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|"I learned from Eli Siegel, the great American poet and critic who founded the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism in 1941, that there is a criterion for beauty completely free of cultural bias, true for every culture, for every century. "-- Edward Green|
New York, NY
by Professor Edward Green
In this article, I will be speaking about Mr. Siegel's philosophic thought
in relation to contemporary Chinese music, specifically to a concert I
attended in New York City on October 25, 1998: the eighth annual "Premiere
Works" concert given by the ensemble Music From China. It was one of the
most engaging concerts of new music--West or East--I have ever heard.
Right from the start of the concert by Music From China, in Liu Limin's composition, "Gou Gu Xian," one could hear, through the actual organization of the sounds, evidence for how this is so. The title, "Trigonometry," is plainly mathematical, and reading the composer's program notes, which state that his ideas "are based on trigonometric formulae," one is aware how "new" this is from a Chinese point of view. It is so abstract, while traditional Chinese music has been concrete and programmatic: not "Trigonometry," but "Snow on a Sunny Spring Day;" not "Fugue in G minor," but "Ambush on Ten Sides!"
So Liu Limin, resident composer with the Qianjin Song and Dance Ensemble of the Shenyang Military Commission, is a modernist, with a liking for the cool, logical purity of math. But, and this is the crucial point, not at the expense of feeling! His composition is filled with passionate color and melody, and depends upon musical ideas derived from Beijing opera, whose characteristic, dramatic strokes of percussion are how "Gou Gu Xian" begins. This piece is, in fact, an "operatic scene," with the erhu standing in for the human voice; most obviously so in the quiet, sustained dorian "aria" which dominates the middle section of the work.
"Gou Gu Xian" is scored for traditional Chinese instruments: erhu, zheng, and percussion. And the most striking moment comes in its closing section as the composer does something remarkable with his instrumentation. Suddenly both the zheng, and that passionate, singing erhu--with its soulful, human quality--are transformed into noisy members of the percussion! Both are played with sharp strokes to the body, by the knuckles of the hand.
What just a moment before was gently lyric, now has become thrusting and angularly rhythmic. Sound which stirred us deeply as bow met string with trembling vibrato, now is sharp and decisive, having the crisp clarity we associate with logic.
What does this mean? Is it just a matter of musical technique, of a composer's finesse with acoustics? Or does it say something important about what every individual human mind is after? I learned from Aesthetic Realism, it is the second. Every person wants to have both large emotion and clear thought, and in this music that is what the sounds express.
While I cannot say that "Gou Gu Xian" is a great composition--that it
has beauty equal to that of the anonymous pipa masterpiece I mentioned
before, "Ambush on Ten Sides"-- it is, nevertheless, music that matters.
Though likely it was not fully conscious, I believe the composer's purpose
in this music was kind; he was attempting to satisfy the whole self of
a person: our desire to see the world as having mathematically precise
order, and our equally great need to have passionate feeling--large, deep,
Every technical accomplishment in music solves, in outline, a question people have in life. "There is not one thing music does," Eli Siegel stated in his 1951 lecture, Aesthetic Realism as Beauty: Music, which does not say something about how [a person] should organize himself too." And what Kui Dong has done with these instruments--through her fresh approach to heterophony--is, for example, what members of a family so much are hoping for: to agree and disagree in an honest, friendly manner; to get along deeply with each other, and yet, at the very same time, be utterly individual and free.
To give a sense of her technique: on page one of the score the xiao swiftly slides up a second from "G" to "A." Meanwhile the zheng, with sharply contrasting plucked sounds, likewise moves from "G" to "A," but takes 15 separate notes to do so. It boldly sweeps through two octaves--down and up--before it finally meets the xiao at pitch.
They meet, but how different they are! The xiao continues by calmly holding that "A" while the zheng makes the "A" pulsing drama of 32 rhythmically accelerating strokes!
In this work of Kui Dong, opposites which often are painfully at war in people's lives--the desire for quiet and the desire for excitement--are joined. Moreover, the composer has brought together a sense of reality as spacious, through the open, vowel-like flute timbre of the xiao, and reality as sharply definite and specific, through the edgy timbre of the zheng.
I have heard few composers use heterophony as sensitively and powerfully as does Kui Dong in "Three Voices." And it is something new in music to hear this venerable technique, so much associated with the open resonance of Chinese pentatonicism, joined to the more conflicted tonalities of modern Western chromaticism. It is an experience!
When I asked Susan Cheng, Executive Director of Music From China how she thought Western and Chinese music most could add to each other, she said that Western music had already brought "a new dimension of form and of rhythm" to Chinese music and, she added, Western chromaticism is "very stimulating."
Meanwhile, the "emphasis on melody" in China, and the "rich tradition of timbral variety in the instrumentation," she said, had "a great beauty and a charm" which she believed Western musicians could benefit from. I asked her, did she think these new Chinese composers were trying to put opposites together? "Yes," she said, "traditionally there is a separation of styles: the wu or martial style, and the wen or civil style. You can hear in this concert how the composers are joining them. "Often," she continued, "you can hear wen and wu in the same measure."
We spoke about how Daoism, with its thought about opposites, had affected
Chinese music very much, including the composers on this concert, and also
how Aesthetic Realism sees the opposites in a new and different way. One
large reason for this is that no philosophy before has shown how a person
can learn from the technique of art how to answer the immediate, urgent
questions of his or her life. A central text of Aesthetic Realism is Eli
Siegel's book Self and World (Definition Press, New York, 1981).
And these opposites do come together, at least at first, in Fang Man's "To One Unnamed." The music, written for a septet of traditional Chinese instruments, began with a very taking interplay of gentle and ferocious sounds. A subtle blending and shifting of highly varied timbres (somewhat like Arnold Schoenberg's 1909 orchestral piece "Summer Morning by the Lake") is suddenly interrupted by thrusting shouts of "Ha!" in a manner far more characteristic of Japanese music than Chinese.
Fang Man is a student composer currently attending Beijing's Central
Conservatory. And he plainly is a talent who should be encouraged. However,
as often happens when a composer is learning his craft, the early sections
of a work--which frequently are the initial inspiration--are more successful
than the later development. As this work goes on, it unfortunately loses
the very lovely finesse of its opening and becomes too insistently drum-like.
To this listener's ears, its extreme fortissimo conclusion was neither
adequately prepared for nor proportionate. Power was too separate from
gentleness; assertiveness was not at one with thoughtfulness.
A large desire to show reality as likeable because it is the oneness of opposites, I believe impelled Ruan Kunshen as he composed "Hoping for Dreams." This lovely, atmospheric work--scored for xiao, pipa, and zheng--was the most traditional of all the music on the program. It was essentially in the wen style, and was soothingly pentatonic, with a sustained approach to melody very much in the Southern (Yunnan) manner. However, the composition also had edge. There were, throughout, unexpected shifts of meter and tempo, and surprisingly angular displacements in the melody.
Hearing this music, with its honest relation of quiet and activity, of gentleness and sharpness, I thought of a section from Mr. Siegel's great 1951 lecture, Aesthetic Realism as Beauty: Painting, in which he spoke deeply about Chinese painting from ancient times to the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. He said this:
"Chinese artists felt that...one of the purposes of painting is to supply a repose that ordinarily we don't get. The human being is a very agitated animal; some of his agitation he knows, some of it just gets him down. But most of it he doesn't know. The greatest agitation that he has which he doesn't know is, he isn't doing exactly as he likes. So he's after a repose that is based on truth, is based on what is so; and not a cheap repose. The Chinese artists felt that if they looked at things completely, they would find some meaning that would bring about this factual quietude."
That quality of "factual quietude" was very much present in Ruan Kunshen's composition. And it stands for what Aesthetic Realism says people are most yearning for.
In 1977 Eli Siegel gave this three-part description of Aesthetic Realism:
Art Versus ContemptContempt is the feeling that if something or someone is different from oneself, it or he is an enemy one has to scorn, fight, and defeat; and the fact that people hope to have that feeling of contempt has to be understood. Contempt must be criticized, if there is ever to be a firm foundation in this world for peace, and enduring friendship between nations.
I speak now about two musical compositions, each of which, valuably, shows the friendliness of East and West. There is, I believe, a message here of great importance to leaders and citizens both in my country, the United States, and China.
Of the six composers represented on this concert, only Jason Kao Hwang is American-born. He is an improvisational violinist, with a background in jazz. His quartet "Interior Migrations" is scored for erhu, pipa, viola and bass clarinet, and was consciously designed to bring together China and America. There are even passages marked "blues." In his moving program notes, he said he wanted to honor his parents' experience as they arrived in America in the 1940's, to find a musical form which could make "tangible, luminous" the "energy of their thoughts" as they tried to relate their first culture to their new culture.
In its own way, "Interior Migrations," whose title is a very taking relation of internal and external, thought and activity, was at once the most "advanced" composition of this concert and the most "traditional." It had a very wide range of rhythms and modern harmonies; and yet it was plainly programmatic, with sections marked "hopeful," "resolute, like a broad banner," "plaintive," and "murmuring peacefully." Such section headings would have made perfect sense to a pipa master of the Ming dynasty, even if the actual music would have astonished him!
The concert concluded with a work by the Music Director of Music From China, Zhou Long. It is his "Tales from the Cave," a one-movement concerto scored for percussion quartet of mixed Chinese and Western instrumentation, (played by PULSE, the percussion component of the New Music Consort), and solo erhu, (doubling on banhu, pitched an octave higher.) Performing the solo part, with gusto and commanding technical precision, was the noted virtuoso, Wang Guowei, who is also Artistic Director of Music From China.
Zhou Long's "Tales from the Cave" is a very fine piece of work. Like many of his other works, "Tales from the Cave" reflects his interest in Buddhism. Here, specifically, certain religious images are drawn from caves near the ancient town of Dunhuang, situated along the Silk Road in western China. These images are pre-Tang dynasty, around the year 500.
To summarize a full concerto in a paragraph is something I am very reluctant to do. Let it suffice to say there are dance sections; of floating and ghostly timbre; passages of lyrical folk song like melody; sudden, angular 3/8 patterns derived from Beijing opera (the renowned "horse's leg" rhythm); driving, machine gun-like 16th note outbursts from the percussion; and an extended cadenza for erhu solo. And--with the exception of a coda with doesn't seem to belong--it all holds together! Much diversity, but also convincing unity. That is something people everywhere in the world look for from a musical composition. It is also, as Eli Siegel explained--and I am so happy as a man, a composer, and a teacher of music to have learned--what people want from life: rich variety of experience, and a purpose in everything we do that makes for integrity.
Now in their 15th year of existence, Music From China continues their
exciting, important work. They deserve, in my opinion, the interest and
the support of the entire "new music" community.