Half a World Away
Springer, Matt, Strings
Exploring celebratory music from China
IMAGINE WHAT A BEETHOVEN SONATA would sound like on bagpipes. Probably not the best example of one culture's music played on another culture's instrument. However, this kind of exchange is one of the great joys of making music: finding ways to bring two worlds together. The process of making this connection is fraught with considerations. Simply playing the musical notes of a tune from one culture on a different set of instruments isn't enough if you want to be successful, as I've found in my work arranging Chinese music for Western instruments.
In the early 1990s, I made one of the happiest discoveries of my life when I, a classically-trained Western musician, discovered Chinese music. Already experienced as a violinist in chamber ensembles and orchestras, I learned to play the erhu, the Chinese, two-string, snakeskin-covered equivalent of the violin. I started playing in Chinese traditional-instruments ensembles and learned a great deal about the Chinese-musical style. In Chinese music, there is less emphasis on complex harmonies and counterpoint, and more emphasis on different ways of playing a melody, even different ways of playing a single note. Slides, note bends, and ornaments are a huge part of the final product, and if you don't do it correctly, it doesn't sound like Chinese music.
When I decided to try arranging Chinese music for Western instruments, it was surprising how many combinations just didn't work. However, I was determined to find some Chinese pieces that would sound good arranged for Western string quartet. It's puzzling how few Chinese stringquartet arrangements are available in the United States, given the Asian heritage of so many string players in American high schools and universities, and the many Chinese-American events that call for string-quartet music. After dismissing most of the pieces that I had played in Chinese orchestras, I found only two that I felt would convincingly translate into Westernstring timbres. I arranged these pieces into the two-part arrangement now called Chinese Celebrations (see excerpt on pages 28 and 29).
The problem is, even if the Western string player is staring right at the notes, how does he or she know how to play them correctly? These arrangements give the uninitiated player an edge, due to my knowledge of both Chinese music and what a Western-classical-string player needs to see on the page to know how the music should sound. …