Contributed by NG Yu Hng
The Ding Yi Composium 2021 offers an eye-opening opportunity to hear contemporary works composed for the Chinese chamber ensemble. The Open Rehearsals involve the 9 finalist composers of the Composium competition, across 3 categories. Category A is thematically oriented around ‘Chinese Festivals and Customs’, while B1 and B2 are on ‘Life Sentiments’. More details on the composers and their chosen works can be found here.
As I watched the Open Rehearsals, I remember thinking: What are the compositional strategies involved in composing Chinese chamber works in contrast to Western pieces? How do the composers articulate the term ‘contemporary’ in their pieces for Chinese instruments? What is the future of contemporary Chinese music? Of course, I do not claim to offer authoritative answers to these questions. Rather, I hope this article may identify points for consideration, to orient and encourage further conversations on what it means to write new works for Chinese ensembles.
A while ago I had the opportunity to have lessons with WANG Chenwei, Composer-in-Residence for the Singapore Chinese Orchestra. One of the key takeaways for me was the differing aesthetic priorities in Western and Chinese music. For Western works, harmony is foundational to its musical richness. As such, instruments are designed to create a blended texture. In contrast, Chinese works create musical life by a variety of melodic nuances; glides, trills and ornamentation. The former largely seeks harmonic coherence, while the latter prioritises heterogenous richness. While this is a guiding heuristic not reflective of all works in either musical tradition, it is a good principle to keep in mind nonetheless.
Such a heterogeneous quality is evident in many of the works performed. Take for example CHENG Kuang-Chih’s Chilly-Autumn with Misshapen Beauty Moon. This is a work of startling elegance, where each instrument has much individuality, all woven into a contrapuntal tapestry. Despite the large number of instrumental voices, I remember finding it remarkable that the texture never feels too thick or cacophonic. Each instrument appears and fades transiently, like birds in a flock, both part of a cloud of bodies yet occasional springing away from it.
Heterogeneity can be articulated in a myriad of ways, sometimes by a daring engagement with plentiful extended techniques. DING Jian Han’s work Lu(nox) is a striking example of such. The structure consists of tightly woven ‘cells’ of sound that appear briefly, followed by a short silence, and then this cycle repeats. Such a structural strategy evokes bursts of light appearing briefly in the darkness of silence, as is reflected in the piece’s programme. Here, the heterogeneous textures are tightly constructed as a series of compact, self-contained cells of otherworldly sounds that explore the limits of the Chinese ensemble’s timbral palette.
Such rich experimental exploration is one way to negotiate the ‘contemporary’ in contemporary Chinese music, although the other composers have approached this differently. For instance, ZHOU Jia Ying’s work Twinkling of Bonfire Night intersects both tradition and innovation. Her work is based on the Torch Festival of the Yi People, where folks dress up in traditional costumes to dance and sing around the bonfire. Throughout her piece, playful folk rhythms are brought out via percussive tapping on the Huqin (胡琴) and Ruan (阮), while a festive melody by the Dizi (笛子) leads to a climactic finish.
There is more I wish to comment upon the rest of the pieces, such as the striking monumentality in HE Jia Ning’s Ocean Breath, where a larger-than-life acoustic space resulted from the effective usage of the Sheng’s (笙) resonance; or perhaps LIU Peng’s Sitting Together Among the White Cloud, which created a lively conversation between the instruments. However, it is perhaps time to elaborate a broader perspective on the Composium Open Rehearsals.
While many composition competitions involve a sending and adjudication of scores, the Ding Yi Composium seemingly hybridised a masterclass with a competition. Each composer is allotted a session with the live ensemble from Ding Yi, with the adjudicators in the audience. It firstly involves a rehearsal, followed by time for the composer to discuss segments with the musicians to fine-tune. Finally, the adjudicators provide feedback to the composers.
This unique approach has the advantage of allowing for the candidates to be evaluated on how well they articulate a response to the feedback from performers and adjudicators. This is a more holistic approach than traditional competitions: they are not just assessed on their composing skills, but also on their ability to negotiate musical feedback from others. I find this a most refreshing change.
What is the future of Chinese contemporary music then?
From the generous feedback of the adjudicators to the brilliant and diverse repertoire presented, I rest assured that it lies in good hands. While I may not be able to predict trends, Chinese contemporary music has parallels with the Western contemporary classical scene as well: a wide variety of styles, a healthy balance between innovation and tradition, and most importantly, a deep desire to bring joy and hope to a world eclipsed by a global pandemic.