Music from Memory; Chinese Composers Get a Warm Reception in the West

By Pepper, Tara | Newsweek International, August 23, 2004 | Go to article overview

Music from Memory; Chinese Composers Get a Warm Reception in the West


Pepper, Tara, Newsweek International


Byline: Tara Pepper

The militaristic percussion that marches over shivering glissandos in Zhou Long's "The Immortal," which premiered last month at the London Proms, could evoke any number of 20th-century tragedies. Performed right before Strauss's jolly "Alpine Symphony," recounting his boyhood holidays, and Liszt's lush, nostalgic second piano concerto--both written before World War I--"The Immortal" sounded like the creation of a different world, one in which moments of beauty are sharp and brief.

That's no accident. Zhou Long is one of a group of Chinese composers, brought up during the Cultural Revolution and now living in the West, who are creating striking works that fuse memories and music from the East with Western-style compositions. Drawing on Chinese folk songs, literature, poetry and history, they are the first generation of Chinese composers to be widely performed around the world. This summer's Proms concerts in London feature three such works: in addition to Zhou, Tan Dun's "Violin Concerto" and "Concerto for Water Percussion and Orchestra" and Bright Sheng's "The Song and Dance of Tears." In July "The Future of Fire," a new CD of Zhou's work--including his meditative piece for string quartet and orchestra, "Poems From Tang"--was released. And at the British Library, celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble are performing new and traditional Chinese and Kyrgyz music this week.

Though 20th-century Western composers like Olivier Messaien and Benjamin Britten spiced their music with exotic Eastern sounds, until recently Chinese music was rarely heard in the West. China's growing international profile has deepened interest in all aspects of its culture. At the same time there is a growing awareness that orchestras need to seek out new repertoires, bringing Chinese music center stage. Sheng's raw, furious 1988 piece "H'un (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966-76" set the stage, and has become the most performed work of any Chinese composer. Tan Dun won fame with his Oscar-winning score for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Ma established the Silk Road Project in 1998 to explore the music that flourished along the ancient trade route, and his performances of works by Sheng and Tan brought them wider recognition in the West.

Recent Chinese history is a rich theme in all their works. "The Immortal" was Zhou's intensely personal tribute to the suffering of a generation of artists and intellectuals--including his own parents, a painter and a singing teacher--during Mao Zedong's attempt to revitalize Chinese Communism in the 1960s. …

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