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Tradition and transformation 

Chinese musical tradition evolved mostly independently from that of the West, and, until the détente of the 1970s, there were few attempts to bring the two traditions together. Over the last few decades, there has been an increasing exchange of music and musicians between China and the rest of the world, and today, more and more Chinese music and musical instruments can be heard in the West.

On Feb. 18 and 19, Duke University Institute of the Arts sponsored a series of events and concerts highlighting this trend. It presented Music from China, an ensemble of outstanding Chinese musicians based in New York, dedicated to the preservation, creation and performance of traditional and contemporary Chinese music.

On Friday evening, Feb. 18, in Duke's Nelson Music Room, six musicians performed a concert of traditional and classical Chinese solo and ensemble pieces, using traditional Chinese instruments. Susan Cheng, the group's executive director, gave a pre-concert lecture on the instruments and on different regional styles of the music.

The technique and artistry of these musicians is outstanding, but the star of the ensemble was Wang Guowei, whose mastery of the erhu, the gaohu and the zhonghu, three Chinese two-stringed fiddles of increasing size, is phenomenal. Surrounded by instruments of great physical beauty, the erhu shows up as a poor specimen--essentially a stick attached to a tiny sound box covered with snakeskin, having two strings and played with a short bow. In the hands of a master like Wang, however, this simple instrument can sing, talk, imitate bird calls and weep in an emotional language that cuts through any cultural barrier.

Min Xiaofen on the pipa (Chinese pear-shaped lute) has an arsenal of techniques that can make her instrument, which has a quality similar to the mandolin, sound like everything from a lover's serenade to a battlefield replete with gunfire and the cries of the wounded. The most unusual instrument was the sheng, the reeded mouth organ, on whose multiple pipes Hu Jianbing was able to produce an incredible tonal variety over an enormous dynamic range. The other performers were Helen Yee on the yangqin (hammer dulcimer), Chen Yihan on the zheng (a 21-string zither with movable bridges) and the zhongruan (round guitar), and Susan Cheng on the daruan (round bass guitar).

In the hands of such Western composers as Debussy, Tchaikovsky or Puccini, the sounds of traditional Chinese music are often reduced to variations on the pentatonic (five-tone) scale. In reality, this is music of breathtaking expressiveness with different modal casts depending on the geographic region. It is also essentially narrative music, often portraying stories in sound and providing instrumental interpretation of songs and stories familiar to the native listeners. Cheng's lecture and oral program notes helped bridge the gap.

Saturday evening, Feb. 19, featured the compositions of contemporary composers, a husband-and-wife team, Zhou Long and Chen Yi. Both born in China and trained in the United States, they are dedicated to combining contemporary Western and Chinese musical styles, often in surprising ways. The concert with Duke's Ciompi Quartet presented works for string quartet alone and in combination with both Western and traditional Chinese instruments. Attendance at the previous concert greatly enhanced our appreciation of these contemporary transformations.

Most accessible were Zhou's set of eight Chinese folk songs, in which in the composer transforms traditional melodies--usually played by Chinese instrumental ensembles in unison and with embellishments--into the musical multivoiced textures of Western music. Full, rich harmonic accompaniments and imitative counterpoint rendered these melodies as free variation forms. The fact that much Chinese music employs phrase structure and tonal harmony similar to that of Western music makes for a facile mix of the two traditions.

But Zhou and Chen are also composers of the contemporary atonal stripe, a sort of Schoenberg-gone-East, and the rest of the evening's offerings took an entirely different musical direction. Instead of adapting Chinese melodies to Western instruments, these works adapted Chinese instruments to a predominantly Western atonal language.

Chen's Fiddle Suite for Erhu/Huqin and String Quartet integrates the versatile voice of the Chinese fiddles into that of the quartet. The work's three movements--Singing, Reciting and Dancing--are almost a concerto for erhu/huqin and the quartet. Fiddle player Xu Ke, using a contemporary Western pitch vocabulary, retains the traditional playing styles--now soaring over the quartet accompaniment, now off on his own in virtuosic solo riffs reminiscent of the Chinese ensemble tradition.

Sound of Five for Cello and String Quartet, also by Chen, was perhaps the most successful piece of the evening. Together with cellist Margery Hwang, the quartet imitated the sounds of different Chinese instruments in each of its four movements. In the first movement, "Lusheng Ensemble," the five players imitate an orchestra of reeded mouth organs; in the second, "Echoes of Set Bells," they become bells. The third movement, "Romance of Hsiao and Ch'in" (a vertical bamboo flute and a seven-string zither), again transforms and extends the sound of the Western ensemble; and in the finale, "Flower Drums in Dance," the ensemble becomes a quintet of drums. A tremendous technical challenge for the players, this composition also stresses the adaptation of Western atonality and musical structure to the timbres of Chinese instruments.

The single-movement work Soul, for string quartet and pipa by Zhou, stresses the martial style of the pipa, played by Min Ziaofen. Again in an atonal context, the pipa sets the mood with energetic strumming and plucking. But Zhou's use of the vast tonal and expressive range of the pipa was more limited than what we heard from Min the evening before in her portrayal of a battle. With the exception of stunning duets in which the Western instruments imitate phrases by the pipa with unusual combinations of bowed and pizzicato passages, the musical texture with the entire ensemble, with its pounding atonal tone clusters, seemed somehow too dense.

Special kudos go to the Ciompi Quartet, whose outstanding performance succeeded in bridging the technical and cultural gap between the two worlds. EndBlock

For more information on the ensemble Music From China and for samples of their music, visit their Web site at

  • Traditional and contemporary Chinese music takes its turn in the spotlight at Duke.

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