MUSIC / Confucius, he play . . .: From di to xiao and T'ang to Tan Dun, Nicholas Williams offers a Westerners' guide to the mysteries of Chinese music

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
What do we mean by Chinese music? Once upon a time, a sufficient answer might have cited the local colour of Puccini's Turandot or Stravinsky's Song of the Nightingale, qualified by learned references to the elaborate vocal techniques of Peking Opera, or the innocent vulgarity of the 'Yellow River' piano concerto. But times have moved on. China is looking outward, going international like the arts themselves; the myth of chinoiserie is no longer adequate to disguise our lack of information, and apparent lack of interest. We need to know more about the facts of Chinese musical life, and how its musicians are responding to change.

Just recently London has been a good place to discover more. Last night - though slightly overdue for the occasion - the London Chinese Orchestra celebrated the Year of the Rooster with a Purcell Room concert presenting traditional music from China's many provinces. On Monday, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, young Chinese artists will perform standard operatic repertoire: the other side of the coin, yet for Westerners an equally unfamiliar experience. These events, organised under the aegis of the Chinese Cultural Centre, are mere drops in the ocean of apathy existing outside the boundaries of the Chinese community. Nevertheless, the orchestra's guiding light and centre director, Susie Wong, remains passionate about introducing unfamiliar aspects of Chinese culture to British audiences. This Summer, she hopes to bring Peking Opera to the Covent Garden piazza.

But orchestra? Ensemble? The ambiguity of these terms divorced from a Western context suggests some of the problems involved in this ambitious attempt to span artistic divides. Neither is really appropriate - though Ms Wong, perhaps with a project in mind for a concert recreating the vast ensembles of bell-chimes, woodwind and percussion that once played for the Emperor at the imperial court, prefers orchestra as a more accurate translation.

If European music of the last four centuries has been a vision of expressive harmony implied in a melody and bass, Chinese music of the last four millennia has been horizontal in intention, founded on a vision of expressive melody in which harmony - the vertical trenches of musical texture known as chords - is the consequence of musicians creating their own variants of the melodic backbone chosen for the piece. Though the many regions have each created their own styles (the one we tend to associate with chinoiserie and black-note pentatonic scales comes from east-central China), the guiding principle is of reinterpretation of existing melodic material rather than original composition. For concert-goers, Debussy's aptly-named piano work Pagodes comes close in spirit to this combination of static yet mobile harmony and arabesque.

So the first requirement is an awareness of the tunes. At first they sound the same to Western ears, surfeited on a rich diet of chromaticism. Among the Chinese, however, famous airs such as the 'Plus Blossom' melody, 'Fishing Boats at Sunset', 'Journey to Suzhou' or 'Moonlit Night on a Spring River' are universally recognised, whether they're improvised on ancient instruments or recorded in slick pop versions from Hong Kong or Taiwan. Some of these melodies are from the repertoire of the ch'in, the delicate, silk-stringed zither that is among the most venerable manifestations of Chinese high art. At its height, cultivation of the 'Way of the Ch'in' combined a Taoist repose and etiquette with a Confucian ethic encouraging balance with nature and the preservation of righteousness. More tangible benefits included a form of musical notation that can be traced back at least to the T'ang Dynasty (AD 618-907).

A larger brother of the ch'in, the guzheng, or 17-string zither, is a mainstay of the London Chinese Orchestra, along with the two- stringed violin (erhu) and Chinese lute (pipa). Part of the orchestra's programme yesterday was provided by traditional melodies for the bamboo flutes, the di and the xiao, played by the young di master, Zhang Weiliang. The development of such instruments reflects the country's long history: its conquests, invasions and influences. The sona, an oboe, hails from Turkestan; the guzheng and sheng (a mouth-organ), are the forerunners of the Japanese koto and sho respectively.

Study of these instruments occupies an important place in the curricula of the Shanghai, Szechuan and Peking Conservatories. Learning their craft involves an understanding not only of tunings and performing techniques unfamiliar to Western musicians, but also a refined, picturesque sensibility more familiar to European audiences through the delicate natural symbolism of Sung Dynasty landscape painting (960- 1279), or the writings of Li Po, Tu Fu, or that most gentle of poets, the Buddhist Wang Wei. The traditions of Confucianism, with its triple relationship of music uniting heaven, earth and ancestors, also continues to play an important role in music theory.

For Chinese musicians following the Western tradition, finding a creative balance between old and new ways has been the major challenge of the 20th century, a challenge exacerbated by the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, spearheaded by Chiang Ch'ing, wife of Mao Tse-tung. Though the days of collective compositions and ceaseless self- criticism are now over, it is reported that pop versions of slogan songs such as 'Mao's work dwells for ever in my heart' are still best- sellers. And in China, that means sales of 20 million.

Nevertheless, things are changing. The conservatoires are updating themselves, assimilation being the name of the game. A new generation of composers is emerging, including Tan Dun, recently given a high profile here with an Edinburgh Festival commission and new orchestral works to be premiered next month in Glasgow.

Increasingly too, performers from mainland China are being heard worldwide - and carrying off major prizes. Violinists seem particularly favoured: Hu Kun, born 1963 and a graduate of the Peking Conservatoire, won the Francescatti and the International Sibelius competitions, and has recently recorded Alun Hoddinott's Heaventree of Stars for Nimbus Records. The achievements of Chinese musicians are met with scepticism in the West, he believes. Inevitably, however, they will become accepted. And if China's relentless economic drive continues to be matched by rising standards, its musicians will be a force to be reckoned with in 20 years' time - a view endorsed by Yehudi Menuhin.

How the musical establishment deals with this potential explosion remains to be seen. Artistically, Kun thinks that his experience as an erhu player has added to the style and depth of his work, bridging East and West. For singers, coping with massive differences of language, the benefits may seem less sure. The young performers appearing in Monday night's concert have won awards and contracts, yet stereotyping inevitably prevails: Hong-Kong born soprano Nancy Yuen has sung Madam Butterfly both for ENO and WNO. But Ya-Lin Zhang, who trained at the Tianjing Conservatoire, has taken leading tenor roles in Carmen, La Traviata and La Boheme with great success.

Doubtless the national gift for synthesis, balance and continuity will in time prevail. Confucius, himself a musician, as legend tells, would certainly have approved. The point may be clarified by Monday evening's pianist, Kung Chiu Man, who, keeping things in the family, claims to be a direct descendant.

(Photograph omitted)