Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sustainable Music in China

As I wrote earlier, I was invited to China, to deliver a series of lectures on music and sustainability, at the Central Conservatory of Music, in Beijing. I was there from Oct. 31 through Nov. 9, delivered three lectures (I will post summaries shortly), and had a chance to learn from Chinese colleagues something of the Chinese view on music and sustainability. Indeed, this is something they have thought about and done something about.

Perhaps one of the reasons the Chinese have implemented a cultural policy meant to preserve traditional music is that since the Chinese Revolution (1949) and particularly during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) traditional expressive culture was under threat from the government itself. One of the foci of the Cultural Revolution was the abolition of the "four olds": old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Another possible reason is that in the reaction against the Cultural Revolution, tradition was revalued; certain musical traditions like that associated with the guqin (ku-chin) zither, an ancient music known since the time of Confucius, were singled out by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage. Unlike the US, China has signed the UNESCO treaty on ICH, so it has even more reason to endorse it.

To show me an example of Chinese cultural policy meant to preserve the heritage of traditional music, I was taken to Qujiaying village, where I witnessed a concert performance by the village music society. This is the full orchestra, consisting of percussion (drum and cymbals) and winds (reeded end-blown flutes, transverse flutes, and sheng (a traditional Chinese mouth organ; note the vertical tubes):


The tour group included our host, a group of visiting performers and scholars from New Zealand, some students from the Conservatory, and myself. Qujiaying music dates back to the late Yuan dynasty. It originated in Buddhist funeral ceremonies. According to the official literature that we were given, "experts [from the Chinese Art Academy] think Qujiaying classical music is of great artistic and precious cultural value. It enjoys the reputation of the living fossil and the Treasure of the Chinese Culture."

This is the Qujiaying village percussion ensemble (a subset of the orchestra) in concert. The music performed, I was told, was ancient and originally played at village funerals, and still is. Interestingly, there is a notation; and in the museum we saw some very old examples. The musicians do not play from notation, though. After visits from prominent international music scholars, beginning in 1986, to this village and its music, the Chinese government began to pay attention to their' accolades. They designated the music as Chinese national heritage and poured $2 million dollars into the village. A museum and a concert hall (temple) were built. Now the music is performed for visitors in the temple, as it was for us. There is plenty of money to secure a continuing supply of instruments. Master village musicians teach a younger generation. The continuation of the music is assured. In 2000, it was awarded the first prize in the contest to celebrate China's 50th national birthday. In 2006 it was listed in the Catalogue of World Cultural and Natural Heritage.

  video

Indeed, the music was wonderful. To hear an excerpt, click on the arrow in the picture just above. With the full orchestra, much was played in a free rhythm, with the winds in heterophonic unison. With the percussion ensemble, there was a definite pulse beat, and much repetition, and syncopation, leading to trance.

Our trip to and from Qujiaying village involved a police escort along the 2-lane highway, a patrol car with siren blaring, clearing a way for our bus to pass between the cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians. After the concert we had a delicious late lunch, with the governor of the district and, I was told, various Party officials. No visiting ethnomusicologist would ever have been treated like this in North America!

After we returned from the village, I heard some discussion of the music in terms of heritage. I had lectured only the day before on some of the problems with cultural tourism, and here I was--a cultural tourist experiencing musical heritage in China. Was the music the same in concert as at a funeral? Not precisely; some was strung together in a kind of "suite." It is compared, in the official literature, with Western music: "it includes 13 divertimentos. . . and the melody of the four season. It also has seven concerto grossos." I assume these comparisons are meant to enhance its prestige as a classical music, but in my view the music does not profit from this kind of uplift. I heard, also, some questions about exactly where the $2 million went. It looked to me as if the buildings would have taken it all, buildings plus instruments plus costumes and salaries for the musicians; but there were those who wondered whether some of the village businessmen had also gotten some of it. But on the whole if there was criticism, it was muted. I noted that there were no CDs of Qujiaying music for sale. No admissions charge. No commodification of the music at all. A handsomely produced booklet with many color photos and some text (including a page in English) was given to the visitors.

Many village officials were there during the concert. Some began talking loudly and their voices could be heard in the soft passages. It occurred to me that at funerals this conversation would have taken place. For them, the music might not have been remarkable. But in the concert setting, it interfered with the visitors' experience of the music. A few visitors scowled. Perhaps someone said something to one of the hosts. Then one or two of the hosts went to the back of the hall and hushed them.

As our visit came to a close, I sought out the head of the village music society and thanked him. His picture is at the left. He was too old, I imagined, to perform with the group; but I surmised that at one time he'd been a master musician. Now he led us on the museum tour and described the instruments. In the museum old instruments were in glass cases, labeled. On the walls were pictures, including photos of some of the visiting scholars who had come to the village since 1986. Many--most--of the people there had digital cameras and were using them often. I was told that some day our pictures might appear on the wall.


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