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 Chen Tao (Director)
 Melody of Dragon, Inc.
 53-19 195th Street
 Fresh Meadows, NY
 Tel: 347-259-9252

New Music -- A Performer's Perspective

By Chen Tao 

Tone Color:

>> Tone color is a major factor for consideration even before the composer begins the creative process. Some composers opt for unconventional groupings of instruments for mixed timbres. Zhou Long’s "Su" for qin and Western flute, and his "The Ineffable" for pipa, zheng and chamber ensemble are good examples. Faced with a new and unfamiliar format, the performer must learn to adapt to comprehend the composer's intent and realize it.

Traditional Chinese music embraces the natural and seeks beauty in harmony and equilibrium. In the performance of traditional music, fluidity, and full-bodied, unaffected, lustrous qualities are sought, guided by the dictum, "strong but no aggressive, soft but not weak." For the dizi, while southern style display fluid, rounded tones and northern styles are bright and robust, the same aesthetic principles apply. New music sets a different standard for tone colors. Aside from resorting to traditional practices in certain instances, new music – which calls for greater elasticity (flexibility) –frequently exploits the extremities of tone colors. Examples of this are the use of insubstantial tones, breath sounds, the loud use of notes in high register, and even abnormal sounds from the instrument. This intensification of tone colors expands the realm of imagination and intellectual perception for the music listener. For the performance, new music calls for a higher level of musicianship to achieve this wide range of tone colors and elasticity.

Rhythm (Meter), Intonation and Elasticity:

>> Compared to traditional Chinese music, new music exerts greater demands on the performer in terms of rhythm (meter), intonation and elasticity. Traditional music most often uses 2/4, 4/4 or 1/4 meters with relatively simple rhythmic structures and step-wise melodic progression in keeping with the aesthetic emphasis on the natural and gradual. To create greater contracts and elasticity, new music composers frequently use other meters, such as 3/4, 5/8, 7/8, 5/16, 2/16 and combinations thereof, to divert the accented beat. Some compositions even dispense with metrical markings and bar lines entirely. Tan Dun's "Soliloquy for Dizi" and Zhou Long's work for dizi and pipa, "Green," are compositions with complex, changing rhythms. In ensemble works, where each instrumental line is independent yet an integral part of the whole, each performer must command his or her own part, and be able to sight-read from main scores to know how it fits into the structure of the piece to properly realize the composer's intent.

New music pieces are sometimes written in polytonal, pantonal or atonal styles. This has brought new breakthroughs for Chinese instruments in expression and performance techniques. Microtones are often used to enhance the Chinese character would certainly impose difficulties and challenges for those without formal training.

The aforementioned elasticity (flexibility) lies at the core of new music in regard to creation and performance (re-creation). This elasticity is theoretically incompatible with traditional Chinese music, which adheres to the principle of a gradual, natural change, where variations exist within a unified whole, and a pentatonic scale is the basis for melodic construction. (This linearity applies to Chinese brush painting and calligraphy as well.) Consequently, Chinese music tends toward the harmonious, progressing step-wise; tensile strength is uncharacteristic. New music also follow this same principle of gradual change, but emphasizes contrasts to achieve unity of an inner spirit. Therefore, one often finds in works of new music large-scale intervals, conflicting rhythms and accents, varied tone color contrasts, and deviations from traditional pentatonic and diatonic scales. How elasticity is manifested in a musical work and whether it bestows total freedom of expression for the performer are a good yardstick for measuring its success. How well a performer can crystallize this elasticity in performance is also a measure of his or her musicianship.

Evocative Power and Expression:

>> Subtle evocation and expression are important trademarks of Chinese music. A good composition is said to be one, which opens up new realms of imagination for the listener and where the strains of the music linger on. This leads some to think that new music, having abandoned the principles of tonal music, is unable to produce beautiful melodies and, hence, lacks the evocative powers and sensibilities of traditional Chinese music. There are indeed compositions that lack sophistication and maturity, leaving the listener bewildered and unrequited. A successful work can, however, open up new spaces for the imagination. Through varied instrumental combinations, rich color contrasts and tremendous flexibility, its purpose is to suggest the abstract and invoke and impression from the listener. Its focus is on a personal reaction from the listener and performer as defined by the individual's level of cultivation. As a performer, I believe that the creation of new Chinese music must also give paramount importance to the soul of traditional Chinese music – melody. Through the new compositions, each composer pursued the subtle, evocative powers of music. The spiritual and esoteric qualities of Zhou Long’s "The Ineffable," "Su," and Tan Dun's "Soliloquy for Dizi" bring our imagination to new heithgs. Chen Yi's "As in a Dream" and Zhou Qin-Ru's "Two Songs for Soprano and Zheng" are richly infused with the character of Chinese folk songs. In Han Yong's "Seven Brocades," different percussive textures from a colorful tableau with the dizi, erhu and zheng. This richness of sonority in most likelihood would not be attained through traditional methods of composition and performance. Both share a common goal – to pursue music's evocative powers – but through different means.

The Relationship between Composer and Performer:

>> The successful creation of new music is inseparable from the close cooperation between a composer in command of his art and craft and an accomplished performer. Very often a new composition given to a performer will turn out to be different from what the composer had envisioned, or even prove unplayable. Another case is one that I have experienced personally. A performer will try his hand at creating a new work, with the belief that years of performing experience, thorough knowledge of the repertoire and good command of performance techniques would make this a simple task. The result is that one always goes back to the traditional ways. One reason is a lack of professional training in composition. Too much familiarity with one's instrument can also be a deterrent to exploring new techniques.

For some composers, inadequate understanding of an instrument's performance techniques or misjudging the capabilities of a performer can affect the creation of a work. Composers are often faced with inherent limitations of traditional instruments or of the performers. In creating new music, the composer and performer must work closely together. This cooperation not only refers to composing, but also encompasses artistic preferences and aesthetic tastes. As a result, composers' new works often spur the development of certain instruments, while enhanced performing techniques and increased musical vocabulary on the part of the performer create greater possibilities for composers. The creative use of double stops and blowing through note holes in Tan Dun's "Soliloquy for Dizi" and unconventional tuning of the zheng in Zhou Long's "The Ineffable" are examples of new techniques not found in traditional music.

In my initial encounters with new music more than 20 years ago, I found myself adapting to this musical genre with some difficulty. Looking back today, these works seem relatively "traditional" because our horizons have broadened and performing techniques enhanced. In this mutually beneficial relationship, the composer should have a good command of the musical expression of instruments while the performer should fully realize the composer's intent. Performers must also possess depth of knowledge of traditional Chinese music to best interpret today's new Chinese music.

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