Friday, October 19, 2007

Spring Dreams at the New Music Festival

This afternoon, I'm giving my presentation on exoticism and modern music. I thought you might be interested in my thoughts, at least as they relate to Chen Yi, a composer on our faculty back home and the guest composer at the festival this year.

"Modern society is like a great network of complex latitudes and attitudes – and despite their differences, all cultures, environments and conditions have something valuable to contribute to the whole. They keep changing all the time and interact with each other, so that each experience that we come across can become the source and exciting medium for our creation. In this sense, a composition reflects a composer’s cultural and psychological makeup." – Chen Yi in interview with John de Clef PiƱeiro

Chen Yi was born into a musical family. Her mother and sister played piano and her father played violin. During dinner, the family would listen to classical recordings, and they attended weekly symphonic concerts, ballets from France, England, and the Soviet Union, and the ethnic song and dance shows from the Congo, Japan, and elsewhere that traveled through her hometown of Guangzhou. Hers was an eclectic musical upbringing that, much like Partch’s, crossed the line between East and West, between so-called high and low culture.

When the Cultural Revolution overtook China in the 1960s, Chen tried hard to continue her music studies, practicing violin at home with a heavy metal mute and piano with a blanket between the hammers and the steel frame. But in 1968, she was sent (along with her violin) to the countryside in order to be “re-educated” and perform forced labor. During this time she found her personal voice, later remarking that "In the countryside, I also found my own language when I realized that my mother tongue really is the same as what the farmers speak! I also found that when I translated it into music, it’s not the same as what I was practicing everyday! For this reason, I believe that I really need to study more deeply and extensively, and find a way to express myself in a way of real fusion of Eastern and Western musics in my music. The result should be a natural hybrid, and not an artificial or superficial combination....I think that my music is a kind of fusion and merger, a marriage of the consonant and dissonant, the tonal and atonal. It really sounds to me like speaking in Chinese, in a Chinese color, but it’s written in a Western music idiom."

Although she does quote from Chinese musical materials, she is more interested in reflecting an entire culture, not just a part of it. For this reason, when she approaches a vocal work, she delves into the depths of Chinese literature, finding words that can help her translate Chinese culture into musical form.

In order to understand the method of Chen Yi’s, shall we call it neo-exoticism, I want to briefly look at her a cappella work for chorus that will be performed here at the festival, Spring Dreams. The text was written by the T’ang poet Meng Hao-ran, and although Chen is writing for the traditionally Western ensemble of SATB chorus, she keeps the text in its original language, providing a pronunciation guide for the singers. This simple choice has profound consequences on the work’s overall form. The piece is built upon layers of ostinati, as is typical of much of her work. The altos and tenors enter with short nonsense syllables of strong consonants and vowels that are performed as breathy unpitched speech. By the time the basses enter whistling in imitation of bird calls a minute into the work, the audience feels surrounded by birds and insects calling to each other on an early spring morning. The text finally enters last in the sopranos, floating above the cacophony with a melody that in its contour and sound mimics, but does not quote, the sound of Jingju, Beijing Opera. Sonically marking the texted line by putting it in the upper voices and setting it to a recognizable melody allows Western audiences to distinguish that line as carrying the text; otherwise the nonsense syllables could be construed as bits of the Chinese language. Futhermore, by using a Jingju-like melody, Chen highlights the practice in that tradition of crafting new words to match pre-existing melodies in contour and linguistic tone, a connection that would have been lost had the poem been translated.

The total affect of the work’s first half is achieved through heterophony, a dominant organizational principle of Chinese music, especially the music of the regional operatic styles. In the work’s second half, the music becomes much more Western and chordal, as though upon awakening, the poem’s speaker realizes that he has been in a Chinese dream and is back in the Western tradition. The voices begin moving in homophony, building clear chords while the nonsense syllables are relegated to one tenor voice. However, traces of East Asia remain in the construction of those chords which undermine triadic tonality in their quartal and quintal formations. Chen operates in a Western mold while refusing to capitulate to its most basic and foundational practice, the creation of the triad.

Throughout this work and others, Chen Yi operates like a conceptually exotic composer firmly writing in a Western style influenced by an East Asian one, but the outcome is quite different because of Chen’s unique background as an Asian composer trained in China and the West who now presents back to the West its own music fundamentally altered. Yo Everett terms this type of exoticism synthesis, where it is difficult to see where one culture fades into another and you wonder if the struggle to find the individual strands enriches or diminishes the whole.

How, then, are we to hear this new type of exoticism? I believe we need a new formulation or at least a new addition to our discussions of exoticism. In challenging Edward Said’s original construction of Orientalism, Michael Richardson writes: “The problem here is that if reciprocity between subject and object is impossible, then, by the same token, the object cannot challenge the subject by developing alternative models.” This notion of reciprocity is key in understanding the currents of exoticism that are evident in our examples. Although questions of power invariably must come into the discussion, we cannot forget that once Western musical culture has been imposed, it can be taken and twisted back upon itself to create new spaces for dialogue. Think, for example, of a composer like Chen Yi. She has lived in the United States for over twenty years and is fully conversant in America’s cultural perspectives. Can we truly consider her an East Asian composer any more? If not, what do we consider her? In response, I can do no better than offer you her own words: “I think music could become a bridge between peoples from different cultural traditions. I hope that it can be inspiring and helpful to improve the level of understanding between peoples from different parts of the world. The answer to which culture she represents is “yes.” Chen Yi and other East Asian composers currently working in the Western world offer us a new answer to our old exoticism questions, one based in the music itself: through the act of creating and sharing in the listening experience, we begin to create our identities anew, outside of the lens of oppressive exoticism. Social science literature is full of theories of identity development and the ways in which healing between races and cultures can begin when we reconstruct our personal and professional identities in authentic ways that do not participate in the dialogue of oppression. Through the act of offering this music, Chen Yi speaks through her own unique identity and asks us to look anew at ourselves and our relationship with others; the act of listening to her music cannot help but begin the process.

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