Contributed by Weihan NG
20 Jan 2022
Not too long ago, I sat in, albeit online, for two of Ding Yi Music Company’s Symposiums, as part of their Composium 2021, on Composition Competition: Thematic vs Free Writing and Composition Devices of Chinese vs Western Music. The triennial Composium organised by the Ding Yi Music Company took place from 11-19 December 2021 and is a large-scale festival dedicated to Chinese chamber music composition. The international composition competition comprises three segments – a series of symposiums, two open rehearsals, and two concerts.
For the first, I went for the session with no inkling at all about the content that was to be covered. But that also meant I would be easily surprised by anything interesting. Well, I was indeed kept engaged for the entire hour by the conversations and discussions on thematic writing, free writing, and certainly, the challenges of writing.
Have you ever been given a title and asked to write a story? I think this is not familiar to the many of us who have taken writing classes, whether in English, or a foreign language. Well, the idea of having a title and developing it into a story is something that was on Ms Zhou Jia Ying’s mind when she discussed writing a composition based on a specific given theme. I was initially puzzled and confused – why is having a theme good? Would it be nicer to not have a theme and be given the runway to write freely? Mr Ding Jian Han answered my question well. It was comforting to know that he shared the same thoughts back when he was younger. He acknowledged the boundless possibilities of having freedom to write with no thematic restriction, but more importantly, he shared about how socio-cultural parameter is by no means a boundary. To sum up his thoughts, the socio-cultural parameter encourages a composer to seek ways to compose creatively within the thematic guide. To say the least, I thought this was inspiring. I would first say that every composer would have a different take to what this means, and to me, this almost likens my daily commute to school. While the easiest way for me to travel to school would be via the university shuttle bus, I sometimes walk, I sometimes take the public bus and sometimes cycle, often via different paths. Likewise, in composition, even within a given theme, there are many possible “routes” a composer can take in developing their pieces to be uniquely theirs, and to be one that is vastly different from the many others that share the same theme.
Yet, at the same time, the whole idea of having a theme may not sit with every composer. Moving away from the discussion about following themes, and in the case of this competition, the theme about culture, we hear from composers who choose to seek free composition. Ms He Jia Ning shared that she once stood by the sea, and basked in the setting of waves hitting the shores, and the feeling of timelessness and the serenity of the scene became her inspiration. Mr Xie Qin Wei shared about how Covid-19 had changed his travel plans around China when the virus first stormed the world, and how that led to new experiences which inspired his piece. There was also Mr Liu Yu Hui who shared an interesting take on these two categories of the competition. He described category A as a more outward-looking theme and category B as a more inward-looking one, in a way where category A asks the composer to develop an understanding of their culture and heritage while category B calls for the composer to take an introspective look into their life. For a young composer like myself, hearing about these different ways to compose music encourages me to re-think the way I view composition.
This session was intriguing for me on many levels. The symposium began with the panellists introducing themselves and the moment Dr Watson started his sharing, I knew this session was for me. Why so? The entirety of the session focuses much less on what I thought it would have been (comparing instruments and writing techniques). Instead, greater focus was placed on how (and sometimes, how differently) to approach writing for Chinese instruments.
I thought I would like to take some time to share my views on the panellists’ introductions. Dr Watson introduced himself as a composer who was western trained – little knowledge of Chinese music and Chinese instruments, and having to learn from hearing because of the language barrier in readings. This struck a chord with me. I remember going into my first traditional Korean music composition lesson telling my professor, “I cannot understand academic Korean well; I don’t know how and where to start learning Korean music”, and the professor said “listen”. Well, that was also what Dr Watson had mentioned. Listen. I have learnt that listening is a very important skill when learning music composition, contrary to what many may think, and this sentiment is also shared by Dr Watson. In his words, “I can listen to Indian ensembles… I could listen to gamelan music…. And I took full advantage of that. Quite deliberately. I began to be intrigued not so much for the techniques they were displaying, but the musical thinking and the philosophy behind each of these different musical cultures and how they were forming in music…” Listening often allows one (whether it is the composer or the performer) to better understand the compositional style, use of musical devices and cultural norms and practises of compositions. Echoing what my composition advisor often says, listening and analysing allows a composer to build a dictionary of possibilities that can later become compositional tools for one to build their piece(s) on. I think this applies not just to Western music, but also the composition of Chinese music, and all kinds of music, for that matter.
Speaking about listening and speaking, the panellists then led us to a very interesting topic on language. Dr Goh shared about dialects and how they relate to the way music is being played. He compared microtones to speech and how the subtle differences in spoken language are reflected in music playing. This was something I had never quite thought about and it was indeed fascinating to learn that the languages he speaks and understands, like Cantonese and Hainanese, influences his compositions for the Chinese orchestra. Having lived in three different cities for an extended period of time, I found this discussion very relevant to the struggles that I face when composing traditional music that strives to be indigenous. It is often said that instrumental music often endeavours to emulate the voice. As such, the difference in each spoken language gives the music of that region its unique colour and timbre. The region in which the music is from can often be inferred from the subtle changes in playing techniques or musical device used. In this way, the playing techniques and instrumental musical devices become a tool to distinguish Chinese music from Western music.
I think one thing that many of us composers would want to learn more about is the difference between the compositional techniques that can be applied for Western compositions and Chinese Music compositions. The panellists have shared about their experiences in this topic, covering the different elements of music, from texture to orchestration: Dr Goh shared about writing a fugue for Chinese instruments, an interesting attempt, but also a challenge because not all Chinese instruments are chromatic; Ms Alicia shared about writing a canon, where antiphony was intricately designed to somewhat mimic the ‘call-and-response’ that is indigenous of Chinese instruments; Ms Jon Lin spoke about the very effective use of Klangfarbenmelodie (German term for sound colour melody), which brings out the uniqueness in timbre of instruments in the ensemble; Dr Watson shared about the different instrumental techniques each instrument can play. Hearing what they have said, one takeaway for me would be that there is no set of fixed rules on what one can do (or cannot do). Instead, in understanding the make and capabilities of each instrument and the colour each can bring to the ensemble, the possibilities in which one can explore, whether it is the utilisation of Western instrumental techniques, or writing for a mixed ensemble, is limitless.
Every composer writes differently, and so each and every composer will wrestle with a different set of challenges. The finalists of the Composium were authentic in sharing about their challenges, but with much eloquence, and a strong sense of purpose. To Mr Cheng Kuang-Chih, writing is a continuous challenge to himself; and so he challenges himself to do something new and different in each piece. For Mr Zhang Yi Meng, it is to bring out the different timbres of each instrument and understanding the different techniques that each instrument can perform. As for Mr Zhang Zhi Liang, he brought up an honest but accurate view of the practice of composition of traditional music in today’s world – a decline in the scene, with minimal opportunities. This left me thinking about how us, the younger generation of composers, can take small steps to allow our culture and heritage to live on.
Weihan is a student currently at Seoul National University and the University of Glasgow. She studies the computing sciences and music, and is deeply interested in composing music that involves the use of both Western and Korean traditional instruments on the same stage.