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27 Aug 2018

Reminiscences on Ding Yi Music Company Composium 2018

Contributed by Chua Jon Lin

“Composium”: a creative synthesis of “composition,” “competition,” and “symposium.” This event organized by the Ding Yi Music Company lasted from 3-5 August, and garnered 58 compositions submitted from various countries, including China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, America and Singapore, with more than 20 entries from Singaporean composers. I was honoured to have been one of the two Singaporean finalists, out of eight in total, and the eventual winner of the First Prize (large ensemble category), as well as the Young Singaporean Composer Award.

I hail from a mixed musical background, having started on the piano, violin, and erhu since early childhood. Eventually I became proficient enough on the piano to study it as a primary instrument during my days in the Eastman School of Music (Rochester, New York) as a double major in composition and music theory, but I had also acquired a certain level of mastery and experience on the erhu, and possess a performance diploma in erhu performance from the Central Conservatory of Music (China). I had also frequently taken the initiative to learn more about various Chinese folk genres and operas, as well as various subgenres of ancient Chinese music. Despite my experience with ethnic Chinese music, the piece I composed for this Composium was surprisingly my first attempt ever at composing for Chinese chamber ensemble – most of the original works in my portfolio are for Western symphonic instruments. The reason for that was never a lack of willingness, but rather, a dissatisfaction with my inability to think out of the box while still engaging with my deep understanding of Chinese music – I was often held back by considerations of authenticity and performance tradition in general.

In this respect, composing Reminiscences of Yuan Xiao《忆•元宵》 was also a personal breakthrough in my own compositional life. The material for this particular work is based upon an ancient Nanyin (南音) vocal piece 《元宵十五》Yuan Xiao Shi Wu  (Lantern Festival), which relates the tragic love story of Chen San and Wu Niang in traditional folklore. There was a brief moment in my musical life when I was introduced to Nanyin music, and studied Nanyin vocal performance for a bit. Although I did not keep up with my Nanyin study, the intriguing principles and sounds associated with this ancient genre always stayed somewhere at the back of my mind.

One fascinating aspect of Nanyin music was its unique conception of blend and unity. In the Western symphonic tradition, a perfect blend between two instruments would involve both instruments playing in perfect unison, with little or no deviations in intonation, articulation, and timing – the ideal is to be as similar as possible to each other. In Nanyin music, however, blend and unity do not necessarily entail similarity; each instrument of the core Nanyin ensemble (consisting of the nanyin dongxiao, erxian, nanyin pipa, and sanxian) plays according to its own idiomatic fashion, with the nanyin pipa providing the bare skeletal melody, the sanxian doubling the nanyin pipa on certain notes at the octave, the nanyin dongxiao playing a heavily ornamented version of the nanyin pipa part, and the erxian providing timbral support to the nanyin dongxiao, enriching its sound by filling in any timbral gaps. The result should be two groups of sound, with the nanyin pipa and sanxian providing a composite sound characterized by attack points, and the nanyin dongxiao and erxian providing a composite sound characterized by florid melodies. Both composite groups should then come together in a unified whole, providing a rich heterophonic texture that has a skeletal framework of clear attack points filled in with warm florid lines, i.e. the “flesh” of the music. On their own, these four instruments are never ever featured as solo instruments in traditional Nanyin performance.

In composing Reminiscences of Yuan Xiao for the Ding Yi ensemble, I borrowed from these ideas of mutual interdependence within the ensemble, heterophony in texture and a fair balance between points and lines. I also drew upon Klangfarbenmelodie, the technique of splitting up and assigning various fragments of a single musical line to different instrumental timbres, a feature typically associated with Schoenberg and Webern. In this manner, this ensemble piece was an abstract re-creation of the original Nanyin piece, and this contemporary work as a whole re-interprets an ancient piece in a manner very personal to me and my artistic life, and also true to the spirit of chamber music.

Besides drawing upon these general features of Nanyin music, my piece engages specifically with the original Yuan Xiao Shi Wu in many ways. I adapt its pitch material, melodic and gestural features, certain structural features, and even the meaning of the text at various points of the piece. My handling of pitch material then involved several levels: there were pitches (not simply pitch classes) from the original mode which included ornamental pitches (octave equivalence not assumed), pitches which “coloured” these modal pitches to create a rich heterophonic texture, and a doubling of pitches at certain octaves for purely orchestral and acoustic purposes. In certain passages, important notes from the original tune became pitch centres, around which other pitch material were organized. The pitch material in this piece was not treated in isolation, because many of the ornamental pitches in the original tune were a result of specific melodic gestures which I adapted, that also translated to specific traditional Chinese instrumental techniques such as various slides and portamenti. I also structured my piece around the traditional idea of pacing in Nanyin music (and also present in many other subgenres of traditional Chinese music), in that a typical Nanyin piece generally starts off loose and free, gradually tightening up into a stricter pulse and accelerating as the music progresses.

My main thrust for this piece was to engage with an ancient Chinese performance tradition in a way far deeper and more meaningful. I avoided superficially borrowing from certain features of the music (such as the melody) and merging it with a completely different compositional principle from outside its tradition. I emphasized this greatly because I wanted to compose for a Chinese instrumental ensemble in a way that drew from its own tradition, as well as reinstate the original principles of Chinese chamber music-making as manifested in the rich tradition of Nanyin music. Nanyin music is one of the oldest forms of music in China (and probably elsewhere in the world) and originated from the cultural orthodoxy of the royal courts.

That said, one might ask: Must the trajectory of future development in Chinese music be necessarily rooted in its tradition? This was also raised after the symposium on the second day entitled “What’s Up with New Chinese Music?”, featuring a word play on the Chinese term “新音乐,” which could mean either “new music” or “Singaporean music”. This word play, however, carries various implications. Being situated in a unique cultural context distinctly removed from its original context, what lies in the future of Chinese music on this sunny little island? Are we Singaporean composers free to compose for Chinese instrumentalists independent (or ignorant) of its historical context, as we forge on this new and unfamiliar path?

Perhaps for future composiums, this topic could be further explored, given that it is definitely pertinent and unique to our situation here in Singapore, as we plough through this fertile developing ground of Chinese instrumental composition.