Tag: cultural exchange

Cultural Appropriation in Classical Music?

A group of bicycles chained to a rack one of which is just one tire, presumably because the rest of the bike was stolen.

It was my pleasure to attend a banquet honoring my primary composition professor, Chinary Ung, on the occasion of his Grawemeyer award. Full disclosure: I was a graduate student working toward two masters degrees, one in music theory and composition (college of fine arts) and another in the anthropological study of Native American ritual and performance (college of liberal arts). Chinary’s award-winning work, Inner Voices, showcased his Cambodian heritage in an exquisite composition. At the event, the Dean of Fine Arts, Seymour Rosen, who had come to Arizona State University from his directorship at Carnegie Hall, leaned in to me and commented, “Hearing Chinary’s work is the first time I’ve ever heard culture in music.” With my best banquet decorum, I found a conciliatory smile. Inside, my jaw dropped. I had never in my entire life considered music without culture before; culture was a musical fact like gravity. I wondered, was every work ever performed at Carnegie Hall without culture? How could the whole of Western music not have culture when I was certain the music of most every other heritage on earth likely did? Why would anyone characterize Western music as so antithetical to the rest of the globe?

Why would anyone characterize Western music as so antithetical to the rest of the globe?

The discord of the incongruity stuck with me months later. The longer I thought about it on a wider scope, the more I realized, the broader issue was two-fold. First, non-Western traditions are more often than not considered unimportant and rendered invisible in Western music until, for example, a non-Western composer wins a prestigious award. One outcome of genocidal imperialism is that erasing people also erases their music, so the resultant naiveté about Native Americans may sit somewhere along the ignorance-is-bliss scale as a byproduct of ethnic cleansing. Second, there is an air of cultural neutrality in Western classical art music, where music is considered an expression of sound alone, devoid of ancestral roots or indigenous cosmology—a Western birthright that functions as the default mainstay foundation for equitable, objective, unbiased sonority. It’s an aesthetic legacy where the existential postulate, the basic idea of how life operates, denotes Western art music as culturally impartial. Though it seems ironic, acultural neutrality is a narrative the West has culturally taught itself. This perception has been reinforced by important advocates who have spun acultural threads into neutral garments worn uncritically by many conductors, performers, and ensembles. If you’ve ever taken a theory class in music school, you were most likely enrolled in “Music Theory 101,” for example, or “Pedagogy of Music Theory,” when more correctly, those courses should be identified as Western music theory. Similarly, the monolithic Western category of “World Music” impedes understanding the consummate diversity of non-Western traditions. Such illustrations are numerous and systemic.

The monolithic Western category of “World Music” impedes understanding the consummate diversity of non-Western traditions.

From a traditional Native American viewpoint, our music is not invisible and not acultural. It takes Native Americans to create our music, though those outside the cultures may not easily recognize the indigenous characteristics. The attempted erasure of indigenous people has been thorough and relentless. Still, at recent count, there are 573 federally recognized tribal nations—treatied nations—not counting the hundreds of cultures in the Alaska Native villages. We are still here.

Mohican Nation elders outdoors marching with flags at a powwow.

Powwow Grand Entry of Stockbridge-Munsee Band of the Mohican Nation, WI, 2017

So who is Native American? It all comes down to American Indian sovereignty. The United States treatied with American Indians on a nation-to-nation level, recognizing the inherent and legal right for Natives to determine our own lives. The treaties are contracts in exchange for massive amounts of land and resources and are considered the “supreme law of the land,” on the same level as the US Constitution. So, contrary to various claims of family folklore, high cheekbones, or DNA tests, to be considered a Native American, one must be enrolled as a citizen of a specific, federally-recognized tribal nation. Because of sovereignty, in other words, only Native Americans themselves can determine our own citizens.

Nothing about traditional indigenous life is acultural. Traditional Native people know themselves to be related to the earth and to the other inhabitants of the planet, whether those others be human or non-human. Native cosmologies are not hierarchical but reciprocal and operate with existential postulates of barter-and-exchange with the environment or others, not dominion over it. Through a life-and-death process of reciprocity, extended kinship with the earth and others, and the giving and receiving of gifts, Native people strive not for ‘dominion over’ but for balance with the world.

For the West, language is a means of representing something real. But for Native languages, words create reality.

Another aspect of traditional American Indian life is the generative nature of language rather than its being representative of something. For the West, language is a means of representing something real, and words themselves stand for something by denoting it; language personifies what is thought to be ‘really real’ in Western thought. In this way, words are seen as tiny canoes that carry meaning inside them while being sent along a transmission conduit. But for Native languages, words create reality; they spawn it, and are considered generative. Indigenous languages are known to give rise to what is really real. For Native people, life moves along however life is spoken, whether enacted through speech, ceremonially performed, or reciprocated with extended kinship relations. This generative way of perceiving the world is something shared by many indigenous peoples; while these world views are not exactly the same, they bear family resemblances to each other. My primary religious studies professor, Ken Morrison, took stock of the generative nature of Native cosmologies from several indigenous perspectives:

In fact, as has been demonstrated amply for the Navajo (Gill 1977), Yaqui (Yoeme) (Evers and Molina 1987), and Lakota (Bunge 1984; Powers 1986), Native American languages encode the insight that speech is a power all persons share. As Gary Witherspoon (1977) has shown, the Navajo think of language as generative rather than, as in European convention, representative. Navajo speech does not encode realities which might exist independently, objectively apart from itself. In Witherspoon’s interpretation, Navajo words do not mirror reality. Words do not stand for, or as is often said, symbolize any reality apart from themselves. On the contrary, Navajo speech embodies the speaker’s intentionality, and extends the self beyond the body, to shape a reality coming into being… (Morrison 2000)

Most Native languages have no equivalent word for “music” or “art.”

A generative process is how indigenous music works as well, though most Native languages have no equivalent word for “music” or “art.” The closest comparison might be ‘song,’ but that still neglects the generative process at work. Songs are not fixed nouns for indigenous life, so more insight might come from a process of song-ing or music-ing. A traditional Native American view of song-ing would not conceptually match what is understood as “music” in a Western sense.

For Native Americans, the song-ings are considered voicings of the originators, and although sometimes they are communally shared, they cannot be autonomously borrowed away from the originator. Because it is regarded as a generative process, what a Native American enacts with song-ing moves life in that direction; what is sung about happens. When generative song-ing occurs, it’s like birthing out performative sequences of life. No two sequential songs are the same in the process, just as no two successive moments are identical. Indigenous cultures see music like giving birth so that each new song event is a new creation. The song being sung might be a time-honored song, but when performed it is newly reborn—it is not considered the same song.

Moreover, Indigenous song-ing stands in direct contrast to those strains of Western music that assume songs are fixed once written and codified. And because Indian music-ing is not fixed, whatever is recorded or written down is considered a leftover of the process. From an American Indian point of view, fixed music remains, simply, the observable remnants of a music-ing process.

Consider the concert hall experience and that of a powwow.

A lucid example of the Western music aesthetic versus an indigenous one would be to consider the concert hall experience and that of a powwow. In the concert hall, the quality of the sound becomes the preeminent value, conceptually superseding the players and the audience. In a concert hall, the audience and orchestra are kept in separate spaces, and the flow of activity is directed from the orchestra to the audience, which remains seated, silent, and motionless. The performers all wear black to hide any individuality, and concerts are typically appraised on the “ugliness” or “beauty” of their collective sound.

Various people assembled outdoors at a Mohican Nation powwow.

Powwow grounds of Stockbridge-Munsee Band of the Mohican Nation, WI, 2017

At a powwow, the relationships of the participants outweigh all other features for appraising a powwow, including the sound. The performers and participants are often sharing the same space, and there is a high level of interactivity between the two groups, almost to the point of non-distinction. People walk, talk, and move all around the venue at will. The performers wear all manner of bright colors, which accent their individuality, and the general philosophy is to create positive and interactive relationships. Some singers may be better voiced than others, but the value is not placed on the sounds they make. If good relations take place, it is a ‘good’ powwow, regardless of the music. The process of enacting a powwow—the doing of it—is the intrinsic value of a powwow, which in turn values the participants and their activities deeply. It is the relational process that is paramount, not the music.

What about the mixing or sharing of cultures? Obviously, it happens all the time, just as I am simultaneously an enrolled citizen of an indigenous nation and scholastically trained as a modern composer. To be clear, I was not coerced into Western composition but picked it as my chosen career path. That decision was a consequence of mutual culture sharing and a process of balanced acculturation, very different from what we call “forced culture change,” when cultures are forced to change their cosmologies according to the existential postulates of the domineering culture.

What about the mixing or sharing of cultures? Obviously, it happens all the time.

While I chose a path of Western music, there remains part of my history that was not grown of a balanced mutual exchange, as my use of English instead of Mohican, Munsee, or Lenape reveals. My ancestors experienced rampant extermination along with forced cultural change, massive theft of land and resources, coercion to learn English and adopt Western ways, all while facing abuse and death for being indigenous. Our population of 22,000 along the banks of the Mohheconnituck (Hudson River) was reduced to about 200 souls within two generations. Without exaggeration, we barely escaped total annihilation; an eradication capitalized on by James Fenimore Cooper in his novel, The Last of the Mohicans. Forced Culture Change is basically genocide.

So yes, not all cultural exchanges are equivalent. Where adjacent cultures may mix on equal terms, there can be sharing and collaboration. But in many cases in North America where the indigenous people faced eradication and forced culture change, no such equal sharing or collaboration was possible—quite the opposite transpired. As Native Americans, we remember the major culture clashes when colonists with a hard-driving philosophy of “ownership” forced us to give up our lands, waters, resources, languages, cultures, and in many cases, our lives. We were prohibited from enacting our ceremonies under penalty of death. Native Americans today are cultural survivors of the American holocaust, the real world effects of which we still face.

Not all cultural exchanges are equivalent.

One historical co-optation of Native American song-ing in Western music was the American Indianist era, where Native American songs were codified and assimilated into written compositions by non-indigenous composers. Non-Indians composed hordes of pseudo-Indian operas, lieder, piano pieces, and all manner of musical works. Further, the American Indianist appropriations were plagued by an error of reasoning—a kind of musical Darwinism. Rather than attempting to meet indigenous people on equal terms with genuine collaboration, the Indianist composers mistook their poaching of Indian life as the discovery of a ‘primitive’ precursor to their own ‘civilization.’ Spurred on by the written transcriptions of Alice Fletcher, Ruth Underhill, Frances Densmore, and others from the late 1800s into the early 1900s, Indianists were busy gathering Indian songs (as one might pick a bushel of apples), codifying what they thought was true Indian music, and grossly misunderstanding what Indians were really doing. Therefore, we should never consider, for example, Charles Wakefield Cadman’s famous work “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters” (with an Omaha tune transcribed by Fletcher) as an indigenous song—it is not. “Sky Blue Waters” is a Cadman song.

Though American Indianists are of the past, the systemic erasure of indigenous life and music continues today. Minute cultural awarenesses break through sometimes, but often the positive changes we are desperate for are obstructed—innocently or intentionally—by the numerous gatekeepers of Western classical music. Those who share the gatekeeping power to allow-or-block indigenous participation are the consorting composers, conductors, ensembles, financial supporters, marketing executives, performers, producers, reviewers, soloists, theorists, venues, and anyone else swimming in that sizable pool. What’s more, also considering art forms adjacent to Western music, such as modern dance, ballet, theater, movies, and the like, that pool becomes an ocean. To verify the gatekeeping effect by orchestras, specifically, a quick look at the Orchestra Season Analysis published by the Institute for Composer Diversity (ICD) each year reveals how orchestras fare especially low for diversity, participation by Native Americans being among the least of all. Yet a growing number of composers who are federally-recognized Native American citizens are listed in the ICD databases of catalogued works. There are scores of professional composers indigenous to the continent, not to mention the even greater demography of indigenous musicians. It’s woefully dreadful that so much contemporary erasure of indigenous culture is propagated from within the field of Western classical music. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Roomful of Teeth employed one of their members, Caroline Shaw, who is herself non-Inuit, to use Inuit throat singing.

The recent cultural venture by the non-indigenous vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth (RoT) into the world of Inuit music might serve as another case in point. It appears that RoT employed Inuits to teach them a remarkable Inuit activity known as “throat singing”, a musical game structure between two Inuit singers. Then RoT employed one of their members, Caroline Shaw, who is herself non-Inuit, to use Inuit throat singing as part of her composition Partita for 8 Voices. The striking work so excited the award panel that they honored the composer with a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013. But in 2019, the prominent Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq accused Shaw and RoT of cultural appropriation using Inuit throat singing without proper acknowledgment or compensation.

Because the winning work was perhaps a mixture of many styles, including Inuit throat singing, it would be a difficult task to determine if any legal copyright infringement occurred without delving deeper into all the influences of the composition, and determining what percentage was culturally borrowed. Avoiding the individualistic legal copyright issue, and setting aside the “indigenous intellectual property” issue (an effort by the United Nations to protect the cultural knowledge and collective intellectual property of indigenous people), it does seem to my ears that some measure of cultural appropriation as likely as not occurred with respect to the Inuit culture. In his UCLA doctoral dissertation, Joshua H. Saulle identified Shaw’s partial use of “Inuit throat-singing” as one ingredient in a cultural and musical mix he characterized as “gumbo”:

Shaw’s Courante is dominated … by sounds derived from the practice of katajjak, or Inuit throat-singing. This practice is the basis for the rapid inhale-exhale gestures that form the surface texture of much of the movement, as well as the imitative hocket and gradually-unfolding, procedural structure. The third element in this musical/cultural gumbo is the 1855 hymn ‘Shining Shore’ by George F. Root, which is introduced in the movement’s second large section.

Brad Wells, RoT Founder and Artistic Director, answered Tagaq’s accusation with an anecdote published in Indy Week (Dan Ruccia, 2019) that inferred there is no distinction to be made between a mutually equitable exchange of culture versus America’s unrestrained use of forced cultural change against indigenous people, missing the genocidal backstory of Inuit life specifically, and Native American life generally:

I remember, a few months ago, talking to an anthropology professor who had studied textiles on some Southeast Asian island about how the textiles responded to Westerners coming through from the fifteen-hundreds on. The artists on those islands immediately started to take advantage of Western art aspects, sometimes subtly, sometimes less so. The question of cultural appropriation assumes that the powerful culture is the only one that is involved in the exchange, but in fact these exchanges are happening constantly. There’s an arrogance in our role, thinking of ourselves as the powerful culture and handpicking little things to use to our profit. These exchanges happen everywhere all the time, and you can’t stop them. They can enrich everybody.

Wells has failed, ahistorically and aculturally, to respond to the stern warning that forced culture change teaches.

From his assertion, it appears that Wells insisted all cultural exchange is of the mutually equitable variety that is “happening constantly.” Yet Wells has failed, ahistorically and aculturally, to respond to the stern warning that forced culture change teaches. A quick look at the RoT website reveals the ensemble is “dedicated to mining the expressive potential of the human voice. Through study with masters from singing traditions the world over, the eight-voice ensemble continually expands its vocabulary of singing techniques and, through an ongoing commissioning process, forges a new repertoire without borders.” Respectfully, considering their mission from an indigenous point of view, and acknowledging America’s long term genocidal undertaking against Native Americans, I wonder where cultural acknowledgment and respect—and collaborative equity—might fit into the RoT approach, given Tagaq’s objections. Growing a toolkit of vocal techniques gleaned from cultures around the world sounds a bit acultural to me. And combined with an effort to commission works by folks not from those cultures does sound a bit like cultural appropriation.

Setting aside the RoT discussion, there are reverential ways to collaborate that are neither tokenistic nor exploitive. If non-indigenous composers want to intersect with indigenous life, why not build collaborative relationships with indigenous artists? Despite efforts to eradicate them, for example, the Inuit remain living cultural treasures with whom to develop cultural and professional relationships. And those relations can be personally, culturally, and musically amazing.

Why not build collaborative relationships with indigenous artists?

Once, I was invited to perform throat singing onstage with Lois Suluk in Albuquerque, but as a flutist. I sometimes perform extended flute techniques on my handmade quartz flutes, including whispering, singing and playing, and vocalizing with inhaled-exhaled breathing effects. So, in 2010, I had the privilege and honor to partner in a throat singing exchange with an Inuit singer at the El Rey Theater, and I have the picture to prove it! To this day, Lois remains my colleague and friend. As a Native American myself, and as a professional composer of some experience, I absolutely affirm that relationships with indigenous people are wholly necessary for doing indigenous music of any kind, where true American Indian voices are heard.

Lois Suluk and Brent Michael Davids performing at Albuquerque's El Rey Theater in 2010.

Lois Suluk and Brent Michael Davids performing at Albuquerque’s El Rey Theater in 2010.

Indigenous and non-indigenous people, alike, might encourage each other in meaningful collaboration with living, changing, vibrant cultures in ways that remain dynamic. And conversely, misconstruing and twisting Native American music into something less than authentic is a blunder that can no longer be ignored. As further explanation, I’ve been extremely lucky to have worked firsthand with two renowned ensembles, Chanticleer and Kronos Quartet, who both carried out processes of cultural exchange and commissioning that were artistically enriching and entirely respectful.

I’m grateful to composer Chen Yi, who first introduced me to Chanticleer. Chanticleer then invited me to teach them about indigenous singing styles, exploring those techniques on their own voices, and having in-depth discussions about Native American cultures, especially my own. I explained to Chanticleer much of what I’ve written above, about existential postulates, forced culture change, song-ing, and the life-and-death reciprocity of indigenous cosmologies. Afterward, and subsequently through the years, they have commissioned several works from me; Chanticleer felt it was especially important to contract with me as a Mohican-Lenape composer to create the indigenous-inspired works they would later perform. Chanticleer’s modus operandi was to collaborate directly with indigenous composers for their indigenous-inspired commissions.

My Kronos story is very similar. David Harrington’s mother, Hazel, read a newspaper article that peripherally compared my music to her son’s ensemble. She clipped out the article and sent it to him. David visited me, and after several hours of talking over most of the explanations I’ve included above, he commissioned a new work from me that very afternoon. And over the years, I have composed three works for Kronos that intersect Native American aesthetics and Western music. Even more, I’m not the only indigenous collaborator with whom they’ve worked; Kronos has invited new commissions from celebrated Diné composer Raven Chacon and the distinguished Inuit throat singer herself, Tanya Tagaq. Kronos Quartet’s modus operandi was to collaborate directly with indigenous composers for their indigenous-inspired commissions.

We must engage in genuine relationships that do not diminish or erase cultural realities in favor of some questionable aesthetic of neutrality.

It is my firm belief that by championing a respectful cultural process as an artistic standard we not only achieve important cross-cultural understanding, but we form important intercultural relations with each other. With cultural respect comes a deeper historical context for approaching the quality of music. In order to approach composers and compositions, we must engage in genuine relationships that do not diminish or erase cultural realities in favor of some questionable aesthetic of neutrality. We must admit that quality is measured with cultural understanding, not through detached vocal craft or objectified technique. Music may be well crafted, but what is the music saying? Where are the relationships in the process? What communities are involved? What lives beyond the Western musical hegemony? Can we jettison the impossible acultural neutrality narrative in Western classical music to discover a mutually enriching exchange of culture?

Two Native American drummers rehearsing with the members of a symphony orchestra

Dakota drum group Maza Kute with Mankato Symphony Orchestra, rehearsing Davids’ “Black Hills Olowan,” 2010

Truly a Wenren—Remembering Chou Wen-chung (1923-2019)

Three people posing together for a photo

Some reflections by Chen Yi

We still don’t want to believe that Professor Chou has passed away. Tears are not enough to express our profound sadness and grief over this tremendous loss. He is a music giant who brought us to and taught us at Columbia University, and mentored us in our creative lives for decades. He has made a huge contribution to the music of our time, yet he is a father-like figure to us. He will be missed by all of us tremendously, and his legacy will live with us forever. Our heavy hearts brought us back to countless memories of his vivid voice and energetic gestures.

Chou Wen-chung has made a huge contribution to the music of our time, yet he is a father-like figure to us.

Remembering when I studied composition at the Central Conservatory in Beijing in the early 80s, once in a lecture given at the library, to introduce newly imported music recordings, I surprisingly heard a recording of Prof. Chou Wen-chung’s Soliloquy of a Bhiksuni for trumpet and wind ensemble. I just jumped up! Even though it wasn’t in Chinese folk-music style, it struck me as so Chinese! I was deeply impressed by the Chinese spirits hidden behind the striking sonorities. At that time, most Chinese compositions used pentatonic scales in melodic writing while using Western harmony and formal designs, but this piece was not based on pure pentatonic scales. I ran and got the LP recording and I saw his photograph. I realized then that he must have been born in China, and I was very excited by this Chinese-American composer’s music. This is the first time I heard the name — Chou Wen-chung! I discovered that Prof. Chou was involved as a US delegate to China in the late 1970s. He donated many scores, recordings, books, and other materials to Chinese conservatories. After the librarians had catalogued all of these materials, they were made available to students for study from a series of new imported record broadcasting sessions. It was at that point we were introduced to Chou Wen-chung’s music.

I was also lucky enough to have attended his lecture when he visited the Central Conservatory. His public lecture was hosted by the Musicology Department, and attended by many professors and some students in the Musicology and Composition Departments. Besides introducing contemporary American composers and their music, Prof. Chou also answered many questions about music education in American universities. We then learned that he taught at Columbia University in New York City.

It was my privilege to have the opportunity to join my husband Zhou Long to study with Prof. Chou at Columbia in 1986. After graduating with our Bachelor’s degrees in 1983, Zhou Long became the resident composer of the China National Broadcasting Symphony, and I became a graduate student at the Central Conservatory. I needed another three years of study to obtain my Master’s degree, so I came to New York one year later. When I got to know Prof. Chou more closely for the first time in 1986, which was several years after we had attended his lecture at the Central Conservatory and right before I came to the US, it was during the First Contemporary Chinese Composers Festival held in Hong Kong. Prof. Chou took all of our young composers from Mainland China to a delicious Chinese banquet at which we talked about Chinese culture, Chinese music, and its future. This also became a regular event after I arrived at Columbia. Every month, Prof. Chou would host a meeting at the US-China Arts Exchange to discuss Chinese music tradition and heritage, and our responsibility and effort in carrying it on in our culture and society. After each meeting, Prof. Chou took us to a fancy Chinese restaurant on Broadway. We all greatly looked forward to this gathering every month. However, when Zhou Long and I graduated from Columbia in 1993, Prof. Chou and his wife Yi-An treated us to a fancy dinner at a great French restaurant in Greenwich Village. We will never forget the taste and the beautiful mood of that evening. Prof. Chou became our great mentor and we had a close relationship throughout the years since then.

The most important impact of Prof. Chou’s influence on me was not only to use basic composition techniques to write music, but the in-depth study of both Chinese and Western cultures, which would provide inspiration for getting creative concepts and methods for controlling and developing musical elements. The outcome would be unique, in our own language. Prof. Chou inspired me a lot with compositional concepts that unite Eastern and Western styles and techniques. In our early years at Columbia, I also translated many program notes of Prof. Chou’s compositions into Chinese, when his works were being played in Mainland China and Taiwan. I enjoyed doing that because Prof. Chou’s notes are so poetic and beautifully written in English that you have to concentrate hard to find how to say these things correctly in Chinese, in a way that will keep their beautiful literary character and not make them just a frank, straight reciting of facts.

Zhou Long and I also produced a series of programs for Shanghai Dong Fang Radio to introduce 20th-century music. We had one and a half hours in three half-hour segments devoted to the music of Prof. Chou. I compiled all of the materials about his music, wrote the texts for the programs, and discussed his creations in various periods and styles: The first was about the early works of the late ‘40s and ‘50s, like Landscapes (1949) and And the Fallen Petals (1954), which are important orchestral pieces that have been played by many of the major orchestras. Then in the second program came the more abstract style of writing heard in Cursive (1963) and even more so in a very complex score like Yun (1969), which is extremely sophisticated. The third program was devoted to his later works. These three radio programs were widely heard in China and musicians continue to talk about them.

These experiences opened up my view and helped me to break boundaries and find my own voice – as, for example, writing in the style of Chinese musical storytelling, and the reciting tunes in Beijing Opera. I consider this my turning point in terms of new compositional language, concept, and technique. In the technical aspects of composition, Prof. Chou was very precise. He would look at any score carefully first, and he would recommend improvements; then, if I would come back the next week, he would look at it again, then circle a note and say: “Look at that note! You did not fix it. Can you tell me a reason?”

Chen Yi with Chou Wen-chung at the piano.

Chen Yi with Chou Wen-chung at the piano.

Prof. Chou was very precise. He would look at any score carefully first, and he would recommend improvements; then, if I would come back the next week, he would look at it again, then circle a note and say: “Look at that note! You did not fix it. Can you tell me a reason?”

He also showed us paintings and calligraphy, and he would tell us how he thought of these as counterpoint. He would look at brush strokes on the page and he would see the space between the inner and outer edges of the stroke and the way that it changed as a sort of counterpoint. My pipa solo piece The Points uses an idea like this. In calligraphy, every stroke begins with a point. After you set down the first dot, you turn the brush to make the different strokes that you want; so, the point, the beginning of each stroke, is very important in drawing Chinese calligraphy. Prof. Chou asked me and inspired me to write this piece, which was premiered at the New Music Consort’s season concert devoted to Chinese composers’ music, as part of the NEWworksOCTOBER concert series at Columbia University in 1991, and it won me a reputation because it has been widely performed. In China, it has been the subject of a thesis and it is now a required piece for musicians who study pipa performance at the conservatory as well as in many competitions.

When I was a DMA student at Columbia, Prof. Chou recommended me to become a part of an ISCM film production called Sound and Silence (which was co-produced by Polish National Television and French Adamov Films) and this series introduced my new chamber works to international audiences through European TV networks in 1989. This is a ten-film series dedicated to contemporary music, featuring 20 composers from 19 countries (including 2 from China: I was the one from the Mainland, and the other one was from Hong Kong). Each composer had a half-hour program with his/her music performed, with the composer as one of the performers; there was also an interview by the host, Polish composer Zygmunt Krauze, then the president of ISCM. I played the violin in my own sextet, Near Distance, and sang in my own trio, As in a Dream for soprano, violin and cello. My Woodwind Quintet was also presented in the program. The other half-hour segment along with my program in the hour was Luciano Berio representing Italy. I played two movements in his violin duet collections. Before I left for Poland, Prof. Chou’s wife, Yi-An gave me a lot of clothes – many dresses! “This one could be suitable… That one… Here, try this one…” She took me into her walk-in closet, and looked through all dresses in shelves up to the celling… You could see the dress in the film.

I also sat in on my classmate David Tsang’s private lessons, invited by Prof. Chou. Prof. Chou analyzed his own concerto for cello and orchestra and other works for us, showing us how he designed his pieces with charts. There are different colors assigned to particular aspects or music elements in the structure. One color would represent pitch material, another dynamics, some others would control tension and density, part distribution, timbre, sonority, orchestration, and so on. It was very inspiring to me because I used to write music without a detailed plan covering many aspects. This is a very different and practical method in composition experience. He encouraged us to study Western contemporary music in-depth and gave me his former teaching syllabus in new music analysis, and introduced analysis of music by Varèse, Schoenberg, Webern, Ives, and others. You can’t compose in a unique style until you really learn all cultures well and then can create your own work as a hybrid and speak in your own language.

I studied with Prof. Chou for three years, and one of those years overlapped with my work with Prof. Mario Davidovsky for electronic music composition. When Prof. Chou retired, I worked with Mario for five years until I finished the DMA program, as he supervised my dissertation work. Zhou Long’s dissertation was supervised by Prof. George Edwards, after years of study with Prof. Chou and Prof. Davidovsky. We remained very close to our professors from Columbia University. During the past three decades, Prof. Chou attended almost all concerts with my new works premiered in New York City, including my octet Sparkle and mixed quartet Qi performed by New Music Consort, my China West Suite for two pianos performed by Dennis Russell Davies and Maki Namekawa at the Lincoln Center Summer Festival in 2007, my string quartet At the Kansas City Chinese New Year Concert by the Ying Quartet, and my Si Ji (Four Seasons) performed by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Franz Welser-Most at Carnegie Hall in 2005. My Si Ji was dedicated to Professor Chou and was selected as one of the Pulitzer Prize Finalists in 2006. Prof. Chou called me to send his congratulations when he learned the good news.

Chen Yi with Chou Wen-chung during a reception at Carnegie Hall

Chen Yi with Chou Wen-chung during a reception at Carnegie Hall following the Cleveland Orchestra’s performance of Chen Yi’s composition Si Ji on October 17, 2005. The piece, which was dedicated to Prof. Chou, was later selected as one of the finalists for 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Music.

During the past three decades, Prof. Chou attended almost all concerts with my new works premiered in New York City.

During the time I studied at Columbia University, I also worked as an administrative assistant at his Center for US-China Arts Exchange for three years, and closely witnessed his hard work, which made a huge contribution to the US-China music education and arts exchange. He was busy teaching at Columbia, but he had to raise money, write many reports for the Center and take care of administrative work. Prof. Chou never used the Center’s facilities or equipment for himself. He was very clear that every cent raised should go directly to the projects that the Center was working on. When I was working there, people would come and ask for a sample of his music. I asked him, “Can I just make one copy here?” but he said, “No. Make a copy outside and give me the receipt.” He never even made a copy of his own music with the Center’s copy machine.

During my work at the Center, we participated in two important composers’ conferences organized by the Center for U.S.-China Arts Exchange and led by Prof. Chou. One was the Conference on Tradition and the Future of Chinese Music held in New York in 1988. It’s the first time since 1949 that distinguished composers from Mainland China and Taiwan, separated by the sea, each had ten representatives who sat down together at Columbia University to have artistic discussions and a cultural exchange. They found so much in common in tradition and creation! The other was the Pacific Composers’ Conference, part of the Pacific Music Festival held in Sapporo, Japan in 1990, which gathered established composers and dozens of excellent young composers from many countries and areas in the Pacific Rim. Their ages ranged from early 20s to late 70s. The festival included concerts, seminars, lectures, and exhibitions for cultural exchange. He enthusiastically supported many young artists around the world.

20 composers from Mainland China and Taiwan walking down the steps of City Hall in new York City.

Chinese Composers Conference with 10 composers from Mainland China and 10 composers from Taiwan for the first time since 1949, in front of NY City Hall on August 8,1988 following a meeting with then NYC Mayor Edward I. Koch. Prof. Wu Zuqiang is in the front row and Prof. Chou is on the right. The Center for US-China Arts Exchange organized the conference. (Chen Yi, who was one of the 10 composers from Mainland China chosen to participate, is in the middle.)

Prof. Chou Wen-chung was truly a wenren (artist-scholar, Renaissance Man). He was a great creative artist and mentor who combined literature, music, and art, all in one.

When I first came to the States, the Central Philharmonic Orchestra from China premiered my Duo Ye No. 2 at Lincoln Center in 1987, but Prof. Chou had to attend another concert with his own work premiered in New Jersey. Nevertheless, he arranged for a huge bunch of beautiful flowers made by his wife Yi-An to be given to me on stage!  He also invited us to enjoy Thanksgiving holiday and learn American culture in his country house. Years later, when he visited UMKC Conservatory where we teach, he brought me a meaningful and beautiful gift: a fancy, richly illustrated volume (12” x 10”, 4 lbs), The Path of Beauty: A Study of Chinese Aesthetics by Li Zehou, translated by Gong Lizeng, and published in Beijing by Morning Glory Publishers in 1988. He said, “I think that you would love it and need it especially for your teaching in English.” I was deeply touched when he handed the book to me. Prof. Chou Wen-chung was truly a wenren (artist-scholar, Renaissance Man). He was a great creative artist and mentor who combined literature, music, and art, all in one. He wanted to be a person who gave as much as possible to the whole world. He is my role model and has encouraged me to keep working harder in music creation and teaching for our society.

Zhou Long, Chang Yi-An and Chou Wen-chung

Zhou Long (left) with Chou Wen-chung and his wife Chang Yi-An.

Additional reflections by Zhou Long

Professor Chou Wen-chung was among the first overseas composers to visit the Central Conservatory in Beijing and it made a deep impression on a group of young composers there.

In the late 1970s, Professor Chou Wen-chung was among the first overseas composers to visit the Central Conservatory in Beijing and it made a deep impression on a group of young composers there. His music immediately attracted me, such as his Yu Ko and other orchestral works. His aesthetic concept is based on the philosophy of the intellectuals from older times who played the qin, and on the ancient poetry of China. I composed Song of the Ch’in for string quartet and Su for flute and qin (ch’in) before I came to study overseas, both of which were very strongly influenced by Prof. Chou’s introduction of Chinese scholarly music to us.

After graduation from the Central Conservatory in 1983, I was assigned as the Composer-in-Residence for the China National Broadcasting Corporation. In 1985, I became the first composition student from Beijing admitted to Columbia University in New York City to study with Prof. Chou through the introduction of Mr. Li Ling, a family friend who was the vice president of the Chinese Musicians Association. On one of Prof. Chou’s visits to China, Mr. Li passed along some of my compositions including my first recordings of my orchestral works and Chinese instrumental compositions along with a broadcasting concert recording to Prof. Chou, who took them back to the composition admission committee at Columbia. There, the professors on the committee included Prof. Chou as the head, along with Profs. Mario Davidovsky, and Jack Beeson. They reviewed my scores and awarded me a full scholarship.

While I took some courses and composition lessons with Prof. Chou, he realized that I was very lonely, and he wanted to help bring my wife Chen Yi to study at Columbia University with me. He knew that she was an excellent student.

I had a cultural shock when I first arrived New York, and I encountered many ideas that were new to me. For two years, from 1985 until 1987, I didn’t compose anything. While I took some courses and composition lessons with Prof. Chou, he realized that I was very lonely, and he wanted to help bring my wife Chen Yi to study at Columbia University with me. He knew that she was an excellent student of Prof. Wu Zuqiang, who was the president of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, and a close friend of Prof. Chou’s, who helped leading the US-China arts exchange activities in China. Chen Yi arrived in New York in 1986. Prof. Chou then guided me to learn not only from traditional Chinese music, but also to explore wider traditions such as East Asian cultures, including music from Japan and Korea. He also gave me concert tickets to attend the opera Einstein on the Beach and the Netherland’s ballet with Bolero during the first two years of my study in the US. He encouraged me to study with his colleagues, Professors George Edwards and Mario Davidovsky. In 1987, I started to compose again, with Wu Ji for piano and electronic sound, and a mixed quintet, Dhyana for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. The score of Dhyana is dedicated to Prof. Chou since he gave me so much inspiration and input when I composed the piece, from the concept and the philosophy, to textures and structures. After eight years at Columbia, I received my Doctoral of Musical Arts degree in 1993. When I was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for my first opera Madame White Snake in 2011, Prof. Chou called me on the phone to congratulate me warmly. I feel deeply grateful for his mentorship and support.

You must believe in your artistic vision, then your compositions can stand out.

I think the most important aspect of my work with Prof. Chou involved his theories of composition and creation. Prof. Chou’s educational philosophy is culturally oriented. Today people can accept a wider range of styles, but that’s not the issue. You must believe in your artistic vision, then your compositions can stand out. Prof. Chou Wen-chung’s vision and effort established the international status of our generation of Chinese composers.

Chen Yi, Zhou Long. Chou Wen-chung, Paul Rudy, Kihei Mukai, and James Mobberley

Chen Yi, Zhou Long. Chou Wen-chung, Paul Rudy, Mukai Kohei (then a DMA student of Chen Yi and Zhou Long’s at UMKC), and James Mobberley following a newEar ensemble concert in Kansas City featuring music by Professor Chou and his teacher Edgard Varèse in 2001.

[Ed. Note: Back in January 2013, we recorded an extensive interview with Chou Wen-chung for NewMusicBox. His “vivid voice,” as Chen Yi so aptly described in, comes across in the video presentation from that talk. You can read a transcript of that entire conversation elsewhere on this site.—FJO]

Poetry and Community in Guangzhou


While I have been pursuing compositional projects and researching Chinese instruments, so much of the learning that has taken place for me in China has come from extra-musical sources: the environment, the language, and the conversations and interactions with people whose life experiences do not match my own.

Upon returning from my first stay in China in 2016, I began to seek out works by living Chinese writers in order to help enrich my understanding of the country beyond the music I had studied. Librettist Kendall A. suggested the poetry of Zheng Xiaoqiong’s (郑小琼), and I was struck by both the power of her words and the evocations of a side of China I had only seen hints of. Zheng was a former migrant factory worker in Southern China; her poetry captures not only the daily life of workers and their conditions, but transforms it into a sort of music which dances on one’s tongue. (The Chinese noun for poetry is shi ge 诗歌, consisting of the characters for both poetry and song).

I was struck by both the power of Zheng Xiaoqiong’s words and the evocations of a side of China I had only seen hints of.

At the start, my Chinese was too weak to grasp the full breadth of her imagery in its original form. There were a few assorted poems available in translation online, and from there I began corresponding with her translators, who graciously sent along several others which they had finished but not yet published. I asked one if he might be able to connect me to Zheng Xiaoqiong; a few weeks later, we became WeChat contacts. From that time, her poetry was always on my mind. I returned to her work in Chinese last year, and began copying, memorizing, and reciting it to myself. After falling in love with one specific poem, Zheng Xiaoqiong gave me permission to set fragments of it, and invited me to come visit if I had a chance. In late April of this year, I arrived in Guangzhou to spend a weekend with her.

Zheng Xiaoqiong is full of life. She phoned just after I landed, the words spilling out of her mouth at a pace I could just keep up with. We had dinner that night before heading to her building, where she works as an editor for a publication about modern Chinese literature containing poetry, critiques on poetic theory, short stories, and essays. The beauty of the situation is that everyone employed by the publication lives and works in the same complex. This allows them some flexibility with time to pursue artistic endeavors, while maintaining the practicality of a consistent day job. (She was leaving for Germany for a week as a guest on a poetry exchange on the same day I left.) The proximity to one another allows the writers to have salons and readings to share their work each week. As Zheng Xiaoqiong said, one of the most important things to her as a writer was the access to consistent jiao liu (交流): exchange.

In fact, it was exchange which led Xiaoqiong to first become a poet. Because she was from a rural village in Sichuan Province, she had no chance to attend university; the sole option for leaving her hometown was through entering the factories. There she took solace in books which were passed around covertly after hours, and, at 22, she began to write poems which drew upon her experiences in spite of opposition from the factory managers.

When she asked about my plans for setting her poem the next day, I shared my ideas. As a composer and a non-native speaker of Mandarin, I knew that my readings would not match her own. Yet, to learn that she often reads her work in her native Sichuan dialect gave me a freedom to present her words in a way which would not be so strictly tied to one interpretation of the text. I then asked the obvious question: what does a factory sound like? Her eyes grew wide, and she said that it varies immensely depending on what it was the factory produced. Then she began to recall… disorderly crashes… electronics humming… drones…

She thought for another moment, and asked if I would like to go.

Later that day, we arrived in Dongguan, a city an hour and a half outside of Guangzhou. We first went to their library and museum, where we met two of Zheng Xiaoqiong’s close friends. One, Sai Ren (塞壬), was a novelist and the librarian in Dongguan; the other, Zhan You Bing (占有兵), was a photographer and documentarian who had been studying Chinese factories for the past decade. We first sipped tea and looked over his books before entering the section of the museum used as storage for his collection. There were clothes, tickets, rolls of film, work schedules, and books and books of photos with covers hand-sewn from denim jeans.

At dinner we were joined by a poet based in Shenzhen, Xue Fang (雪芳). She explained to me one-on-one that what set Zheng Xiaoqiong’s poetry apart was not its subject matter (“actually, there are many migrant worker poets… ”), but her use of language and her unstoppable vision. “Of all the workers in Chinese factories, how many are able to leave? And then to create artistic work of that depth…”.

We visited five factories… It was a sonically overwhelming experience, accompanied by an emptiness.

We visited five factories as a group the next day: a hardware factory, an electronics factory, a factory which produces the plastic wrapping material for children’s toys, a chemical factory, and a shoe factory. It was a sonically overwhelming experience, accompanied by an emptiness. I remembered a hollow feeling I had encountered once before when I exited the subway in Beijing at the wrong station, walking out into a wasteland of construction sites. At one point we sat drinking tea and eating cherries with a factory boss (lao ban 老板) while he watched CCTV displays of the workers in the sweatshop behind him sorting plastic in the dark.

A worker sorting through silicon molds at an electronics factory in Dongguan, China. Photo by the author.


Zheng Xiaoqiong is no longer a migrant worker, but she is connected to a community of writers who share those experiences, as well as a larger community of writers and editors across China and a community of poets and translators abroad. Her poems are sourced in the lives of real people, but not in some tangential way: she returns on the weekends to talk to the workers and then amplifies their experiences through her writing. This connection is the lifeblood of her work.

 Zheng Xiaoqiong and the author in an electronics factory in Dongguan, China. Photo by Zhan You Bing 占有兵.

Zheng Xiaoqiong and the author in an electronics factory in Dongguan, China.
Photo by Zhan You Bing 占有兵.

Community is created through exchange. Zheng Xiaoqiong finds this not only at her publication, but in her friends who accompanied us to the factories. She explained that while they only have the chance to meet in person a few times a year, they stay in touch through phone calls and WeChat, encouraging one another in their writing pursuits. The conversations I shared with everyone in the group that weekend were passionate and covered both the situations of factory workers and the shared challenges we face as writers of words and of music.

Community is created through exchange.

My weekend with Zheng Xiaoqiong informed my understanding of her work, and built a connection between us past words on a page into friendship. Exchange with China is not simply reading a poem from the Tang Dynasty and setting it. Rather, it is based in personal connections and requires a coming to terms with the complexities of modern life in China today.

An excerpt of 辜月 Gu Yue (2017), another work from the same set of voice and percussion works containing Zheng Xiaoqiong’s poem. Composed by the author for percussionist Yongyun Zhang 张永韵.

An excerpt of 辜月 Gu Yue (2017), another work from the same set of voice and percussion works containing Zheng Xiaoqiong’s poem. Composed by the author for percussionist Yongyun Zhang 张永韵.

An Introduction to the Chinese Bamboo Flute Orchestra

One of the most representative ensembles of Chinese traditional music engaged in cultural exchange today is the Chinese Bamboo Flute Orchestra (中国竹笛乐团). The group was founded by one of the leading performers on the bamboo flutes dizi (笛子) and xiao (箫), Zhang Weiliang (张维良). In its five years of existence, the orchestra’s work has been substantial. It has commissioned and promoted the music of living composers. It has used modern technology to innovate the design and subsequent construction of new dizi. It has also increased competency of Chinese musicians in playing in non-traditional ensemble settings. And, finally, in addition to protecting and innovating Chinese traditional music, the orchestra has raised the profile of Chinese music internationally.

The Creation of a Dizi Orchestra

To form an orchestra of dizi is a remarkable idea given that Chinese instruments are soloistic by nature. Traditional mixed chamber ensembles are largely homophonic, or feature only one of each instrument to a part. Even in more modern groupings such as the Chinese folk orchestra, one would only find a handful of dizi at most. Hu Biao (胡彪), the ensemble’s conductor, and members Wang Meng (王猛) and Lee Juncheng (李浚诚) all affirmed that in creating this new vessel for dizi, the goals at the Orchestra’s founding in 2013 were educational as well as to build a new body of a repertoire showcasing the instrument.

The Chinese Bamboo Flute Orchestra (Photo by Wang Yougang 张有刚)

The members of the Chinese Bamboo Flute Orchestra (中国竹笛乐团). Photo by Wang Yougang (张有刚).

Zhang Weiliang is an expert on the history and development of the dizi as an ensemble instrument, and I had the opportunity to speak with him at length about the subject this past April. According to him, the instrument was primarily used for Chinese opera, xiqu (戏曲), accompaniment and for accompanying solo performances prior to the 1950. He recounted that:

Starting in the 1950’s, with the joint efforts of the senior bamboo flute experts and the musicologists represented by Feng Zi Cun (冯子存), Liu Guan Le (刘管乐), Zhao Song Ting (赵松庭), and Lu Chun Ling (陆春龄), the bamboo flute began to develop rapidly as a solo instrument. At the same time, the rise of the solo bamboo flute led to the start of the development of the bamboo flute ensemble music.

While performer-composers at this time began to arrange and write more works for dizi, including dizi ensemble, this repertoire faced several problems:

Firstly, most of these bamboo flute repertoires are mainly based on studies, and so are not suitable for use as concert pieces. Secondly, these ensemble types are mostly dominated by duos and trios, and the number of pieces involving ensembles of quartet or more are extraordinarily few. In addition, from the perspective of the size of the repertoire, dizi music from these settings plays a less important role for the instrument than solo work.

These [early ensemble] pieces were regarded as simple and had one part, always giving priority to bamboo flutes as a monophonic melody instrument. Furthermore, in the pedagogy for many years, bamboo flute performers have over-relied on solos as the primary teaching content. There are only a handful of educational pieces involving duo, trio, or quartet in the profession. Through investigation, it was found that there had hardly ever been a special concert focused on the form of a bamboo flute ensemble before the establishment of the China Bamboo Flute Orchestra. By comparison, everywhere one looks, there are countless forms of concerts for Western string music and wind music both domestically and abroad. When there have been Chinese bamboo flute ensembles, it has been only as a part of the concert, rather than as a feature in and of itself. On the whole, the development of the bamboo flute ensemble now lags behind that of the solo repertoire. Therefore, the goal [of the Chinese Bamboo Flute Orchestra] is to use the bamboo flute as a medium to integrate and connect Chinese music with contemporary world music, thereby forging contemporary Chinese music that can adapt to the development of world music, culture, and art. This goal is the same and has not changed!

Recently, other performers of Chinese traditional instruments have begun to create multi-instrument ensembles of this sort. Composer Wenhui Xie (谢文辉), a collaborator of the group, gives credit to Zhang Weiliang’s initial vision for beginning this trend and also for his unique approach, noting in a May 2018 email exchange:

Soon after, there followed the emergence of a Huqin Orchestra (胡琴乐团), a Pipa Orchestra (琵琶乐团), a Sheng Orchestra (笙乐团), a Yangqin Orchestra (扬琴乐团), and others… They all have similar problems and are constantly exploring. However, I feel that in the creation of new works, Professor Zhang’s artistic taste is very refined, and thus encourages composers to boldly innovate, not at all stopping them from constantly trying out all categories and styles of musical expression. In the past five years, he has been original in the selection of the repertoire for each concert, including both down-to-earth arrangements (refreshed versions of music from the traditional repertoire), and also very experimental work. He assembles an array of bamboo flutes and other instruments and voices, and combines these together with multimedia elements or electronic music.

Challenges and Innovation

Tuning was a major issue for the orchestra at the beginning, as traditional Chinese music does not focus on harmony and does not necessarily require strict adherence to pitch.

To change the performance setting of an instrument — whose techniques and characteristics have been shaped to such a large degree by it — has accordingly required adjustments to the instrument itself. For instance, the dizi’s characteristic timbre is provided by a thin reed membrane, di mo (笛膜); when assembling twenty or thirty dizi at once, it was found to be too overwhelming for all instruments in the orchestra to use it. Additionally, as there were previously no bass bamboo flutes, Zhang Weiliang began to commission lower models which could provide registral balance. Tuning was a major issue for the orchestra at the beginning, as traditional Chinese music does not focus on harmony and does not necessarily require strict adherence to pitch. Intonation has been improved by having performers play one-to-a-part, and through the performers’ increased exposure to and familiarity with contemporary works. The results of these changes have meant that the members of the ensemble are also more prepared in their engagements as solo musicians.

The various pieces of a lower-ranged Chinese bamboo flute, including its curved mouthpiece joint, in a flute case.

A lower-ranged Chinese bamboo flute (photo by the author)

Bringing Dizi to the World Stage

Zhang Weiliang and other core members of the group share a common goal: they want dizi not to be seen as some sort of “minority music” relegated to the world music CD shelf at the back of the library, but to be taken just as seriously as any of the instruments in a Western orchestra.

Five years into the group’s journey, the steps being taken to ensure this are impressive. They have made commissioning and performing new works and arrangements a cornerstone of their activities due to their unique instrumentation. Zhang Weiliang is himself an accomplished composer and so understands the importance—and the excitement—of presenting new music. To this end, the orchestra has performed and commissioned works from many Chinese and international composers, including Cui Quan (崔权), Zhang Jian (张建), Yang Qing (杨青), Guo Wenjing (郭文景), Wenhui Xie (谢文辉), Gao Ping (高平), Joel Hoffman, and Kohei Nishikawa (西川浩平).

Perhaps Zhang’s greatest example of exchange can be seen in his relationship with American composer Joel Hoffman.

Perhaps Zhang’s greatest example of exchange can be seen in his relationship with American composer Joel Hoffman, whom he has commissioned to write several works for dizi orchestra and for smaller chamber groupings featuring dizi and xiao. The most recent performance of one of these works, Xiang He Ge (相和歌), took place this fall at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (国家大剧院, NCPA) in Beijing by Zhang Weiliang and guitarist Yang Xuefei (楊雪霏):

A further video, from the premiere of Hoffman’s work sizzle at NCPA in November 2015, can be heard here in a performance by the Chinese Bamboo Flute Orchestra, conductor Hu Biao, violinist Benjamin Hoffman, and cellist Natania Hoffman:

In addition to bringing forth new music for dizi, the question of audience engagement is a central concern for Zhang Weiliang. Even within China, many people do not seek out Chinese traditional music; if they do, they might be more inclined to hear guqin or guzheng before dizi due to its forthright timbre. In the orchestra’s push to reach new audiences, they have toured extensively within Mainland China as well as in Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Japan. In August 2018, they will commence on a tour of five Eastern European countries.

Even within China, many people do not seek out Chinese traditional music.

Details of the concert experience have also been considered from early on. Two large-scale multimedia events have integrated lights, electronic music, and video imagery alongside dance to create immersive experiences which introduce Chinese instruments to new audiences. The following image, like the one at the top of this article, was taken from the orchestra’s most recent multimedia concert in January of 2017, Call of the Ancient Past (远古的呼唤).

A large group of musicians playing Chinese bamboo flutes onstage with a conductor with a very colorful cloud-like image in the background.

From the Chinese Bamboo Flute Orchestra (中国竹笛乐团) performance Call of the Ancient Past (远古的呼唤). (Photo provided by Zhang Weiliang)

Looking Ahead

Ultimately, Zhang Weiliang’s goal is to forge more international collaboration.

Sitting with Zhang Weiliang in his office a week ago, he was brimming with ideas for the future of the group. At this time, he shared with me several scores being premiered on the ensemble’s upcoming concert at NCPA this December. Scored for dizi in combination with other Chinese and Western instruments (pipa, guzheng, erhu, and vibraphone), these pieces represent a new direction for the orchestra. Due to the overwhelming multiplicity of genres which may be called “Chinese music,” there can be little or no crossover historically between certain instruments (e.g., xiao and suona). By experimenting with instrumental combinations that blend dizi with other Chinese and Western instruments over the next few years, there will be many greater timbral and harmonic possibilities than an ensemble of dizi alone is able to provide.

Ultimately, Zhang Weiliang’s goal is to forge more international collaboration and understanding through dizi, creating art which is at once Chinese music and able to be universally enjoyed.

In search of Musical Integration Between the United States and the Rest of the Americas

Translated into English by Clara Schuhmacher

(Ed. Note: The original Spanish article is available here.)

A photo of the street sign showing the intersection of Grand Street and Avenue of the Americas with a rusty plaque of the USA on top

In 1945, Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue was officially renamed Avenue of the Americas to honor “Pan-American ideals and principles.” The rusty USA plaque atop the street sign in this photo taken in March 2015 on a street that everyone has reverted to calling “Sixth Avenue” once again is a reminder of an earlier era. Photo by Frank J. Oteri

In early 1963, Leonard Bernstein appeared on American television with a program from his popular “Young People’s Concerts” series. This particular episode was titled “The Latin American Spirit,” and during its first few moments, the charismatic conductor/composer attempted to explain to the audience that in each “civilized” place on earth, there were composers putting notes on staff paper. In other words, composers did not exist exclusively in developed countries. Of course, in those days, South America was something of a mystery to the everyday American, many of whom probably imagined it as place full of jungles, with Buenos Aires or Río as the only large cities.

But: what was happening with music during this time? With American music? This was another matter. This was an era of interaction and dialogue between American composers and their counterparts to the south. South American musicians traveled often to the United States with the support of grants and other funding, and Aaron Copland travelled several times to South America, not only to conduct his own music, but also to get to know and work with composers, which in many cases led to Copland extending invitations to these composers to visit the United States as his guest. Many composers relocated to the United States as a result, such as the Chilean Juan Orrego-Salas (b. 1919). In a splendid interview with Orrego-Salas, which was published here on NewMusicBox last April, the aging composer recalled this very era.

It is a different situation in 2014.

Today, across South America, one finds dozens of tourists from all over the world (including many from the United States) who wish to explore the richness of the region. It is now clear to these tourists that South America is not all impenetrable jungles and humble villages. There is great geographic and cultural diversity, and we can say that the Americas are an entire world onto themselves. The problem is that, within the world of notated music, the situation is the opposite. The era described above seem part of a distant past, one in which there existed a greater connection between the composers working in this part of the globe, and their colleagues working in the vibrant American scene. In fact, we can no longer talk about Latin America as a single unit, given the lack of information that exists between its different countries. For example, in Chile, we are not informed about what is happening in Ecuador or in Colombia with respect to their musical life. Only occasionally do we pay attention to our neighbors in Argentina, and only because of their proximity. The important role Buenos Aires plays in the development of new music does not encourage us to seek them out.

What happened?

One might think that the globalization that governs today’s world would have brought closer together the composers of the thirty-five countries that make up the Americas, but in reality, connections exist primarily between neighboring countries, and even then it is limited. We could look for reasons to explain this situation. It occurs to me that the dictatorships that proliferated in the area beginning in the 1960s, and with which the United States always had a complex relationship, might be a reason for the loss of connection. However, there is no value to figuring out the cause; rather, it is better to consider how we might reconstruct the cultural-musical bridge that once united the United States with the countries to its south, from Mexico to Chile and Argentina.

Orrego-Salas was not the only South American composer to settle in the United States. And, surely, there are American composers who are interested in, and feel a certain affinity for, the culture and music of a given Latin American country. (As an aside, I do not particularly like using this term. Why make such a categorical distinction between countries that speak Spanish and Portuguese, and those that speak English?) During my career as a music journalist, I have studied the history of composition in the United States, its contributions and incredible diversity (and originality), and I have determined that an important characteristic of American composers is their curiosity. This is something that I have verified in person during my visits to the United States (in 2009 and 2014), and during meetings, conversations and interviews with American composers.

Of course, I can’t speak on behalf of the entire Spanish-speaking world in the Americas, only on behalf of Chile, the country where I live and work. I can say that here, as in the United States, there exists a diverse group of composers. And I can say that here, musical curiosity also abounds, as does imagination. Americans will find in equal measure both aesthetics that are different from theirs, as well as composers for whom they feel an affinity. And, Chile is only one of the thirty countries that form that which we insist on calling “Latin America.”

All of which is to say that I believe it would behoove us to reconnect the musical world of the United States with the rest of the countries that make up the continent. This website has been a constant platform for reflection and discussion around new music, and I believe it is the best place to put out this call to action. A call to generate spaces for our composers to discuss and exchange ideas, and to come to know the music others are making. Composers do not live only to compose; many work in institutions associated with music, and through these we will be able to work to realize new encounters. Ultimately, the idea would be to extend invitations on behalf of festivals, conferences and other activities related to new music, both on the part of Americans to composers from other countries, as from the part of all of us to our colleagues in the north.

In South America we still have much to do to disseminate and protect new music. However, we will be able to make significant progress if we help each other. We need to ensure that today’s music is interpreted, heard and appreciated. If an entire continent rallies around this vision, we will succeed.

Álvaro Gallegos holding a copy of the score of Edgard Varèse's orchestral composition Amériques.

Álvaro Gallegos is a Chilean music journalist based in Santiago, Chile. He currently works at Radio Beethoven, where he is editor of its website. He also collaborates on newspapers, magazines, has delivered lectures, and soon will debut as a record producer.

En busca de una integración musical entre Estados Unidos y el resto de las Américas

A photo of the street sign showing the intersection of Grand Street and Avenue of the Americas with a rusty plaque of the USA on top

(Ed. Note: An English translation of this article is available here.)

A comienzos de 1963, Leonard Bernstein apareció en la televisión estadounidense para uno de sus populares programas de la serie Young People’s Concerts. El capítulo se llamaba “The Latin American Spirit”, y en los primeros minutos, el carismático director/compositor trataba de explicar a la audiencia que en cada lugar civilizado de la Tierra había gente poniendo puntos en un pentagrama. En otras palabras, que los compositores no son algo exclusivo de países desarrollados. Por supuesto que en esa época, Sudamérica era una especie de “tierra misteriosa” para el estadounidense común, que probablemente la imaginaba como un lugar lleno de junglas, con posiblemente Buenos Aires o Río como las únicas grandes ciudades.

Pero, ¿qué pasaba en el mundo musical de aquel momento? ¿El mundo musical estadounidense? Ese era otro asunto. Era una época en que había mucha interacción entre compositores americanos y aquellos provenientes del lado sur del continente. Músicos latinoamericanos viajaban a los Estados Unidos gracias a fondos y becas, y Aaron Copland viajó varias veces a Sudamérica, no solo para dirigir su propia música, sino también para conocer compositores, dialogar con ellos, y en muchos casos esto llevó a invitaciones de su parte para visitar los Estados Unidos. Hubo compositores que en efecto se radicaron allí, como el chileno Juan Orrego-Salas (n.1919). En una espléndida entrevista con Orrego-Salas publicada acá en NewMusicBox el abril pasado, el viejo compositor dio cuenta precisamente de aquella época.

En 2014 las cosas son diferentes.

En cualquier lugar de Sudamérica uno se encuentra con decenas de turistas de todo el planeta (incluyendo muchos estadounidenses), que buscan explorar las riquezas de la zona. Ya está claro para ellos que no todo es selvas impenetrables, ni pequeños poblados de madera. Hay una diversidad geográfica y cultural gigantesca, y es que podemos decir que las Américas son todo un mundo. El problema es que en el medio de la música de tradición escrita, también debemos hablar a la inversa. Lejanos parecen aquellos tiempos descritos más arriba, en que existía una mayor conexión entre los compositores de este lado del globo y sus colegas trabajando en la sólida y saludable escena estadounidense. Incluso no podemos hablar de Latinoamérica como una entidad unitaria, ya que existe desinformación entre lo que hace un país y otro. En Chile, por ejemplo, no estamos al tanto de lo que sucede en Ecuador o Colombia en cuanto a creación musical, por ejemplo. Solo a veces prestamos atención a nuestros vecinos de Argentina, ya que la cercanía, además de la importancia que tiene Buenos Aires en el cultivo de la nueva música, nos lleva a buscar esa interacción.

¿Qué fue lo que sucedió entonces?

Uno podría pensar que la globalización que rige al mundo de hoy acercó a los compositores de los 35 países que incluye el continente de las Américas, pero hablando en general, la conexión se da principalmente entre países vecinos, y de manera limitada. Podríamos buscar razones para explicar esta situación. Se me ocurre pensar en las dictaduras militares que proliferaron en la zona a partir de los 60, y con las cuales Estados Unidos siempre tuvo una compleja relación, como un motivo que llevó a perder los nexos. Pero no tiene sentido buscar un origen, sino mejor pensar en cómo podemos re-construir ese puente cultural-musical que unía a Estados Unidos con todos los países hacia el sur, desde México hasta Chile y Argentina.

Orrego-Salas no fue el único sudamericano que se asentó en los Estados Unidos. Y por cierto, existen compositores estadounidenses que sienten un interés, una atracción, por la cultura o específicamente la música de algún país de Latinoamérica (y en verdad, no me gusta usar este término, ¿por qué hacer una distinción tan tajante entre los países que hablan español y portugués y los que hablan inglés?) Durante mi carrera como periodista musical, he estudiado la historia de la composición en Estados Unidos, sus aportes y su inconmensurable diversidad (y originalidad), y he podido determinar que una importante característica del compositor estadounidense es su curiosidad. Esto es algo que pude constatar en persona en mis dos visitas a Estados Unidos (en 2009 y 2014), a través de reuniones, conversaciones y entrevistas con compositores americanos.

Por supuesto que yo no puedo hablar por todo el mundo hispano-parlante de las Américas, solo por Chile, el país donde vivo y trabajo. Y puedo decir que aquí, tal como en Estados Unidos, existe una fauna diversa de compositores. Que también abunda la curiosidad musical, así como la imaginación. Y que los estadounidenses pueden encontrar en igual medida visiones estéticas distintas a las suyas y compositores por los que sientan afinidad. Y Chile es sólo un país de los cerca de 30 que componen eso que insisten en llamar “Latinoamérica”.

Por todo lo anterior, pienso que sería bueno buscar un nuevo acercamiento entre el medio musical de Estados Unidos y los distintos países del resto del continente. Este sitio web ha sido una constante plataforma de reflexión y discusión en torno a la nueva música y me pareció el lugar perfecto para hacer este llamado. Un llamado a generar espacios para que nuestros compositores puedan discutir, intercambiar ideas, y por supuesto conocer la música que todos están haciendo. Los compositores generalmente no viven de solamente componer, muchos trabajan en instituciones ligadas a la música, y es a través de estas que se puede luchar por conseguir que estos encuentros se produzcan. La idea es que invitaciones puedan extenderse por parte de festivales, encuentros y otras actividades relacionadas con la nueva música, tanto por parte de los estadounidenses a los compositores de otros países, como de estos hacia sus colegas del norte.

En Sudamérica todavía tenemos demasiado por hacer para difundir y proteger la nueva música. Pero se puede avanzar mucho si nos apoyamos los unos a los otros. Tenemos que lograr que la música de hoy pueda ser interpretada, oída y apreciada. Si todo un continente se une en torno a esa visión, lo podemos conseguir.

Álvaro Gallegos holding a copy of the score of Edgard Varèse's orchestral composition Amériques.

Álvaro Gallegos es un periodista musical chileno radicado en Santiago, Chile. Actualmente trabaja en Radio Beethoven, donde es editor de su sitio web. También colabora en diarios, revistas, ha dictado conferencias y pronto debutará como productor discográfico.