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27 Jan 2022

On Contemporary Chinese Chamber Music: Advocacy and Development

Reflections on Symposium Sessions | Ding Yi Music Company’s Composium 2021

Contributed by CHUA Jon Lin

Symposium Topics:

The triennial Composium organised by the Ding Yi Music Company that took place from 11-19 December 2021 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.

The symposiums shed light on different aspects of contemporary Chinese chamber music, garnering perspectives from composers, performers, and as well as members of the audience. While symposiums 3 and 4 focused more on the intricacies of composition and its craft with regards to this musical genre, the overarching theme of advocacy for new compositions in the Chinese chamber music genre seemed to dominate symposiums 1, 2, and 5. Through these symposiums, this theme of advocacy was explored from multiple perspectives stemming from the different roles within the musical ecosystem.

Access the Composium 2021 Programme Booklet here to read more about the composers, adjudicators, symposium speakers and works featured at Composium 2021!

Why is There a Need for New Chinese Chamber Compositions?

This was the opening question of the first symposium. Prior to talking about advocacy, it is perhaps important to first examine why we should even advocate for new compositions in the Chinese chamber music genre. Composer Prof. Lu Yun expressed the sentiment that each artist, through their act of creation, is expressing their views of the times, and thus captures the zeitgeist of our era. In addition to this, composer Prof. Luo Mai Shuo pointed out the need to stimulate contemporary audiences and open up new vistas. Through promoting contemporary composition, we are building up a repertory base for the future. Veteran journalist Mr. Giam Meng Tuck also contributed his point of view, as an audience member, and echoed the sentiment that contemporary compositions would represent the authentic response of a contemporary composer towards contemporary life.

As such, the panel for the first symposium unanimously acknowledged the need for new compositions in general, and erhu musician Ms. Rozie Hoong also pointed out that the need for new compositions rings true in particular for the Chinese chamber music genre, as the unique and highly individualistic timbre of each Chinese instrument provides a perfect opportunity for timbral-oriented contemporary composers to freely explore and experiment. This sentiment was later also echoed by composers Prof. Qin Wen Chen, Dr. Chong Kee Yong, and Mr. Law Wai Lun in the fifth symposium, who noted that the uniqueness of Chinese instruments lies in the strength of the fewer over the greater – as Chinese instruments are rich in intricate timbral nuances and colours, a smaller setting would provide full space for all these nuances to be heard and for them to shine, unlike within a large orchestra where a certain degree of timbral homogeneity is required for a more blended sound. To date, however, the pool of composed works for Chinese chamber music is far smaller than that for the Chinese orchestra.

Advocacy Through Increasing the Quantity of New Compositions for Chinese Chamber Music

Hence, one of the primary methods of advocating for contemporary Chinese chamber music is to increase the quantity of new compositions for this genre. There was a general consensus amongst the speakers of all three symposiums that the Composium organised by the Ding Yi Music Company has been playing an extremely important role in rapidly fuelling the expansion of the Chinese chamber repertoire base since its inception in 2012, as well as gaining an international reach in attracting participating composers – in 2021, there was a record-high of 88 compositions submitted from various countries and regions, including Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, United States of America, Madagascar, Mexico, Croatia and Singapore.

Conservatories may also play a key role in helping to expand the repertoire base of Chinese chamber music. In the fifth symposium, composer Prof. Wang Jian Min raised the example of composer Prof. Hu Deng Tiao, who established the Chinese string quintet (丝弦五重奏) comprising of the erhu, liuqin, pipa, yangqin, and guzheng as a standard ensemble within the Shanghai Conservatory of Music during the 1960s-70s. He managed to create and amass a sizable body of repertoire for this ensemble, allowing for rigorous training of musicians in the Chinese chamber genre within the conservatory setting, honing another skill set for that generation of musicians apart from just focusing on their soloistic abilities. As Dr. Chong noted, engaging conservatories in this endeavour would greatly aid in promoting this genre of music professionally.

The facilitator of the fifth symposium, composer Mr. Phang Kok Jun also noted that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been a major push factor in encouraging orchestras and orchestral musicians to shift their focus towards chamber music within the past few years. A silver lining that emerged from the pandemic is the proliferation of chamber music groups as well as chamber music repertoire, as musicians fought to sustain their lives as performers during these times.

Advocacy Through Increasing the Quality of New Compositions for Chinese Chamber Music

Of course, sustainable development of Chinese chamber music cannot rely solely on sheer quantity of repertoire. As Prof. Qin stated in the fifth symposium, there are currently not enough masterpieces in the Chinese chamber genre. Composers and performers alike still need to improve, not just in craft and technique, but also in broadening their understanding of the larger cultural, aesthetic, and historical context of this music.

However, with the increase in engagement of the Chinese chamber genre within the international composer community, more knowledge of instrumental techniques and of effective instrumental writing may be distilled from having accumulated a critical mass of repertoire in this genre. As percussionist Mr. Derek Koh and guzheng musician Ms. Yvonne Tay pointed out in the second symposium, they have observed a salient increase in the quality of compositions from the first Composium held in 2012 up till the latest one held in 2021, as the later composers are able to build upon the experience and expertise uncovered by the efforts of their predecessors. However, Mr. Koh notes that though there have been a lot more resources on Chinese instrumental writing that have been made available to composers over the last decade, there remains insufficient in-depth and organised literature on explaining and exploring the full capacities of each instrument. The musicians in the second symposium also noted that there were still various examples of highly unidiomatic or impractical writing, unclear performance directions, or a general lack of understanding of instrumental capabilities and characteristics in the pieces submitted in this instalment of the Composium.

Conductor Mr. Quek Ling Kiong, facilitator of the second symposium and also the Chairman Adjudicator of the Composium, notes the role of conservatory education in helping to increase awareness of Chinese chamber music composition as well as in improving the standards of writing. He also notes that Ding Yi should take the lead in publishing this large body of Chinese chamber repertoire amassed through organising the Composiums, for the purposes of archival, education, and also promotion towards the larger musical ecosystem within the international context.

Advocacy Through Different Instrumentations

In the fifth symposium, the composers involved agreed that to date, there are no Chinese chamber instrumental combinations which have been firmly established as standards, unlike the Western string quartet, nor is there a need to do so from a purely musical perspective, due to the richness of sonorities any combination of Chinese instruments may provide.

However, as Prof. Wang has noted on the example of Prof. Hu Deng Tiao and his advocacy of the Chinese string quintet, having standard instrumental combinations could be very effective in boosting the development of these chamber groups as well as Chinese chamber music as a whole. Dr. Chong also suggests that having homogeneous instrumental combinations could encourage conservatory performance professors in including chamber music as part of their studio requirements, which would in turn help boost the professional standard of Chinese chamber music performance. Towards the later part of the fifth symposium, composer Prof. Chen Yi also suggests that having mixed Western and Chinese chamber instrumental combinations could help widen the international reach of Chinese chamber music.

Advocacy Through Increasing Musicians’ Technical Capacities

The second symposium featured a panel of Ding Yi musicians. This session with the musicians provided some firsthand insight into the perspectives of performers, with regards to contemporary Chinese chamber music. As seasoned performers of new music, the performers themselves acknowledged that they have come a long way since the first Composium. Ding Yi’s dizi musician, Mr. Ng Hsien Han, noted that while he had to split the workload with another dizi player in the first Composium, with each musician playing in three pieces each, he progressed to taking on all nine finalist pieces for the fourth Composium, in addition to other concert repertoire featuring the works of the adjudicators, suggesting an increase in his own capacities as a musician. It was also quite clear from the symposiums that the musicians involved were mostly quite open-minded and willing to work with the composers on experimentation. In fact, Mr. Koh also quips that what used to be experimental has now become increasingly commonplace.

Another point gleaned from the second symposium in particular is that composers and performers should progress hand-in-hand – as composers push the envelope, performers would be forced to improve, but at the same time, performers should also be ready to walk ahead of composers and improve their own technical capacities, in order to meet new challenges thrown to them by composers. Mr. Quek also notes that there should be constant mutual dialogue between composers and performers, in order for both groups of musicians to improve together.

Advocacy Through Regular Schools and Amateur Groups

Apart from focusing upon the development of contemporary Chinese chamber music within the professional scene, which was much talked about throughout all three symposiums, Mr. Law also suggested towards the end of the fifth symposium that advocacy through the MOE-based schools in Singapore would be instrumental in nurturing new talents to ensure longevity of this musical genre. Currently, many MOE-based Singaporean schools have Chinese orchestras as a co-curricular activity, and the MOE also organises the Singapore Youth Festival (SYF), a biennial inter-school festival to facilitate exchange and boost standards of student performing groups, including Chinese orchestras. With the COVID-19 pandemic in recent years, the competition has also been forced to scale down with smaller-sized participating orchestras. Perhaps the SYF and subsequently schools could instead shift its focus towards developing Chinese chamber instrumental groups instead. The National Chinese Music Competition (NCMC) has already included a chamber ensemble category, which sets a good precedent. Raising amateur and student standards in Chinese chamber music performance paves the way for longer term development of the contemporary Chinese chamber music genre.

Advocacy Through Audience Development

In the first symposium which included two speakers on the panel who were not professional musicians, the topic of contemporary Chinese chamber music (or contemporary concert music in general) coming across as being too esoteric or difficult to understand for the typical audience member was raised. With regards to this issue, Prof. Lu shared an anecdote concerning the famous 20th century artist Pablo Picasso. She related that someone had criticised Picasso for his incomprehensible style of painting. In response, Picasso held a series of exchanges with this critic, asking, “Have you heard a bird call before?” “Yes.” “Does it sound nice?” “Yes.” “Then did you understand it?” Prof. Lu then noted that this story shows that it is possible to separate aesthetic acceptance from understanding. On the other hand, she observes that such aesthetic acceptance of abstract art seems to be harder in the area of music as compared to the visual arts, and so all extra-musical efforts in reaching out to the audience are crucial.

The panel as a whole generally agreed on the importance of audience engagement in the development of contemporary Chinese chamber music. Ms. Hoong suggests that pre-performance demonstrations and verbal explanations may help audiences (and also performers) grasp something about an experimental musical work. Mr. Lee also addressed the issue of everyday exposure, by pointing out how he was greatly influenced by the music that was broadcasted in school everyday before morning assembly, and also notes a reason for the ubiquity of pop music is simply that it is promoted a lot more in comparison to Chinese instrumental music. He emphasised the importance of greater exposure and repeated listening from the point of view of an audience member, leading Mr. Quek to suggest the possibility of having a radio station dedicated to Chinese instrumental repertoire. Mr. Giam and Prof. Luo raised the importance of titles and programme notes in serving as a general guide for the audience. Prof. Lu also suggested that videos may be played in concerts, featuring composers, performers, or conductors talking about the music prior to the performances of the works. In response, Mr. Giam noted that while multimedia modes of presentation could be helpful for some members of the audience, they could potentially also irritate other members of the audience who might prefer to let the music speak for itself.

Ending Thoughts

Music exists within a larger ecosystem of composers, performers, audiences, educators, and arts administrators. Throughout the entire series of symposiums for this whole Composium festival, it is admirable that Ding Yi sought the viewpoints from all these different roles within the musical ecosystem. Perhaps, in future, Ding Yi could also include the roles of arts administrators in this whole discussion.