Lively 19th CHIME Geneva
The New Face Of Chinese Music

Conference review

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In their opening speeches on Wednesday, Conservatory Director Philippe Dinkel and Vice Rector of the University of Geneva Micheline Louis-Courvoisier stressed the international prestige of Geneva, a city that serves as a major platform for the United Nations and numerous other international political bodies. It seemed a good environment for a discussion on Chinese music in international perspective.

 

As Frank Kouwenhoven, Director of CHIME, argued in his speech, China is, for most westerners, no longer a mere exotic, remote and isolated realm in far-away Asia; it has become a major player in world politics, an economic power to be reckoned with, and the question is why, culturally speaking, a country of such dimensions has not been able to assert itself in equal measure on the international stage. Pianists like Lang Lang and Wang Yuja may have put China musically on the map, but they did so in the realm of western classical music, not with repertoires that sprouted from Chinese soil. So why is it that westerners are hardly familiar with any pop or jazz or world artists from China? Why can a country that so generously promotes its own major opera troupes abroad not boast of any Chinese opera artists who have risen to international fame?

 

Paradoxically, the only musical realm where China does manage to assert itself internationally is that of avant-garde compositions, with composers like Tan Dun, Guo Wenjing, Chen Qigang, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Xu Shuya, Jia Guoping and others attracting worldwide attention among aficionados of new music. However, these artists operate in a musical realm once again rooted primarily in idioms of western art music. New compositions from China may borrow amply from Chinese tradition, but they cannot claim to take a central place within China's own cultural life. There is a sizeable pop music scene in China, but its mainstream performers seem to have little or no impact abroad, not even within wider Asia. By contrast, the pop music of some of the country's smaller East Asian neighbours, notably South Korea, is having a considerable impact on Chinese listeners. So what is it that accounts for this remarkable imbalance?

 

Certainly not any lack of talent, or inability on the Chinese side to innovate or to engage in interesting fusions with other cultures. In her presentation on Chinese music overseas, Helen Rees (UCLA) pointed at the remarkable cultural flexibility and cross-cultural enterpreneurship of diasporic communities from China in the USA and Europe in recent decades, with the Chinese making their presence felt far more clearly than in the past.

 

The ins and outs of such contrasts, between 'now' and 'then', or between 'inside' and 'outside' China, were debated at length in this year's edition of the annual Chime conference. Naturally there was room to explore the ongoing exchange between East and West (as in fine presentations by Barbara Mittler, Hon-Lun Yang and Robert Zollitsch), and there were in-depth explorations of numerous urban and rural, modern and ancient, rurals and ritual traditions, not least a wonderful film portrait by Stephen Jones of Folk Daoist Li Manshan. The film shows how folk Daoist rituals in a village in north Shanxi have changed meaning and shape over a period of more than two decades. At times hillarious, at times shocking, the film documents the daily concerns of a man committed to serving his community in magnificent local funeral rituals. Quite regardless of the major social and cultural shifts which utterly transform the village world around him, Li Mansha plods on and sticks to the traditions of his ancestors, in so far as the villagers are willing to continue their support for these time-honoured rituals. The camera registers Li's actions objectively, yet compassionate, and entirely sympathetic to the man.

 

A similarly powerful analytical film shown at Chime Geneva was Frank Scheffer's The Inner Landscape, a portrait of composer Guo Wenjing, a native of Sichuan Province. Guo is teaching contemporary music in Beijing. In the film we see him revisiting his native provincer, and cooperating with local Sichuan opera artists, trying to find a new format for his favourite traditional opera style, so that he can present and convey the qualities of hardcore chuanju to audiences of new music in China and abroad. The film gives ample room to traditional Sichuan opera actors to tell about the difficulties they face in keeping their old art alive. Rural troupes barely manage to find enough funds and public interest to sustain their repertoire and art, and their efforts to make both ends meet are endearing and, at times, heartbreaking.

 

It would hardly be possible to list in a short report on the Geneva meeting all the panels and presentations of interest. With nearly seventy (!) speakers, ten discussion panels, twenty short and long films, and seven concert recitals and workshops, there was simply too much to chew on, and this was probably one of the finest and richest editions of 'Chime' so far. The topical scope ranged from village music to music of the ancient court, from conservatory style 'classical' compositions to jazz and rock. Nimrod Baranovovitch (University of Haifa) presented an intriguing portrait of ethnic pop musicians who earn success with critical songs about environmental problems. This issue was neatly echoed in a presentation by Cheng Zhiyi (Shanghai Conservatory) on concerts in Shanghai by Mongolian artists touching on the same theme. Environmental issues are a major cause for concern in China, and artistically a new window of opportunity, perhaps, since the territory is still open to public criticism, and also a possible way for artists to assert their individuality in strong and appealing ways.

 

Remarkably, the number of papers touching on Chinese opera –except one fine panel on Chinese and Vietnamese theatre, led by Catherine Capdeville-Zeng – was surprisingly small. Is this cornerstone of Chinese music no longer 'en vogue'? By contrast, pop music and avant-garde were amply represented, with many analytical papers, and several prominent Chinese composers introducing their own works or joining a discussion panel. Kansas City-based composer Zhou Long delivered a keynote on his artistic path to the Pulitzer-prize winning opera Madame White Snake (2011), of which excerpts were shown. Wen Deqing, Wang Ying (both from Shanghai) and Lam Bun-ching (New York/Paris) discussed the many different paths open to contemporary composers with a native Chinese background. Ulrich Mosch asked pertinent questions about the need (or absence of a need) to create 'Chinese' sounds. A revealing comment came from Lam Bun-ching, who stated her readiness to follow different impulses at different times, as she felt no urge be rigid on the topic of Chinese identity: 'I am a woman, so should my music sound like a woman?'

 

Participants in the Chime meeting had ample opportunity to test the composers' viewpoints. There were fine performances of music for string quartet by Zhou Long, by the young and vigorous Geneva Conservatory String Quartet, who managed to get to the very heart of this music. Further excellent contributions were offered by pipa player Yu Lingling (equally at home in traditional pieces and in modern works by Zhou Long, Lam Bunching and Johannes Gross), and pianist François Xavier Poizat (who delivered a truly unforgettable interpretation of Chen Peixun's over-familiar 'Autumn moon on a calm lake'). There was more new music during relaxed qin recitals by Tse Chun-yan (Hong Kong), Dai Xiaolian and two of her best students, Lu Xiaozi and Simon Debierre, from Shanghai. A lovely film by Mariam Goormagthigh of qin players in Hong Kong added an extra dimension to this. Cai Yayi and her colleagues from Quanzhou played delicate nanyin, and, on the other (very loud) end of the spectrum, the members of the rural band Yi Jia Ren played rowdy shawm tunes which must have shaken the very foundations of the Conservatory's old concert hall, once a venue for the likes of Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt... Roaring music, entertaining and amusing to some, but perhaps too close to mainstream conservatory-style polished 'folk music' in the ears of others. Maybe the point to make is that these musicians were not raised in any conservatory system. They arrived at this style entirely on their own account, and 'polished' their local traditions in their own, inimitable ways, also adding – but unfortunately this was not available in their Geneva concert – instruments like synthesizer, trombone and saxophone.

 

 

There was peace of mind during a lovely gala dinner at Geneva University's Confucius Institute, wonderfully positioned on the edge of Lac Leman, facing Mont Blanc in the distance. The stars and moon in the sky were reflected in the lake, and there was yet more music – sweet Italian early baroque songs this time, from Rhaissa Cerquiera and her partner. Rhaissa had been supervising the administration of the conference, but this was an unexpected surprise from what turned out to be a wonderful vocalist. Very inspiring, all these chance encounters between lofty southern Chinese balladry, rowdy peasant shawms, Italian baroque, and more! We really wish to thank organizers Xavier Bouvier, Rhaissa Cerquiera, Lee Huaqi and their excellent team for the smooth organization, the inspiring ambiance and what has turned out to be a strong and genuinely heartwarming conference. Plans for further cooperation with Geneva in the realm of Chinese music continue, and the Institute also continues its own echanges with performers and institutes of higher music education. We will keep everyone posted!

 

 

 

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