A little more than 30 years ago, most western audiences’ knowledge of contemporary Chinese music rested upon two works: The “Yellow River” Piano Concerto and the “Butterfly Lovers” Violin Concerto. Indeed, 30 years ago, these were the only two works permitted to be performed for western audiences. But everything changed after the death of Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution. As a result of the economic reforms instituted by Deng Xiaoping, China was suddenly thrust upon the world’s stage and when the universities reopened in 1977 (most were closed for the duration of the Cultural Revolution), there was a manic drive for China to take her place in the modern world.
The past 30 years have witnessed one of the most phenomenal episodes in human history: following Deng’s reforms and the subsequent opening up of China, the entirety of 20th century western cultural innovations were suddenly made available to China’s artists and musicians. From Isaac Stern’s pioneering visit to China in 1979, to the later cultural exchanges that brought over many of the West’s most progressive composers and artists to lecture and teach (including George Crumb and Alexander Goehr), the country’s young composers were all at once exposed to the totality of 20th century western music, from Debussy (a composer whose music was detested by Madame Mao), to John Cage!
It was during this cultural melée, that the Central Conservatory in Beijing reopened. Students from around the country who had been “sent down” to work in China’s rural areas during the Cultural Revolution rushed to Beijing to be considered for admission. It was this first class, the now legendary “Class of 1978” that would produce China’s first generation of truly international composers, including Chen Yi, Bright Sheng, Zhou Long, Tan Dun and others.
The current program features the music of four contemporary Chinese composers – each of whose works display a distinctive approach to blending eastern and western aesthetic traditions. In the music of classmates Chen Yi and Bright Sheng (both of whom currently reside and teach in America), they wrestled with how to approach the problem of incorporating traditional Chinese material within the largely Western-derived language of modern music. For Sheng, this takes place primarily in terms of utilizing Chinese melodies and subject matter within the context of a 20th century symphonic idiom. In Chen Yi’s music, she not only incorporates Chinese melodies into her works, but frequently bases her compositions on ancient Chinese musical theories, abstracting and distilling them into a unique, contemporary musical language. In the case of versatile and prolific mainland composer Tang Jianping, the sky is the limit! Tang freely draws on every available resource from Buddhist chants to Bach Preludes and Fugues, creating accessible and emotionally compelling works that could only have been written by a Chinese. The fourth voice in our fugue, Ma Shuilong is the dean of Taiwanese composers and has the honor of being the first-ever Taiwanese composer to have been performed at New York’s Lincoln Center. Ma’s music is also characterized by the amphibious quality seen in that of his younger colleagues – namely adapting Chinese content to western forms and idioms in a musically and aesthetically satisfying manner.
And yet, despite the individuality and diversity of each voice in our four voice fugue, this represents only a fraction of China’s vibrant, kaleidoscopic contemporary music scene. To date, English language texts about contemporary Chinese music are still rare, and while the number of recordings of contemporary Chinese composers has increased in recent times, many of China’s greatest living composers remain unknown outside of their homeland. To this end, it has been the wish of Michala Petri and Lars Hannibal, through their “Dialogue – East Meets West” to provide the opportunity for both Western and Chinese musicians and composers to creatively collaborate in an international, musical dialogue.