Shanghai Conservatory of Music creates cross-culture music of harmony

Written by Yin Xiuqi China Plus Published: 2017-05-27 20:41:54
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Musicians of the C asean Consonant ensemble and composers of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music posed for a group photo after a cross-culture concert at the Shanghai school on May 15th, 2017. In the center holding a bunch of flowers is conductor Cai Jindong. Music director of the ensemble Anant Narkkong stands second right from him. [photo: provided by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music]

Musicians of the C asean Consonant ensemble and composers of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music posed for a group photo after a cross-culture concert at the Shanghai school on May 15th, 2017. In the center holding a bunch of flowers is conductor Cai Jindong. Music director of the ensemble Anant Narkkong stands second right from him. [photo: provided by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music]

Music is widely regarded as a universal language, but even so, different nations still have different musical forms and traditions.

The huge variety of distinct musical traditions has undoubtedly provided a wealth of resources for today’s composers to explore.

Yet there are still cultural and musical gaps. And composers and other musicians are being called upon to bridge them.

Students and young composers from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music have been at the forefront of exploring such cross-culture resources and reducing these cultural gaps.

Their latest efforts saw them work with a traditional music ensemble from Southeast Asia at a rare cross-culture concert on May 15th, 2017.

The performance was given at the He Lvting Concert Hall at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in the center of one of the most dynamic and wealthy metropolises in China. 

While the concert was regarded as a success, it still raised many questions for its participants, who have to answer them before they can create their own influential musical products.

The Shanghai Conservatory of Music, situated in the old districts of Shanghai, is one of the centers of professional musical education in China. [photo: provided by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music]

The Shanghai Conservatory of Music, situated in the old districts of Shanghai, is one of the centers of professional musical education in China. [photo: provided by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music]

China-ASEAN concert

On a spring or early summer's day, the winding, narrow streets of the old districts of Shanghai are often pleasing to wander down, to either a cozy historic building or an exquisite cultural facility veiled by trees.

If you were wandering past the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, just along the Fenyang Road, you probably wouldn't miss it.

As a pioneer of modern music education in China, the school dates its origins back to 1927, in the midst of a tumultuous era of war and turmoil and also the early modernization of the nation.

Now, 90 years on, the school has become one of the centers of professional musical education in China.

One cool, early summer night – May the 15th, 2017 to be precise – I stepped into its small campus, to hear beautiful sounds filling the air as students and teachers practiced before an evening concert.

The concert, called “Friendship beyond Frontier, the Harmonious Spirit of China-ASEAN,” was a rare experience for both its participants and for concertgoers like me.

The performance was given by “the C asean Consonant”, a traditional music ensemble from Southeast Asia. It was the first to be staged in China by the ensemble, which was only founded in 2015.

Altogether 13 new pieces of music, all created by students and other young composers from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, were played at the concert.

ASEAN and Chinese musicians co-played at the concert—all of its 13 pieces of music were especially created by students and other young composers from the Shanghai school. [photo: provided by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music]

ASEAN and Chinese musicians co-played at the concert—all of its 13 pieces of music were especially created by students and other young composers from the Shanghai school. [photo: provided by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music]

As an experiment in cross-culture exchanges, the composers integrated traditional Southeast Asian and Chinese music elements into their works.

One of them—Yingya Dance was written by 38-year-old Wang Shu, a composition teacher at the Shanghai school.

Wang says he got the idea for the work after reading Yingya Shenglan, a Chinese book written by a navigator in the mid-15th century, in which the geography and customs of Southeast Asia are explored.

“After I learned about the geography, cultures and customs of Southeast Asia in the book, I came up with an idea to use a dance music form to depict the region’s folk culture and their distinct customs. 

“When I started to compose the music, I carried out some research into the folk and other distinct musical elements from Malaysia, Singapore, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and so on. In the finished piece, I want to demonstrate a dialogue between all these distinct local cultures.”

The rendition of Wang’s work by the ASEAN ensemble won resounding applause like all the other music played at the concert, which lasted about one and a half hours.

Student-composers on stage paid their respects to the audiences and the players at the concert. [photo: provided by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music]

Student-composers on stage paid their respects to the audience and the players at the concert. [photo: provided by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music]

It wasn't just the audience that was satisfied – musicians in the concert expressed their delight as well.

Anant Narkkong, music director of the C asean Consonant, says his ensemble has learned a lot through cooperating with Chinese musicians, deeming the concert “another big progress” for the ensemble. 

Ye Guohui, artistic director and project planner at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, gives a similar evaluation, saying “the performance was fairly good although there is room for improvement.”

He says: “I’m very satisfied considering all the pieces played at the concert were new to the performers. Also the music composed by our young students and teachers was very interesting, for example the last one, Vivid. Its composer has a very good mastery of ASEAN traditional musical instruments and their musical tradition.”

Vivid was composed by Han Ke, a postgraduate student learning composition at the Shanghai school.The young composer used a clear, lively melody and rhythm in her work, through which she intended to convey a life state of peace and joy.

Fifty-six-year-old Ye Guohui is a well-established Chinese composer and artistic director at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. [photo: provided by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music]

Fifty-six-year-old Ye Guohui is a well-established Chinese composer and artistic director at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. [photo: provided by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music]

Dissatisfied but meaningful

But as Ye Guohui, also a well-established Chinese composer, mentioned, the concert and the compositions still have “room for improvement”.  

Although Ye does not explain in detail what the problems are and how improvements can be made, composer Wang Shu offers his personal evaluation.

The young composer is frank when he admits that the rendition of his Yingya Dance at the concert did not live up to his expectations.

Wang Shu explains that the reasons for it are on the part of the composer himself and the players, and an inadequate time for rehearsals.

“There's no doubt that there's a difference between the original cultures and a composer’s understanding of them. At the same time, the performer may not feel at home with the new, creative expression of their culture in the music. 

“Extra difficulties also might have arisen because my composition integrates too many different cultures. I have to say the concert just basically fulfilled all the requirements of the piece. But there is a gap between that and satisfaction.”

Wang Shu, 38, a composition teacher at the Shanghai music school, created Yingya Dance for the China-ASEAN concert. [photo: provided by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music]

Wang Shu, 38, a composition teacher at the Shanghai music school, created Yingya Dance for the China-ASEAN concert. [photo: provided by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music]

Wang’s Yingya Dance uses seven kinds of musical materials commonly found in Southeast Asian instruments as the basis of pitch structure.

Five main sounds were selected as a common bearing platform, presenting the meaning of “convergence” in the form of the imaginary “dance”.

This kind of rich cultural and musical meaning in the work can be a challenge for the players of the ASEAN ensemble to demonstrate in their rendition.

Stopping short of deeming it a “challenge”, most of the players choose the word “new” to describe such a musical experience.

Twenty-five-year-old Kammathep Theeralertrat, who played Ranat Ek and Khlui, two traditional musical instruments from Thailand, admits “we’re not familiar with the melody, and this style is very, very new.”

Le Thuy Linh, from Vietnam, plays a traditional Vietnamese musical instrument at the China-ASEAN concert. [photo: provided by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music]

Le Thuy Linh, from Vietnam, played a traditional Vietnamese musical instrument at the China-ASEAN concert. [photo: provided by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music]

Another two ASEAN players at the China-ASEAN concert. [photo: provided by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music]

Another two ASEAN players at the China-ASEAN concert. [photo: provided by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music]

Though dissatisfied with the rendition of his work at the concert, composer and teacher Wang Shu says it was still very meaningful.

“We actually co-operate using our distinct traditional musical forms and systems. What matters most is that this cooperation can broaden the horizons of the participants and our students. Through this exchange, our students will discover the depth, richness and colorfulness of the musical traditions of other peoples.”

Wang Shu began his professional musical education when he studied at the senior high school. Now he has more than 10 years of teaching experience at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

He points out that regular and deepening cross-culture exchanges are a good way to bridge cultural differences and nurture young composers like himself.

“I hope this kind of one-off music exchange with the ASEAN ensemble can become regular and long-term in the future. With the increase of cross-culture exchanges, the cultural gap will probably narrow and there will be more satisfactory cooperation.”

Wang’s views are echoed by Ye Guohui.

The more experienced 56-year-old composer says students of music and young Chinese composers should try all means to experience and learn about different cultures before they even think about writing great works.

“Within the whole production line of music, the composer occupies a very, very important position. His original composition leads to and affects all the later stages of music performance and appreciation. 

“It’s very important for our students to have this experience of working with ‘the C asean Consonant’ ensemble. Such an experience will be gradually absorbed by them and will one day inspire them to come up with new cross-culture compositions and cooperation.”

“Hearing China” project

In fact, the cooperation with the ASEAN ensemble is just part of wide-ranging cultural exchanges carried out by the Shanghai Conservatory of Music.

The school launched a long-term project called “Hearing China” in 2015, which was overseen by artistic director Ye Guohui.

The project invites students from world-famous music schools to come to China and compose symphonies based on Chinese folksongs and traditional operas.

According to Ye Guohui, the project has so far drawn participation from students of Cambridge University in the UK, Yale University, the USA, and the Hamburg University of Music and Theater in Germany as well as other countries.

This year, the project will see students from Austria, Hungary, Romania and Russia, among others, get involved.

In my late-night interview with him after the concert, Ye Guohui talked in high spirits about the prospects of his cultural exchange project.

He told me that project planners select only one or two composers from each country so that more countries can join the program, which aims to get at least 50 nations involved within 10 years.

The composer said that Chinese music students can also benefit from the project by listening to and sharing their counterparts’ experience, compositions and approaches to Chinese music from a different perspective.


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