uniquely Chinese and Asian approach to composition.

The modern guzheng is a 21-string zither with 21 movable bridges.  Traditionally performers pluck the strings on the right side of the bridge and apply pressure to strings to the left side to raise or lower the sounding pitch.   The guzheng is also traditionally tuned to a pentatonic scale.

Qin Wenchen breaks both of these traditional guzheng approaches in his companion compositions Prayer Flags in the Wind (2010) and Chorales in the Wind (2011).  Both works require the performer to tune every string on the right side to different octaves and small microtonal variations of the same pitch.  In Prayer Flags in the Wind, the performer does not pluck the strings.  Instead, he or she bows and strikes the guzheng with a fiddle bow to evoke a sustained aura of Lamaistic ritual music.  In performance, the resulting sounds of the guzheng’s sympathetic resonances fill the concert space and gave me visions of the wide-open expanses of a desert.

A remarkable feature of Qin’s guzheng tuning for these two pieces is that the left side of the guzheng, which performers normally don’t pluck, is tuned very close to a pentatonic scale.  The composition Chorales in the Wind takes advantage of this by slowly revealing a simple melody played on the wrong side of the bridge.   To me, the uneven and slightly broken timbres of these strings evoke an impression of an exotic Chinese folk instrument playing a lost traditional lament.

In Lotusduft, Chao-Ming deconstructs how each hand and subtle finger movement is used to play the guzheng to create new methods of playing the instrument.  These new techniques, although related to traditional ones, greatly expand the timbral, gestural, and expressive power of the instrument.  As the work unfolds, these unique sound combinations reveal many related melodic fragments that progressively unify the work.  Also, at a few points in the work, Chao-Ming even choreographs the performer’s movements in the air above the instrument.  In those moments, it feels to me as if the work’s life and energy is so great that it cannot even be contained within the guzheng itself.  (N.B. Although I posted an audio file of this composition directly above, I also recommend watching this video of Yu-Chen Wang playing the same work so that you can appreciate its visual elements.)

Chen-Hui Jen: Through a Fading Autumn (2009-2010) for 2 huqins, pipa, and guzheng

Chen-Hui Jen (任真慧, b. 1981) is a young and very talented composer from Taiwan, as well as my lovely wife.  In Taiwan, she worked with Lee Tzyy-Sheng during high school and her undergraduate studies, and then with Pan Hwang-Long during her master’s studies.  After moving to America, she worked with Chinary Ung during her doctorate studies at the University of California, San Diego.

Chen-Hui grew up around music for Chinese instruments.  Her mom plays the guzheng as well as many other Sizhu instruments, and both she and her sister studied erhu before entering college.  Since finishing her undergraduate degree, Chen-Hui has composed many pieces that feature Chinese instruments.   A number of these works have won major prizes in Taiwan and have been selected for performance at international festivals.  Since 2008, she has also collaborated regularly with the Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra.

Through a Fading Autumn is one of Chen-Hui’s most personal and deeply moving compositions.  The work is a memorial honoring her younger sister, who passed away in the fall of 2009.  Structurally, the work can be described as a concerto for two huqin that act either as one super huqin or as two soloists.  The two huqin can also be seen to represent Chen-Hui and her sister.  The plucking sounds of guzheng and pipa are designed to provide a timbral contrast.  However, given the personal nature of the work, one could also interpret the guzheng and pipa as representing their mother and father.  In the beautiful last minutes of the work, all four instruments share a Buddhist funeral prayer melody.  One could hear this moment as the four family members praying together.  (N.B. This recording features the huqin teacher Chen-Hui and her sister studied with.  Also, two of Chen-Hui’s closest cousins play huqin and pipa on this recording.)

Jacob Sudol: …after a mountain stream rain  (谿山遇雨) (2011) for six Chinese instruments, performed by members of Chai Found Music Workshop

…after a mountain stream rain (谿山遇雨) is the first piece I composed for Sizhu ensemble.  I wrote the work for the Chai Found Music Workshop Formosa Landscape/2011 Sizhu Music Composition Contest and the work won third prize.

The composition draws its inspiration from a trip I took with Chen-Hui and some of her family to Xitou, Taiwan, in July 2010.  The composition represents a sonic memory of the first walk we took after arriving at our destination.

The work is broken into two sections; each describes a different scene from this walk.

The first part, approximately one half of the composition, evokes the high mountain forest in Xitou. This begins with rubbing and breath sounds that represent both literal and metaphorical or nostalgic mists, similar to the rubbing sounds in the classical guqin composition Mists over Xiao and Xiang Rivers (瀟湘水雲).   In …after a mountain stream rain, these rubbing mist-like sounds occasionally go along with pitch bends in the same way they would on the guqin.  However, as the music progresses, these mist-like sounds develop new identities such as the winds that precede an afternoon Summer monsoon rain and the scratching of forest locusts.  At the same time as these sonic transformations, pitches begin to arrive and gradually begin to descend and swirl like a pre-sunset rain shower.

The second half evokes a grand view of clouds evaporating and lifting from the edges of the mountains near Xitou.  As the music progresses to the end, the material gradually fades away, resembling both the darkening sky and the scene receding back into memory.

  • If you are interested in hearing more new music for Chinese instruments, Little Giant Chinese Chamber Orchestra’s YouTube channel has an incredibly large collection of videos from their performances. You can also typically find more videos online if you search a composer’s Chinese name.
  • If you are interested in learning more about the guqin, I highly recommend the book The Lore of the Chinese Lute (1938) by Robert H. Van Gulik. This work is so widely appreciated that I’ve even seen Chinese translations of it on sale in Taiwan.
  • Finally, I need to mention that I would not have been able to write this post without the help of my lovely wife, Jen Chen-Hui. She graciously shared some of her research to help me write the parts about Pan Hwang-Long and the Westernization of Chinese instruments. She also gave me advice throughout the writing of this post as well as suggested and helped me track down a number of the online musical examples that I was unable to find on my own.