Many of the Chinese musical works I’ve come to known — folk songs and contemporary classical compositions — are like paintings to me. I imagine furious galloping and dust kicking up when I hear the erhu showpiece Horse Racing and the mountainous landscapes of certain regions of China when listening to Chou Wen-Chung’s Echos from the Gorge. I had been interested for some time in talking with a composer about creating imagery with music.
The opportunity came when I met composer Hung Ping Chang (張紅蘋) one evening shortly before the premier of a new arrangement of her Silk Road Fantasie at a concert by the International Chamber Orchestra of America. Her focus on the rugged life along the Silk Road differed from the more typical glamorous imagery of a route alive with cultural exchange and understanding. It was refreshing.
I took an interest in her work, and over the course of a few months, this composer from Taiwan, whose Mulan Fantasie was a finalist at the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles’ International Composition Competition this year in Utrecht, Netherlands, really stood out because of the diversity of her compositions and the imaginative approach towards her work.
Showing these two strengths and her belief in giving back, she penned a song with Taiwanese folk elements as a tribute to New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority and organized a concert at Tenri Cultural Institute for the conservation of marine life that showcased art songs in which she developed music for works by British poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Edward Thomas.
Chang also caught our attention because she’s skeptical of cultural integration on the surface. Her interest in combining East and West does not rely on combining music traditions. Instead, she draws from the cultures to create deeply considered compositions rich with meaning.
We spoke to Chang about her approach towards composition and her life as a composer in New York. Her replies in Chinese were translated by Hansi Liao and edited by me. The interview has been edited for clarity.
“East meets West” is a theme in your philosophy as a composer. What does it mean to combine the two?
Integrating the East and the West in music requires a deep understanding of the content, diction, and historical context of music of both regions. What is also essential is the profound knowledge of orchestration, music theory, harmony and instrumentation. The absorption and internalization of culture, aesthetic, philosophy, literature, sociology, history, even archeology is part and parcel of such cultural integration. As a result, we would not call it a cultural integration if we just, on the surface, used pentatonic scale, combined with Western harmony, and adopted a mixture of Eastern and Western musical instruments. Only with complete accuracy, research and real absorption and experience on a cultural level that a true cultural integration can be achieved, accomplishing and creating unique characteristics and connotations.
What’s the current state of the interaction between Eastern and Western cultures?
Efforts to improve cultural integration are abundant and continually progressing, not only in music but also in art, architecture, creative culture, and dance. When technology reaches a peak, society as a whole starts to reflect upon and value culture and seeks its roots. The culture of the self is awakened, creating a new cultural language. The essences of Western culture and modernism and time-honored Eastern aesthetics and philosophy together breed much imagination for cultural integration. For example, Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre combines modern dance with Eastern tai chi and martial arts. Also, the Japanese architect Tadao Ando uses Modernist architectural techniques and the aesthetics of Japanese architecture and culture.
When and why did this become an interest of yours?
Growing up, my life has fortunately been filled with influences from Eastern and Western cultures. My father loves singing. He often sings Taiwanese and Chinese folk music as well as Western classic songs. When I was very little, I played the piano without sheet music to accompany him. In addition to playing Taiwanese folk songs, my father and mother often played Western classical music, and brought me and my sister to appreciate Western musicals and ballet dances. During music classes in primary school, I was able to learn Hakka music, aboriginal music, as well as Min dialect songs. My first piano teacher when I was six put me in touch with many classical Western film soundtracks in addition to the traditional classical Western music. Music from Peking operas, Taiwanese operas, Japanese costume dramas, martial arts dramas that I watched with my grandparents, as well as folk and temple music I got to know in my grandma’s home in Nantou, all enter into my auditory memory and musical language in an unconscious way. Soundtracks from Disney animations were an important part of my life growing up.
The unique melodies and the vibrancy of folk music as well as the rich harmonious and tones of Western tradition, enriched my auditory world. I was deeply attracted to and in love with it.
My grandfather practiced calligraphy, studied Zen philosophy, and read the Four Books and Five Classics. The long-term influences from him opened a chapter of my love for Eastern aesthetics and literature.
In addition to calligraphy, I learned watercolor and drawing. When I was really young, I loved art and frequented museums and art galleries to appreciate art. Among my father’s friends there were a painter and a calligraphy artist. In my home in Taipei, one wall is filled with Western paintings and watercolor while another is filled with calligraphy. When I was in high school, I was very dedicated to literature, both Eastern or Western. In college, I received training in Eastern and Western music at the same time, and I also studied Chinese painting, as my college is famous for its music and art department — the top one in Taiwan.
During my time at the University of North Texas, dance departments in Taiwan, and at Cloud Gate Dance Studio Theatre’s dance classroom, I was an accompanist for ballet as well as modern dance. As a result I was able to experience dancers’ rehearsals in martial arts and folk dance. My life growing up is full of stimulation from Eastern and Western cultures, which left a deep impact on my music creation.
How do you accomplish it?
It is hard to describe the cultural integration of East and West with words, since many abstract perspectives are involved. However, I can provide some obvious examples.
In terms of music instrument arrangement, I adopt the strict structures and essence of Western classics and modern music, and combine them with the sounds and techniques of traditional Chinese music to express a unique integration and collision. Due to my background, my musical creations reflect literature and Eastern culture and aesthetics, including tai chi, chi, martial art, calligraphy, and negative space.
I really pursue spirit and flow. While connoting Eastern and Western cultures, my compositions are also full of local flavor and mythos. I am very dedicated to integrating aboriginal, Min, Hakka, and folk music elements with modern Western music techniques. Through music, I aim to reflect the traditional and inherited meaning of culture from the East and Taiwan especially, letting more people experience their beauty.
In addition to focusing on beautiful sound, I will imagine and use many natural elements, and explore the techniques to play every musical instrument. In both theory and spirit, letting Western classical musical instruments present the content of Eastern modern music adds to the special visual and acoustic presentation.
Your works are very eclectic: orchestral and chamber works, a fun tribute to the MTA system rooted in a Taiwanese folk song, and art songs whose lyrics are taken from Percy Byshhe Shelley and British poet Edward Thomas. Did you approach each of these projects differently?
Yes, every composition has different context when created. When dealing with different themes, different feelings and emotions are in my heart, and this influences the layout of melody and the structure of the music. For each, I will enter a different space, to feel and think, so every piece has a different appearance. Some pieces require special element and inspiration. At different times, temperature, weather, a painting, a poem, a sound, an image, a story, a memory, a trip, and everything you encounter in life will bring different thoughts and inspiration. Every inspiration’s appearance is a special and precious fate.
The instrumentation of your compositions are unique and maybe could be said to be unusual. Mountain Spirit was written for five cellos; Wind Cursive for thirteen percussionists. Silk Road Fantasie has been scored for a string quartet, but also two violas and a double bass. What inspired you to explore these different instrumental combinations? How do you choose the instruments for a piece?
Wow, what a great question! For me, the birth of these works could be an instinctive and instant decision. There is no definite process for deciding the theme or the instrument. For example, in Mountain Spirit, I personally like cello very much, and I wanted to write an ensemble for the instrument. After taking into consideration the harmony and the layer of music, I thought five cellos together could be a very good choice. My home in Taipei is in the mountains, and I love nature since I was a child. The sound of cello as well as its soul is so solid and spiritual — at that moment I made a decision naturally that I want to use five cellos to describe the soul of mountains, and that is how Mountain Spirit was born!
The instrumentations of some works were decided after I decided on the theme. I use my intuition to decide what instrumental arrangement is needed to best present the spirit as well as the connotation of the piece. For example, Mulan Fantasie is an epic and dramatized classical historical legend in the East. I immediately decided to use an orchestra to present it.
However, a composer often encounters pre-determined orchestrations or themes and is asked to compose music from what has already been decided.
How is Silk Road Fantasie different with the different arrangements?
The first version of Silk Road Fantasie was for two violas and one double bass. This arrangement actually does not exist in the tradition of classical Western music. The Silk Road was a route connecting the lands of Asia in the east and Europe in the west. It was also a connection between Eastern and Western cultures but also a path that guarded Chinese territory. When we hear about the Silk Road, our first impression is of the romantic and exotic imagery often associated with it.
However, the Silk Road told many stories of life and death. The path was full of danger. Many diplomatic envoys and merchants set out for the West and never returned. Ethnic minorities along the path had to bravely survive under harsh circumstances. Nevertheless, they were able to cultivate unique and beautiful cultures. For travelers and ethic minorities confronted with this environment, the only thing they could do was to live in the moment, treasure each other’s companionship, and celebrate life by drinking — because the future could be predicted, and nobody knew if there would be a tomorrow.
Given this, I chose without any hesitation to use the double bass to present a solid and worn sound to create a song dedicated to the memory of the Silk Road, which was full of happiness, sorrow, reunion and separation. Instead of using a resonant violin, I used two violas for their warmth and simplicity and made bold use of open strings, pizzicato, double stops, and glissando. Thus, I created a piece of work similar to the folk music played by the minority people along the Silk Road, and reveal their vibrant cultures as well as plentiful strength of life.
How did “Thank You MTA, Thank you from Taiwan!” come about? It’s quirky piece. How do you feel about the MTA today?
This is a very precious and wonderful memory! Last year, the MTA made a video to celebrate Taipei Metro’s 20th anniversary, and the video received a huge response from the internet. So TECO organized a big event to thank the MTA, and I was honored to write the opening song “Thank you MTA, Thank you from Taiwan” as a special commission.
During the process of creating the song, I researched the MTA’s history and spent a long time taking the subway, which enabled me to see details that I usually overlooked. I was surprised by the number of stops and trains, as well as the mileage that subway trains travel. The MTA, founded in 1863, is the oldest public transit in the world. In New York, over five million people take the subway daily, and the trains run 24 hours. This level of service is only found in New York, and New Yorkers are blessed. The large number of MTA staff behind the scenes — from drivers and maintenance workers to service people, they create these blessings for New Yorkers. Especially during and after events like 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, MTA workers are committed to finding ways in order to keep New Yorkers’ lives as regular as possible.
We often focus on delays or service changes caused by construction. We complain and become upset. Thanks to this song writing, I have new experiences with MTA. Without daily maintenance, if one little detail goes wrong, New Yorkers’ lives will be at risk. When we are sound asleep, MTA workers continue to serve the people in New York. This old public transit is a spectacle and a great and admirable art.
Tell us about your experiences living in New York. Has it influenced you as a person and your music?
New York is a city full of strength. Top talent from every field including finance, law, art, music and technology gather in New York. This is a city that evokes endless hope and ambition. Behind all the grand skyscrapers are so many people living in far away and tiny spaces who commute on the packed subway just to chase their dreams. The city also sees a vast disparity between the rich and the poor which brings people a feeling of real impact of life. All of these influence my music significantly, in terms of inspiration as well as life force. I feel that the city makes one much stronger and independent, and gives people an adventurous and persistent spirit.
You’ve had a busy year with performances of your works, some of which you’ve organized yourself. As a composer, did you expect this would be part of your career? What is it like looking for and creating opportunities for yourself?
I did expect this, but I never expected that I would be so touched by the experience. I am so grateful for what music has brought me and for the support of my family and all my friends. I think no matter what field you are in, when you really focus with all your heart on one thing, love what you do and do what you love, and keep the faith of giving back to the society, then opportunity and strength will come to you naturally!
You’ve worked with local Chinese and Taiwanese musicians and groups such as the New Asia Music Chamber Music Society (NACMS). Is there a shared experience that makes working with them different from others you may have worked with professionally?
I am honored to have collaborated with top musicians and orchestras all along the way. My collaboration with every musician and orchestra made me feel like they are playing music with their lives, and I am so touched by this. NACMS is a very outstanding and professional team in New York, and the members all graduated from the best music schools. They are very devoted to performances that integrate Eastern and Western cultures. I admire and respect them greatly. They keep a high standard for people with whom they collaborate. During rehearsals, you can see every musician’s utmost attention and sensitivity towards music. In addition to excellent skills, every second of their performances are carried out with their whole heart and life, and that is why every musical note is touching and stunning! I was and will be so honored to collaborate with them!
Do you have any advice for foreign musicians and composers?
I believe that music should be touching instead of being something people use to show off. A moving and successful performance results from the musician’s dedication of his or her soul to the music. As a result, the soul of the audience is enriched, and their lives mature because of this.
A touching and successful piece comes from a composer creating from a pure soul. He or she has be in touch him or herself first before creating music that affects others. If one creates a work to merely attract audiences and to show off skills, it won’t become a truly moving piece. Music that has the strength of life comes from creators who have dedicated their lives to music
Music should have the principles of aesthetics and persistence, since they are the essence of music. Besides knowing music well, in my opinion, it is very important to be familiar with the big picture, social context, and other fields: art history, anthropology, sociology, archaeology, even biology, psychology and technology. All of above can broaden one’s perspectives and further elevate one’s musical level and content.
Finally, I believe that music has to be integrated with society and human beings. It has to give back to the society and the world. A touching performance or a touching piece sublimes the audience’s soul and inspires life. This is giving back to society. Pieces like this will definitely bring more encouragement and strength to the world!
Lead image: Spring world premiere by the New Asia Chamber Music Society concert Seasons of Legacy with Lin-Cho Liang at Merkin Concert Hall, April 15, 2017. Photo by Ben Tso. Courtesy of Hung Ping Chang.