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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


During the Cultural Revolution, Professor Tan was sent to plant rice alongside the local farmers in the Huangjin commune for “re-education.” He remembers being a wild child, living alone, and running up mountains barefoot; music was his only entertainment. Soon, he became involved in their local music scene. Due to his knowledge of music and instrumental resourcefulness, he became the preserver of their traditions. After two years, a boat carrying a traveling Peking opera troupe capsized resulting in the death of many of the musicians; Professor Tan was recalled from his farming duties to serve as a fiddler and arranger for the troupe. This initial success permitted him a seat in the orchestra.

Professor Tan made the following observations during his interview:


You are standing on the ruins. Everything's been destroyed. Family's been destroyed, culture [has] been destroyed. And nobody [was] allowed to touch anything Western or ancient. And suddenly you heard Bach. It's like a medicine curing everything you were suffering."


Professor Tan says his own Water Passion is an answer to Bach's St. Matthew Passion:


"The water represents the tears, the resurrection, the circling, incarnation."

Drawing from China's shamans, Professor Tan often turns to what he calls organic instruments: namely, a pair of stones, bamboo, a leaf, etc. Or in the case of Water Passion, cups of water dipped into a basin.


iv. Zhou Long


During the Cultural Revolution, Professor Zhou Long was forced to delay his music studies and live on a state-run farm where he operated a tractor. In 1969 he was sent, in a group of about fifty, to a remote region in Heilongjiang province, near the Soviet border. When they arrived, they lived in simple tents, with a curtain separating men and women. The cold was nearly unbearable. The deserted landscape with the fierce winds and fires he experienced during the Cultural Revolution made a deep impression on him, which influences his compositions even today.


During the time, he brought his accordion along; it was the only entertainment for him back then. Professor Zhou and his friends would listen to the Soviet radio and to Chinese folk songs and traditional Beijing Opera in secret. In 1973, due to an injury he suffered to his back, he was transferred to Zhangjiakou, 300 miles northwest of Beijing. He joined the Zhangjiakou City Art Troupe (a mid-sized company consisting of a thirty-piece orchestra comprising both Western instruments and a small group of Chinese instruments, a twenty-four-member choir, and a similar-sized dance group.) Professor Zhou arranged and composed orchestral pieces and a cantata for this troupe. In 1976, the troupe sent Professor Zhou to Inner Mongolia for field work. He spent a few weeks traveling to villages and listening to Mongolian folk songs.


v. Chen Yi


During the Great Cultural Revolution, Professor Chen Yi was sent to the countryside (rice fields) for re-education, due to her family’s background as intellectuals. Her entertainment was adapting the revolutionary tunes to the violin, which she played for the farmers. She would secretively embellish the tunes with Western music techniques, which was her first attempt at composition. In 1970, Professor Chen was recruited by the Guangzhou Troupe as the principal violinist. Her first exposure to mixed ensemble setups was while in the Modern Opera ensemble. The Guangzhou Beijing Opera Troupe managed to create two or three new works, and Professor Chen contributed to their musical composition. She wrote overtures, incidental music, and orchestral interludes; she also orchestrated the accompaniments for arias. She further provided music for concert performances by members of the ensemble.


During her years in the troupe, Professor Chen shared a room with Zhou Lei, who played the pipa—a large, quite loud Chinese lute with an articulated fingerboard. Professor Chen not only learned the notations of the instrument from Zhou, but also helped her translate the pipa parts from Western notation into cipher notation. In the process Professor Chen became skilled at changing freely between movable do and fixed do systems in both notations.


Professor Chen’s Chinese compositional practices manifest themselves in different concrete ways.


· Primarily this is seen through her devotion to variation techniques. Her first forays into composing involved creating variations on revolutionary tunes during her years in Shi-men. The farmers loved her violin renditions of the melodies to which she added ornaments and inserted virtuosic interludes between stanzas, particularly referencing Paganini’s Capriccio No. 24 in A minor.


· She was also influenced by the Beijing Opera while she was in the dance troupe in the following ways:


o Her use of variations based on folk tunes;


o Her use of intervals: in particular, the interval of 7th that was characteristic in Beijing opera carried by Jinghu; and


o Her use of percussion patterns known as luogu jing.


C. The Cultural Revolution’s Impact on the Interviewed Composers’ Ability to

Practice Music in General


In addition to the specific conditions and situations mentioned by the interviewed composers, they all agreed the Great Cultural Revolution offered both the following disadvantages and advantages:


i. Disadvantages:


· There was limited repertoire access: only revolutionary tunes and Model Operas were allowed;


· They spent years in re-education camps, causing some to miss their golden age of studying;


· As most of their parents belonged to the intellectual class, they were victims of the Cultural Revolution.


ii. Advantages:


· They became familiarized with the Beijing Opera genre and compositional style, which would later resurface in many of their compositions;


· They became familiarized with Chinese and Western mix ensemble writing, as well as with instrumentation;


· With given lyrics, they learned to adapt pieces using Chinese folk tunes along with Western compositional techniques, and compose and arrange their compositions at a very fast pace;


· They became acquainted with multiple instruments in the troupes and gained experiences sitting in the orchestra.


III. The Interviewed Composers’ Resulting Styles from the Cultural Revolution


A. In General


Chinese instrumental works from the Great Cultural Revolution traditionally bear expressive titles. All the composers interviewed for this paper uphold this philosophy and use descriptive titles for their instrumental compositions. Rarely can one find one of their works bearing generic labels such as String Quartet No. 1.


B. How each Composers Retained and / or Rejected Any Elements They Learned

Prior to the Cultural Revolution


All the composers interviewed for this paper retained elements they were exposed to during the Cultural Revolution, as described below:


i. Chen Yi:


Professor Chen Yi retained the variation techniques she learned during the Great Cultural Revolution. She also retained Chinese and Western mix ensemble writing, the use of Beijing Opera form, singing styles, and compositional techniques.


ii. Zhou Long:


Similar to Professor Chen Yi, Zhou Long has composed many Mongolian folk songs for the piano, due to the influences resulting from the Great Cultural Revolution.


iii. Tan Dun:


Professor Tan Dun was exposed to Chinese Ritual music, based on which drew his interest in contemporary opera.


iv. Bright Sheng:


Influences from the Great Cultural Revolution affect Professor Sheng’s works to his very day. For example, two acts of his Opera Madame Mao (2003), among other works, were heavily influenced by his exposure to Model Opera writing along with the combination of Western opera singing techniques and compositional techniques.


v. Xu Zhen-min:


Professor Xu Zhen-min had a highly Westernized compositional writing style (influenced by Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel) prior to the Cultural Revolution, but after the Cultural Revolution, adopted a style using Chinese folk tunes coupled with Western contemporary compositional techniques.


Analyses of One Piece Composed by each of the Five Interviewed Composers after the Great Cultural Revolution


The following is an analysis of one composition from each of the five composers interviewed for this paper. The works analyzed in depth below are as follows:


1. Madame Mao (2003) by Bright Sheng (盛宗亮);


2. Percussion Concerto (1998) by Chen Yi (陈怡);


3. Mongolian Folk Tune Variations (2009) by Zhou Long (周龙);


4. Ghost Opera (1994) by Tan Dun (谭盾);


5. Autumn Moon Over the Calm Lake (1987) by Xu Zhen-min (徐振民).


IV. Analysis of Madame Mao (2003) by Bright Sheng (盛宗亮)


A. Professor Sheng’s Compositional Methodology and Influences from the Culture

Revolution


Professor Sheng was influenced by the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, who was grounded in a Non-Western musical tradition and embellished with Western Classical compositional techniques.


During an interview Professor Sheng conducted in Michigan in Fall 1998, he reiterated a point he made earlier in the music publication Full Score:


"I am a mixture not only of Eastern and Western influences but of Tibetan and Chinese within the Eastern. Why shouldn't my music reflect that? People acknowledge "artistic license"; I embrace "cultural license"--the right to reflect my appreciation and understanding of both cultures in my work. ... I think less and less about whether some element I am using is Chinese or Western. I write whatever excites me while continuing to study both cultures."

~Bright Sheng, interview in Michigan, Fall 1998.


Professor Sheng stated the following regarding the seven years he spent performing in Qinghai Province during the Cultural Revolution:


"In addition to "regular" Chinese, the province is home to Tibetans, Chinese Muslims, Mongolians and even some Russian Cossacks. ... The ethnic backgrounds of the people were rich, but the people were poor. ... Their only entertainment was singing folk songs. One of the categories of folk songs in Qinghai is called the hua'er, or flower, song. I got a chance to study them very well. Each group there has its own folk songs in its own language, but everyone sang the flower songs in the provincial dialect of Chinese ... the songs were a selling point for the different ethnic groups. They all lived close to each other; there was no ethnic tension or fighting at all before the recent Tibet conflict. In some of my compositions I use the melodic style of the flower songs. In my opera Song of Majnun, two of the main themes are based on Qinghai Tibetan motifs."

~Bright Sheng, interview, Michigan, Fall 1998.


Professor Sheng further reiterated the importance of titles in Chinese works:

''Almost all classical Chinese works have titles,'' Bright Sheng said. ''The title was sort of a guide to keep the character of the music, because there was no notation.[7]''

~Bright Sheng, interview, Michigan, Fall 1998.


B. Music Analysis of Madame Mao (2003)


Music Score access: http://www.musicsalesclassical.com/composer/work/32920


i. Overview of Madame Mao (2003)


This is a story-telling historical work reflecting the essence of the Culture Revolution.

Madame Mao, commonly known as Jiang Qing (discussed at the beginning of the paper) was influenced by the Traditional Chinese opera from an early age. This encouraged her to promote the Model Opera during the Cultural Revolution.


Madame Mao” has two symmetrical acts, with a duration of 120 minutes. The first movement is roughly more than one hour, and the second movement is shorter. The libretto is written by Colin Graham. It was commissioned by Santa Fe Opera in 2003. Each act is based on the brief historical situation, but is filled with fictionalized detailed. The opera is in reverse sequence, starting in the first acts with Jiang Qing about to hang herself in a jail cell, and looking back on her life. The second act moves forward. The stage setup has a Western ballroom scene and a scene from Chinese opera in the center.


ii. Instrumentations:


2 Flutes (2nd doubling piccolo)

2 Oboe (2nd doubling English Horn)

2 Clarinet in Bb (2nd doubling Eb Clarinet and Bass Clarinet)

2 Bassoons (2nd doubling Contrabassoon)

4 Horns in F

3 Trumpets (1 and 2 in C, 3 in Bb)

2 Trombones

Bass Trombones

Tuba

Timpani

Percussion (4 players)

Harp

Strings


iii. Cast:


Jiang Ching I & II

Zhizen, Mao’s previous wife

Mao Zedong