Making music, linking traditions

Updated: 2015-01-12 06:10

By NIU YIU in New York(China Daily USA)

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Making music, linking traditions

From left: Tan Dun, Chen Yi and Zhou Long, all of whom are famous composers who earned their success in the United States discuss their musical education with Chou Wen-Chung (right) at New-York Historical Society in New York on Jan 10. Lu Huiquan / For China Daily

The music world could be on the brink of a great fusing of Western and Eastern musical traditions.

"Particularly in Western Europe and East Asia, the cultural heritage has lasted for thousands of years," said Chou Wen-Chung, now 91 years old. "I think there is no question that our next step is to combine them together. We are at the beginning of the new era," said the first composer from China to win wide recognition among Western audiences for his integration of Western and Chinese music.

Chou spoke during From China to America: A Musical Journey with Tan Dun and Guests, featured some of the most prominent Chinese composers at a Jan 10 event at the New York Historical Society.

Tan Dun, an Academy Award- and Grammy Award-winning composer, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Zhou Long and his wife Chen Yi discussed how to combine Western music with their Chinese heritage.

The three composers were first discovered by Chou, a Chinese-American musician who was chairing the Music Division of the School of the Arts at Columbia University. They came on scholarship from China to the United States in the mid-1980s to pursue doctoral degrees in musical arts at the university.

The most important things these students learned from Chou was "not to forget where you came from and what you want for", said Tan. The students had to meet with Chou once a month to talk about Chinese philosophy and history.

Such discussions were challenging, as Chou’s mind "was such a book of history", said Tan. But they would usually be treated to a nice Chinese meal before or after the discussions, cooked by Chou himself.

Works of the composers also were performed during the event.

"That music reflects serious understandings of Chinese and Western cultural traditions," said Ralph Samuelson, a professional musician. "They are not superficial, and they are meaningful."

Echoes from the Gorge by Chou expressed Chinese ideograms with Western percussions. Zhou Long presented a piece that imitatedChinese guqin (ancient Chinese piano made of strings) with Western stringed instruments.

Chen Yi’s Shuo described how ethnic groups in southwestern China celebrated the Lunar New Year, and Tan’s Flying Song featured southwestern ethnic vocals with cello music.

"These people are great representatives of our culture," said Zhou Tiange, who is studying composition at the Yale School of Music. "People may develop their love for culture because of their love for music.

"Music is a way of expression," Zhou said. "As a composer, I would love to bring what makes me feel a sense of belonging to the Western audience," Zhou said.

The event is part of Chinese Americans: Exclusion/Inclusion, a six-month exhibition by the New York Historical Society to show Chinese Americans’ history since the US was founded and how Chinese immigrants formed their identity.

"These musicians’ success shows part of Americans’ inclusion," said Shirley Young, chairwoman of the US-China Cultural Institute. "It is the inclusion that makes them successful."

More events introducing Chinese artists’ stories in the US are expected in March, said Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the historical society. The exhibition also will be on display in other parts of the US.

Lu Huiquan in New York contributed to this story.