Music From China Ensemble Celebrates Chinese Music, Traditional and New, in Bryant Park Concert

MFC photo

On Monday, June 8, New York-based chamber ensemble Music From China will play a free outdoor concert at the Upper Terrace Steps of Midtown oasis Bryant Park.  Founded in 1984, the group is dedicated to promoting appreciation of Chinese music.  They not only perform classical and folk music on traditional instruments but also present compositions by contemporary composers who further the Chinese musical tradition.

In addition to bringing their eclectic repertoire to prestigious cultural institutions (they celebrated their 30-year anniversary with a concert at Carnegie Hall last November) and music festivals around the country, they have encouraged youth interest in Chinese music, giving students in elementary through high school hands-on experience with Chinese instruments and a musical window into Chinese culture.  Additionally, in 2004, the Music from China Youth Orchestra was established to involve the current generation of young musicians with perpetuating the Chinese cultural heritage.

The concert at Bryant Park offers well-known traditional tunes as well as contemporary works by Yang Yong (杨勇), Zhou Long (周龙), and Chen Yi (陈怡).  The latter two were part of a conversation with Tan Dun at the New-York Historical Society’s “From China to New York” program in January.  Here’s the program for Monday’s concert:

Traditional: Birds in the Forest 《空山鳥語 》
Traditional: Mongolian Horse Race 《赛马》
Traditional: Ambush on Ten Sides 《十面埋伏》
Yang Yong: River Songs 《河曲 》
Zhou Long: Taiping Gu 《太平鼓》
Chen Yi: Three Dances From China South
Zhou Long: Mount a Long Wind 《长风破浪》

We reached out to Music of China Director Susan Cheng by email for more information about the works on the program and to learn how to better appreciate Chinese music.  Here’s our interview, lightly edited mostly to provide hyperlinks and additional information where it could be needed.

1) How did this performance in Bryant Park come to be?

For the past two seasons, Chamber Music America has partnered with Bryant Park in New York City to present a summer concert series focused on new work that had been created through CMA’s commissioning programs.  In celebration of Music From China’s 30th anniversary in 2014, composer Chen Yi wrote “Three Dances from China South” with the support of a grant from CMA’s Classical Commissioning Program.

2) Many people are not familiar with Chinese music.   For many, it may sound unusual, or people may find each piece indistinguishable from each other.  What should people listen for when listening to traditional Chinese  to appreciate it?   Is it different for contemporary Chinese classical music.

Traditional Chinese music is categorized into classical and folk traditions.  Classical music is often nature oriented, emphasizing tone colors and their evocative powers.  Classical pieces from antiquity and past dynasties are still performed throughout China today and maintain their musical integrity despite slight regional or stylistic variations in performance.

Folk music, on the other hand, represents the particular style of a region and is rooted in local culture and traditions.  Musical characteristics or regional colors are determined by speech patterns, climate, geography, social behavior, customs, human activities, and local sensibilities.  For example, the folk music tradition of Jiangnan (south of the Yangzi River) is called sizhu, or silk and bamboo music.  It reflects the gentle environment of water towns with tea houses and pavilions along the Yangzi River.  Music from northern regions such as Shaanxi province is usually more rustic, reflecting the yellow earth and high plateau of the Yellow River region.  Because of the harsh environment and hard life of the people, its music has a tinge of bitterness called “kuyin,” and melodies are high-pitched and jagged.

3) Tell us about the works that you are performing.   At the time the traditional works that have endured to the present day were composed, were they compositions for a certain audience or were they popular songs?   

The authors of classical works and folk pieces are mostly unknown and when the music came into being is uncertain.  Historically, traditional music was created by performers improvising, then elaborated over generations, rather than composed by a recognized individual.  The tradition of qin (7-string zither) music played by Chinese scholars was intended for self-cultivation and meditation rather than enjoyment by a public audience.  Today’s instrumental music often borrows musical material from Chinese opera, folk songs, ethnic minority music, and musical storytelling genres.

4) It’s very exciting that you’re performing works by Yang Yong, Zhou Long, and Chen Yi.  People may find that their compositions don’t sound very different, possibly thinking they don’t sound “Chinese”.  What distinguishes music from contemporary composers from music of the past?  How strongly are they influenced by music traditions of the past?   

All three composers draw inspiration from traditional music to create contemporary works using new composition concepts, techniques and instrumental combinations.  They boldly exploit the idiomatic expression of Chinese instruments so that a striking “Chinese” character pervades their work set in a new soundscape.

Yang Yong’s River Songs for erhu and cello duet offers lyrical glimpses into lives of the inhabitants of the Yellow River delta in Shanxi province.  The second movement “Da Saosao” is the local slang for flirting.

Chen Yi’s Three Dances from China South is composed for erhu, pipa, zheng and dizi.  Material in the first movement “Lions Playing Ball” is drawn from a folk tune in the Chaozhou region of Guangdong province.  The movement includes several variations on the theme, a method inspired by the various rhythmic patterns used in traditional ensemble playing.  There are also lyrical sections with polyphonic layers in the variations.

The “Bamboo Dance” is an age-old folk dance of the Li minority people of Hainan Island in the south.  Pairs of people hold the ends of long bamboo poles and clap them loudly in stable pulse, while groups of dancers dance between the poles on the floor, in varied musical rhythms and ensemble patterns.

The third movement “Lusheng Dance” is a folk dance performance of the Dong minority people in Guangxi province.  Overlaying the rhythmic patterns, the leading erhu and flute imitate a two-voice folk song of the Zhuang minority people from the same province.

Mount a Long Wind by Zhou Long is composed for erhu, pipa, zheng, dizi and percussion. The music reflects the vivid imagery of Li Bai’s poem “The Hard Road” [(蜀道難)] from the Tang dynasty.  Textured waves accompanied by strong rhythmic chords symbolize a journey — “to mount a long wind and break the heavy waves.”  Vigorous rhythmic sections conjuring up the driving dragon boat and gentle melodies evoking the sounds of nature are followed by a recapitulation which brings the music to a celebratory climax.


Monday, June 8, 5:30 PM
Upper Terrace Steps, Bryant Park

Zhou Long: Mount a Long Wind 《长风破浪》:

Image courtesy of Music From China