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Influence of the Great Cultural Revolution on Music: Part III - Five Contemporary Chinese Composers

Updated: Jan 2, 2020

Comparing and Contrasting the Influence of the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) on the Five Contemporary Chinese Composers Interviewed

I. Musical Training Prior to and After the Cultural Revolution

A. Brief Biography and Training in Western Music Prior to and After the Cultural

A brief biography of the five composers mentioned above, as well as a synopsis of their exposure to Western musical training prior to the Cultural Revolution is as follows:

i. Xu Zhen-min

Professor Xu Zhen-min is widely regarded as one of the most leading and influential composers living in China today. He was born in 1945, in the Shandong province of China. He began studying the piano and violin in his early age. He was admitted to a special preparatory school, where the gifts of young musicians could be cultivated by China’s best teachers as well as by foreign experts from the Soviet Union. He was eventually admitted to the Beijing Central Conservatory where he studied composition from 1952 ~ 1957 with composition faculty Suxia. Unlike many colleagues from his generation, except for short stays in Mosco and New York, Professor Xu remained in China after graduating. At home, Professor Xu has been honored as one of the Top Hundred Outstanding Artists in China.

ii. Bright Sheng

Professor Bright Sheng was born on December 6, 1955, in Shanghai, China. Professor Sheng began studying the piano with his mother at the age of four. When the Cultural Revolution ended, and the universities reopened in 1977-8, he was among the first students admitted to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where he studied composition from 1978-82. He moved to New York City in 1982, where he joined his family. After his relocation to the United States, he had to re-learn different elements of music to adjust to the Western style of music. At Queens College, CUNY, he studied composition with George Perle and Hugo Weisgall. He also studied Schenkerian analysis with Carl Schachter. He earned his MA in 1984, and his DMA in 1993 from Columbia University, where he studied composition with Chou Wen-Chung, Jack Beeson and Mario Davidovsky.

During that period, in 1985, while still a student at Tanglewood Music Center, he met Leonard Bernstein, who later became his mentor. Professor Sheng studied composition and conducting with Bernstein privately and worked as his assistant until Bernstein’s passing in 1990. Many of Professor Sheng’s works have strong Chinese and Asian influences, which are a result of his diligent studies of various Asian musical cultures over the course of more than three decades.[1]

iii. Chen Yi

Professor Chen Yi was born in 1953 in Guangzhou province, China. Professor Chen is classically trained in terms of Western classical music. She took piano and violin lesson and was exposed to Western classical music from an early age. Her Chinese traditional music knowledge, however, is more limited compared to her knowledge of classical Western music. After the Great Cultural Revolution, she was admitted to the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing (CCOM) in 1977, just as the Universities started admitting students again. She majored in Music Composition and studied with Professor Wu Zuqiang.

While she was attending Columbia University in the late 1980s, composer Chou Wen-Chung urged her (as well as his other students) to link her cultural heritage from China to avant-garde compositional techniques. Since that time Professor Chen has devoted herself to fusing elements from both cultures, using markers of Chinese music, such as pentatonic scales and sliding tones, and embedding them in thoroughly contemporary harmonic language.

iv. Tan Dun

Professor Tan was one of only thirty students selected among thousands of applicants in 1977 to attend the Central Conservatory when it re-opened in 1977 after the end of the Cultural Revolution. While at the Conservatory, Tan Dun came into contact with composers such as Toru Takemitsu, George Crumb, Alexander Goehr, Hans Werner Henze, Isang Yun, and Chou Wen-Chung, all of whom influenced his sense of musical style. In 1986, he moved to New York City as a doctoral student at Columbia University, where he once again studied with Chou Wen-Chung. Chou Wen-Chung had studied under Edgard Varèse. At Columbia, Professor Tan discovered the music of composers such as Philip Glass, John Cage, Meredith Monk, and Steve Reich, and began incorporating these influences into his compositions.

v. Zhou Long

Professor Zhou Long began studying piano from an early age as well. During the Great Cultural Revolution, he occasionally traveled to Beijing by train to take private theory, orchestration, and composition lessons with some of his mother’s former conservatory colleagues, who are now composers or conductors with the Central Philharmonic Society.[2] Nearing the end of the Cultural Revolution, he was able to resume his musical studies in the areas of composition, music theory, conducting, and traditional Chinese music. In 1977, Professor Zhou Long was one of one hundred students chosen from among eighteen thousand applicants to study in the first composition class at the reopened Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing from 1977-1983. While there, he studied composition with Su Xia. After graduating in 1983, he was appointed composer-in-residence with the National Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra of China.

Professor Zhou Long travelled to the United States in 1985 with a full fellowship to attend Columbia University, where he studied with Chou Wen-Chung, Mario Davidovsky, and George Edwards, and received a Doctor of Musical Arts degree in 1993.

B. Traditional Chinese Music Training / Exposure Prior to Cultural Revolution

The five composers interviewed had the following exposure to and/or training in traditional Chinese music prior to the Cultural Revolution:

i. Bright Sheng

Professor Sheng had no traditional Chinese music training prior the Cultural Revolution.

ii. Chen Yi

Comparing to her Western Classical music education, Professor Chen’s traditional Chinese music education prior the Cultural Revolution was much more limited. Her first exposure to traditional Chinese music was from one of her family’s maids who loved to listen to the Cantonese opera on the radio. As a child, Professor Chen enjoyed listening to the Cantonese opera on the radio and was fascinated by the stories embedded therein, as well as with its musical style, despite having no academic knowledge of its musical structure or the compositional processes involved.

iii. Tan Dun

Professor Tan was born and raised in a rural Hunan village in China where millennia-old shamanistic cultural traditions still survived. As a child, he was fascinated by the rituals and ceremonies of the village shaman, which were typically set to music made with natural objects such as rocks and water. With the exception of these traditions, Tan’s exposure to traditional Chinese music was also much more limited than his exposure to Western music.

iv. Zhou Long

Professor Zhou Long was born and raised in an artistic family. His mother was a vocal teacher at Beijing Conservatory, and his father was a painter and faculty in the Stage Art Department of Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama. He was influenced by Taoist and Buddhist philosophies in his early childhood, which have had heavy influences on his music style throughout his life.

v. Xu Zhen-min

Professor Xu Zhen-min also had limited traditional Chinese music training prior the Cultural Revolution. He admires the traditional Chinese folk tunes and Chinese operas, but never studied their music styles, musical structure, or compositional processes systematically.

II. Musical Experiences During the Cultural Revolution

A. Overview

After the Cultural Revolution began, most of the Western instruments were taken away by the Red Guards, as they were considered “bourgeois.”[3] During China’s Great Cultural Revolution, high schools and colleges were closed, as one of Chairman Mao's primary goals was to demolish the educational system.[4] Because the young teenagers graduating from junior high school could become social problems if they did not have jobs, Mao decided to send all the young city people to the countryside to be "re-educated'' by the peasants.[5] The composers interviewed for this paper were no exception.

B. Music Training During the Cultural Revolution

The five composers interviewed for this paper had the following experiences and impressions regarding the music training available to them during the Great Cultural Revolution:

i. Xu Zhen-min

According to Professor Xu Zhen-min, artists in the early 1960s enjoyed rather good treatment due to the “Three -Highs” policy, which promised artists high salaries, high royalties, and high perquisites.[6] That said, Professor Xu admitted becoming one of the targets of the Cultural Revolution in Beijing due to his advocacy of European classical music, after suggesting that European music should be taught to the masses and that Western musical techniques should be welcomed. Sometime after the Cultural Revolution began, however, he voluntarily joined the Communist Party, transcribed slogans into revolutionary tunes, and adapted many revolutionary folk tunes to the piano.

ii. Bright Sheng

At the age of fifteen, Professor Sheng was sent to Qinghai province as part of Chairman Mao’s re-education program. Qinghai used to be part of Tibet and is the home of many different ethnic groups, such as Tibetans and Chinese Muslims. Because of the rough lifestyle there, folk music is their only form of entertainment, and it developed in a phenomenal way. Professor Sheng spent seven years in Qinghai during the Cultural Revolution, where he performed as a pianist and percussionist for provincial music and dance theater. He studied and collected the folk music of this region during that time.

He also began to compose his own music. Because of his unique background, Qinghai folk music became and continues to be a strong inspiration for his compositions today. In fact, he used Tibetan folk music from Qinghai as a basis for his opera Song of Majnun.

According to Professor Sheng:

"The Cultural Revolution had a tremendous impact on Chinese musical culture. Music developed enormously because there was a great amount of state funding to train young musicians. However, the training was completely controlled by the government, which didn't want any independent thinking. The government both cultivated and controlled a lot of talent. There was very strict censorship regarding any Chinese music composition to be performed in public and no Western music was allowed to be performed, even though "professional" musicians could practice it. On the other hand, repression stored up a lot of energy that came out in music after the Cultural Revolution, as in every other art discipline at the time.”

iii. Tan Dun