national style

national style
‘New Music’
The history of Chinese New Music, which began in the first decades of the twentieth century, has been dominated by the constant worry over ‘national style’. It is not easy for a Chinese composer to simply opt for ‘being himself and write in an individual style, as Messiaen once suggested to his last student, the Chinese Chen Qigang Foreign music critics, as well as critics within China, will often judge Chinese compositions deficient if they do not contain ‘national flavour’ (minzu fengge). A foreigner, Alexander Tcherepnin, with his 1934 competition for ‘Piano Pieces in Chinese Style’, was perhaps the first to explicitly ask Chinese composers to write their music in a ‘national style’, but, to the present day, the question of what constitutes this particular style and how it should be perpetuated determines discussions of Chinese New Music both within China and abroad.
There are many options for writing music with ‘Chinese flavour’. In Hong Kong as well as in the PRC and Taiwan, the style of pentatonic romanticism is dominant. It has been used by Chinese composers since the early days of New Chinese Music in the 1910s and 1920s and is still being used in the post-war period (e.g. Chen Gang’s and He Zhanhao’s Butterfly Violin Concerto 1959). This style makes use of Chinese raw material, such as the pentatonic melodies from folksongs (see folksongs (Han Chinese)) or Xiqu (opera), and stylizes them by transferring them onto Western instruments and by pressing them into a Western system of notation. Chinese folksong and operatic singing, however, are characterized by a changing, irregular metre. They also make use of notation for elaborate ornamentation and tonal inflection which is difficult to adapt to the Western five-staff system. These idiosyncrasies are therefore lost in stylized composition.
In a more radical mode, composers attempt to capture precisely these just-mentioned elements of Chinese melody. This alternative approach to ‘national style’ occurs frequently in pieces composed since the early 1980s, but it was also once in vogue in the 1940s, when Sang Tong wrote the piano piece ‘In that Place, Far Far Away’ (Zai na yaoyuan de difang), which he later renounced. It is polytonal and constantly changes the metre, just as Sang attempted to capture the rhythmic as well as the tonal idiosyncrasies of Chinese folksong. Chinese composers today have become even more radical in their translation of these idiosyncrasies into sound, allowing for microtonal inflections and aleatory rhythms.
Apart from Chinese melody, Chinese instrumental techniques, too, have been used frequently by Chinese composers to mark their ‘Chineseness’. Again, the stylizing approach simply transfers Chinese instrumental technique onto a Western instrument, while the more radical approach, found particularly among composers of the ‘New Wave’ of the late 1970s and 1980s (see Third Generation /composers), changes the Western instrument into one that is essentially Chinese (e.g. Qu Xiaosong’s Mong Dong, for bass and chamber ensemble, 1984).
Yet another approach to ‘Chineseness’ is to draw from Chinese myths and literature (e.g. Chen Yi’s Chinese Myths Cantata, 1996). In terms of musical language, compositions which fall into this category appear in a great variety of styles, ranging from eighteenth-century classicism to the electronic sounds of the avant-garde. Another commonly used method is the translation of Chinese philosophical ideas into sound. Chinese composers, not just John Cage, take up on the ideas of the Yijing [Book of Changes] and design entire compositional systems on these (see Zhao Xiaosheng). The emphasis on single sounds (derived from the aesthetics of qin playing) and on silence is derived from the teachings of Daoism, where the greatest sound is said to be ‘rare, unhearable’, the best instrument being a guqin without strings. This approach is epitomized in Tan Dun’s Circle (1992), where a bar of complete silence is marked with a crescendo and a decrescendo. Silence is perhaps one of the most powerful and frequently heard elements in much New Chinese Music today; perhaps it will substitute for ‘pentatonic romanticism’ as the dominant style of new Chinese music in the twenty-first century.
Mittler, Barbara (1997). Dangerous Tunes. The Politics of Chinese Music in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China since 1949. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, ch. 4.
——(2004, in press). ‘Zwischen Tradition und Moderne: Von den alten Wurzeln neuer chinesischer Musik’. Musik Texte.
Utz, Christian (2002). Neue Musik und Interkulturalität. Von John Cage bis Tan Dun. Stuttgart: Steiner.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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