Review by Huntley Dent, Interview by Maria Nockin
YE Basong Cuo 1 . Colorful Sutra Banners. December Chrysanthemum. Namucuo. Hibiscus. San Die 1 • Les Temps Modernes; 1 Su Chang (zheng) • DELOS 3559 (55:13)
For decades Xiaogang Ye, now in his mid-60s, has been regarded as perhaps the leading composer in China. At the extravagant opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Lang Lang played Ye’s piano concerto, Starry Sky, to an estimated worldwide audience of three billion. This is my first encounter with his music, but I came with high expectations. Henry Fogel and David Canfield reviewed, and highly praised, a BIS release of Ye’s orchestral music conducted by José Serebrier in 2016. Canfield placed the disc on his Want List for that year, saying that Ye’s Symphony No. 3, “Chu,” moved him to the core of his being. Fogel felt that Ye had a more distinctive voice than Tan Dun, the Chinese composer most Westerner listeners know if they know only one.
It remains an uphill struggle for East Asian composers to make a lasting impression in the West. In Ye’s case, despite some years training at the Eastman School, he has spent the bulk of his career inside China. There has been no lack of recognition, however, and his bio in the booklet to this new release mentions performances by the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra, among many others. The six chamber works on the disc vary in scope from solo piano (Namucuo) and piano trio (Colorful Sutra Banners) to a duo for flute and piano (December Chrysanthemum) and larger ensembles such as the six players in Hibiscus.
How to describe what we hear? Imagine that you had never heard the music of Debussy. An essay introducing him would pick out certain key traits: delicate refinement, the use of pentatonic scales, a sound world with occasional influences from Asia, inspiration derived from paintings and poetry, and a unique ear that turned previous French music on its head. You still wouldn’t know what Debussy sounds like, and even though Ye’s chamber music can be described along very similar lines (except for turning previous music on its head), it takes direct exposure to realize how imaginative and moving these pieces are.
The various instrumental groupings are drawn from the French contemporary music ensemble Les Temps Modernes except for an ancient Chinese plucked instrument, the zheng or guzheng. Dating back 2,500 years, the zheng is played horizontally; it is about five feet long, has between 21 and 25 strings, and is tuned to a pentatonic scale. Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble employs many traditional Asian musical instruments, but as admirable as that project is, I think most listeners when faced with something as unknown as the zheng, automatically consign it to the genre of world music.
The two pieces here that employ the zheng, Basong Cuo and San Die, are far from generic world music. They are sophisticated works from a contemporary imagination, and the zheng blends in like the Chinese cousin of a modern chromatic harp, which also appears in the instrumentation. The two together, against rapidly shifting woodwinds, create a glittering, shimmering effect. It beautifully evokes Ye’s inspiration behind Basong Cuo, which came from one of the nine holy lakes in Tibet that he visited. Debussy once remarked that painting was almost as important to him as music, and Ye is just as visual. Lakes, mountains (particularly the snow-capped Himalayas), and tropical flowers figure prominently in these pieces.
Standing for the entire album one might choose Colorful Sutra Banners, which refers to flags painted with Buddhist inscriptions that flutter near holy sites in Tibet. Although scored for a traditional piano trio, the piece exploits a range of unexpected moods and colors, not for the sake of exoticism but as an expression of a composer who can be as elusively Impressionist as Takemitsu one minute, as open to new idioms as Szymanowski or as insistent and driving as Bartók the next. Behind the constantly inventive curtain of sound, however, lies Ye’s deep attachment to Buddhism, which appears repeatedly in his concise program notes.
One becomes aware, as with few East Asian composers, of Ye’s spiritual inner life. I think this is the key to Ye’s appeal. His musical voice has a presence that overarches any particular technique he might be using. We are drawn in personally, which is rare with Chinese music. At times he resorts to chinoiserie with a French slant—the final work here, San Die, begins with solo flute, like an Oriental Afternoon of a Faun, before the zheng enters harp-like, creating a parallel to Debussy’s love of both instruments. One might note familiar influences in the piano piece Namucuo of innovations picked up from Debussy and Bartók, but such a shortcut cannot do justice to Ye’s ability to directly communicate mood and emotion through any means that his imagination seizes upon.
In fact, it is the very fact that this music doesn’t sound derivative which gives it strength and compelling interest. All the performances are strong (Les Temps Modernes consists of conductor, pianist, harp, percussion, violin, cello, clarinet, and flute), and Su Chang plays the zheng with dazzling virtuosity. Canfield put the previous Ye disc on his Want List, he tells us, to prompt Fanfare readers to listen to music whose depth of expression is timeless. Fogel remarked that hearing the BIS release prompted him to immediately order a handful of other Ye recordings. I think these chamber works will prove just as eye-opening and compelling. Warmly recommended. Huntley Dent
East Meets West: An Interview with Chinese Composer Xiaogang Ye
By Maria Nockin
Xiaogang Ye is currently the Chairman of China Musicians’ Association and Vice President of the International Music Council. Until 2019, he was Vice-President of the Central Conservatory of Music. He is the Founder/Artistic Director of the biggest festival of contemporary music in the Far East, the Beijing Modern Music Festival, plus the Shenzhen Belt & Road International Music Festival and the Tsingtao International Music Festival. Having studied both at the Central Conservatory of Music in China and at the Eastman School of Music in the United States, Ye combines Eastern and Western styles and is currently one of China’s leading contemporary composers. We conversed by email in late March 2020, just as China was beginning to escape from the clutches of COVID-19.
Please tell us what you most want us to know about yourself and your music.
I think that musicologists or Western audiences might be interested in the influence of contemporary music on an Asian composer. In this CD, Western music’s influence on me is obvious because the music on this disc was almost all written more than 10 years ago. I believe a composer with just the Western background wouldn’t work out music the way I do, and this is also a reason for me to release this recording. As an Asian composer who started to learn Western music in his youth, part of the focus of my work has been a struggle with its influence. For the past few decades, I have been required to compose pieces in Western format, such as opera, film music, large-scale symphonies with many movements, and chamber music that uses only Western instruments. It is impossible for a composer not to be seduced by these opportunities. After all, the success of this type of work is very important. The question is, what is the point of music if that is all there is, and there is no music that the composer really wants to present from his heart? If there is only one instrument playing alone on the distant horizon, and that is the true heart of the composer, why not do it? The world is muddy and only the musician’s heart is clear.
What inspired you to write the music on your latest recording?
When I came to the U.S. to study at the end of the 1980s, I didn’t realize the road I would be walking on today. To make a recording is to show my journey step by step. What we released this year are the pieces I composed 10 years ago. Maybe next year we can record my thoughts of this year and make them the inspiration for music on a new CD. Musicologists or music fans interested in Eastern composers’ music may feel how much I have changed and how many different faces I have been able to take on.
Did you travel to Tibet? How is it different from the rest of China?
I have made seven different trips to Tibet to collect folk music. I still have strong interests in Tibet. This area encompasses an amazing landscape that might surprise the rest of the world. More importantly, it tells of human history and Tibetan Buddhist culture. Its features are so mysterious and fascinating that one cannot help but marvel at the vastness of the Universe or the insignificance of human beings. All roads lead to Tibet from different parts of China, and each road enlightens a fascinating blind spot in human knowledge because of Tibet’s unmatched and unforgettable beauty. Of course, the frozen lakes in Tibet are the unique scenery of the plateau region. Sacred to the hearts of the Tibetan people, these lakes are unimaginable to the rest of the world.
How did you refine the Tibet inspiration into music? What was the process?
Tibetan folk music has a unique system which is related to the language. The Tibetan language is polysyllabic, and the musical temperaments of traditional Tibetan instruments are very different from Western ones. There are many different types of drums in the temples, some just for sacrificial purposes, and some for versatile uses in large squares. The metal bells in the temple, and the copper bowls used for striking, can produce a variety of fascinating sounds due to the different striking positions of the wooden hammers or rods. These sounds foster a great deal of thought and generate significant inspiration, not only about music but also about the infinite reveries of life. By recreating this kind of music, my compositions present their unique Tibetan sounds.
Are you currently touring with this music?
Most concerts scheduled for the first half of this year were canceled because of the coronavirus. I do hope this heart-wrenching and frustrating moment will pass away quickly. In April, May, and June of 2020, I was scheduled to host several of China’s biggest modern music festivals, but they too had to be postponed. Some concerts in the U.S. and Europe that related to my pieces have also been cancelled or postponed. I hope there won’t be any problems with the concerts of my new pieces scheduled for the second half of this year.
How do you brand yourself and your music so that you stand out from other contemporary composers? What makes your music unique?
Although the aesthetic foundation of my music is ancient Chinese culture, the concept of Confucian music culture has little influence on me. The greatest significance of ancient Chinese musical aesthetics lies in the communication between human beings and nature, and the interdependence between man and nature. Such cultural concepts endow my music without any fetters, while the Confucian concept contains omnipresent rules and regulations. Essentially my music is extremely free. Surely German classical music has had a great influence on me, and my study experience in the United States has made me feel the infinite possibilities of contemporary music. In fact, most American musical works, including those of the academic school, are still very commercial and do not have the advantages of serious music in Europe. I have a unique voice because I’m a combination of Chinese, European, and contemporary American music rivers. Mine is a special voice of this unique era in China. There wouldn’t be this kind of voice in China if I had been born 10 years earlier or 10 years later.
What composers’ music do you listen to most often? What time period of the past do you like best?
That depends on the occasion. If I’m alone, I listen to Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, and Brahms. If I’m with young people, including students, I will listen to and analyze all the world’s great works of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries with them. My piece, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), is the same as Gustav Mahler’s work in both name and content. The text is made up of Chinese poems from the Tang Dynasty. What I used was the original poetic text, while what Mahler used was the text of the German version of the Chinese poems, and they may have lost their original beauty in translation. I have composed an Enigma Variation (Similar to Elgar’s) with the theme of my father’s work. I even composed a piece called 4’33’’ which contains much noise from the beginning to the end. This composition is the opposite of the John Cage work with all its silence. In these compositions, I’m just showing young people that there has never been a barrier to creativity.
What composers have significantly influenced you?
My favorite composers include Arvo Pärt, George Benjamin, György Kurtág, and Matthias Pintscher. I like Pärt because of his insistence on his own voice even though he knows if it goes on too long, it might annoy the audience. Actually he has a very lonely voice, which is similar to Kurtág’s although the structure of their music is completely different. It takes a great deal of courage for a man to insist on his own opinions. The courage comes from the persistence of faith and contempt for the world. I prefer British composers, from Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton, Edward Elgar, and John Tavener to Maxwell Davis, James MacMillan, Mark-Anthony Turnage, and Steve Martland. I very much like George Benjamin and Gavin Bryars’s cynicism. They are very intelligent composers who can control their voices in a very rational and affordable way, rather than flooding the audience with something that seems creative but is actually ridiculous. I have one exception: I paid hundreds of dollars for a perfect seat to appreciate Thomas Adès’s opera The Tempest at the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center, but when the intermission came, I left without looking back. Unlike the rest of the British, Adès has been enjoying great popularity, but his Tempest keeps shouting at the audience about how talented he is. I bought a score of the opera in the lobby before leaving because I couldn’t bear to waste so much money for the ticket. Anyway, I still couldn’t keep listening to the opera when reading the score at home. I like Pintscher’s music. His music can see through the world—so disgusting, but still it has a sense of compassion—and it acts like building a haunted house and playing hide-and-seek with listeners. He is just up there very high, the way Ligeti acts, and I like this way.
In what part of China did you grow up?
I grew up in Shanghai and I lived there until I was 23 years old. Surrounded by the Yangtze River Delta, the richest region in China, Shanghai is the largest city in China. I have a very complete childhood and adolescent memory of the land around Shanghai.
Did you grow up in a musical atmosphere?
My father was a composer. He was best known for composing film music in Hong Kong in the 1950s. He was also a noted musicologist because he was the first to establish the discipline of Chinese Music Aesthetics.
When did you see your first concert?
When I was about 13 or 14 years old I attended a concert in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music Concert Hall. I saw a famous Chinese pianist playing The Fight on Slipway, a noisy piano concerto in various musical styles. I remember that the score for the piece was worked out by several composers together. They might have been feeling ashamed of this piece and thus I wouldn’t like to mention their names here. The pianist was Zhao Xiaosheng, who wore a short-sleeved white shirt and played the piano concerto on the stage. (Chinese musicians were not allowed to wear black clothing on the stage at that time.) He even made some revolutionary movements on the stage to adapt to the Cultural Revolution atmosphere in China at that time. At home, I listened to Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5, “The Emperor,” performed by the Russian pianist Emil Gilels every day. I had no idea that the Chinese piano concerto was so terrible, and the contrast was too big. Since then, I have realized the gap between Chinese music creation and the world, so I made up my mind to compose music in the future.
What competitions did you enter? How do you feel about competitions?
When I was a sophomore at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, I participated in the first Alexander Tcherepnin Composition Competition, which was organized by the composer’s wife. I won first prize with Poem of China, a piece that is often performed by cellists. Then I also took part in some important competitions, such as the Golden Bell Award that is held in China. The Bell was difficult because there were so many contestants, but I won first prize with Springs in the Forest. That work is now required repertoire for all zheng players in China. In the year 2013, I had to send my score, bio, and composing idea to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation to get its support. Because there were so many competitors, we could regard it as an audition or a competition. And I won.
Are there any musicians or artists from the past whose work has significantly influenced you?
I like Wagner and Picasso very much. As for writers, I prefer Lu Xun from China, Susan Sontag from the United States, and Milan Kundera from the Czech Republic. Wagner is poison to me. It’s really intoxicating. I especially went to Bayreuth to participate in the sacred experience, but the result was not good. The performance of Tristan und Isolde was soporific. His music is full of the desire to conquer the world, and the seating arrangement of the Bayreuth theater shows his madness. But I agree with his unmatched musical power.
I like Picasso because of his lack of constraint and restraint. He seems to pursue the maximum freedom of his personality while making a great deal of money without scruples. His works are full of southern European debaucheries and cunning. He looks totally different from the people in northern Europe. His most creative work is steeped in a desire for money, but he is really talented and I just cannot help but like him.
Lu Xun has no comparable writer in the West because he is the greatest Chinese writer of the last century. His ideological level is higher than Hemingway’s. He has neither Tagore’s benevolence, nor Tolstoy’s hypocritical pity. He is not Nietzsche and not Sartre. He brought to us the greatest turning point of Chinese civilization in thousands of years. My Symphony No. 5 is based on his ideology. Susan Sontag is my favorite writer. Her sharp wit and disdain for the world give her an amazing insight into life and the cursed world. I like Milan Kundera because of his unruly and relaxed manner. In his eyes, the world is not a big deal, no matter how bad it is.
Who were your most important teachers and what did you learn from them that you would like to pass on to the next generation of artists?
My Chinese teacher, Du Mingxin, who studied in the Soviet Union, was very important to me. So were Samuel Adler, Joseph Schwantner, and Louis Andriessen when I came to the United States. I want to pass down their curiosity about the unknown world, their spirit of exploration, and their exploration of the possibility of the future development of music. They augmented all my experiences in composing and teaching. At the same time, my father was the most important mentor in my life. His exploration of the artistic spirit, and his spirit of never giving up on life, have always been the driving force that moves me forward.
Where do you teach?
I’m now Professor of Composition at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. I’m also Distinguished Professor at the Shanghai Conservatory and at the Xinghai Conservatory in Guangzhou. The huge geographical span makes me face completely different young people, with whom I can be a helpful partner and friend.
Why did you choose to record the works that are on December Chrysanthemum?
The main reason was that we did not need to revise these pieces. The score and musical parts for them were already complete. Since the performers were free, we recorded the pieces. I have a lot of works ready to record. When it gets done depends on the recording conditions at a given time, such as whether the best performers, recording engineer, and recording venue are available. Somehow, I feel that my next recording will be a big surprise. I feel that I can surprise the world more and more. My music does not sound revolutionary, but those who love it will truly understand the value of my music. It is a synthesis of the past, the present, and the future, and it is the sign of an inner heart that not only looks back but also stares into the distance.
Can you tell the reader something about each of the compositions played on your recording December Chrysanthemum?
December Chrysanthemum was commissioned by a flute competition and it was dedicated to my daughter, who died when she was only one and a half years old. She was a little angel. These pieces expressed my mood of creation at that time. When a musician faces the world alone, his mood is complex and simple. The soul alone is the last harbor in the cruel world, and listening to its inner voice is a musician’s best choice.
I’m especially interested in Basong Cuo for zheng and five players, as well as San Die for zheng and flute. What do you find most intriguing about the zheng?
The zheng’s appeal to us lies in the performer’s individual skill. Played by an excellent performer, the sound and performance of the instrument are endlessly charming. When the zheng is played on the stage, an excellent performer will make full use of his or her intelligence to add to the music’s vitality. The most interesting thing is that some of the parts that sound extremely difficult to play are not difficult at all, while at other times just dealing with a few simple notes requires performers to use their entire artistic accumulation. In other words, it’s tough.
What do the words Basong Cuo, San Die, and Namcuo mean?
Cuo means lake in Tibetan. Basong Cuo and Namucuo are two lakes among the beautiful holy lakes in Tibet. They are all located at extremely high elevations. The Namucuo is at an elevation of well over 14,000 feet. Surrounded by snowcapped mountains, in this sparsely populated area, the lake is clear and clean. There are holy places for Tibetan people to pray at the lakes. Basong Cuo, located in the beautiful Lingzhi area famous for the solemnity of the temples on the lake, is a haven for many worshippers. As for San Die, in this context Die means variations. San Die means many variations in its ancient conception. San Die was already used in the traditional expression written by Chinese characters for reference when the composer gave it the current name. It means many variations, but it also retains the “absolute music” inferred by using an ancient name.
What important performances do you have coming up this season and next?
Several of my new pieces will be performed in the next musical season. The Beijing Symphony Orchestra will premiere my Symphony No. 6, “The Creation,” in the capital. The New Juilliard Ensemble will perform Strophe in Lincoln Center and three music festivals in China will present Jimolaojiu Rice Wine, The Backyard of the Village, and Memories of Mount Jinggang. In addition, several of my pieces will be presented in Manchester, England, and Havana, Cuba.
What other recordings do you have out?
Naxos, BIS, Wergo, and EMI have all published my CDs, and some Chinese labels have also released my recordings. BIS will soon release my second CD, which includes: Winter, The Song of Sorrow and Gratification, The Brilliance of Western Liang, Starry Sky, and the orchestral version of December Chrysanthemum. As for the second CD on the Naxos label, the recording has been finished and we are talking about its release.
What recordings are you planning for the future?
Two of my most important symphonies will be recorded this year: the Symphony No. 5, “Lu Xun,” and The Song of the Earth for soprano, baritone, and orchestra. They will be recorded respectively by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. The Song of the Earth will be released by Deutsche Grammophon.
What do you see yourself doing five years from now?
Finishing my opera The Peony Pavilion is at the top of my agenda. There is a symphony concerned with Confucius, too. Also, I need to finish commissioned pieces, including two piano concertos and two symphonic suites.
How much modern technology do you use in your work?
I use a lot of modern techniques in my work; sometimes they are visible, sometimes hidden. The techniques depend on clients’ requirements. For me, it doesn’t matter what technique is used. The important thing is to make the music appropriate and insure that the players will like my pieces.
How do you feel about downloads replacing compact discs? Your fans may want to get your autograph on a CD.
I’m still very traditional myself, and I prefer to play a CD instead of downloading music. I’ve even started collecting LPs. I have bought LPs of many new releases.
Do you ever have time for a private life? Tell us about your passions. Besides music, what interests you the most?
For a long time, I wanted to be a writer, and this year I’m going to release my first Collection of Random Thoughts on music, recording, plants, geography, and cultural traditions. My autobiography might not be finished until next year because music commissions have pressed down on me like a mountain. I have been conceiving my first novel, which is called The Drug Dealer’s Son. Every year I spend a lot of time traveling, and travel gives me a lot of inspiration. The titles of many of my pieces reflect my journeys. Every day I spend a great deal of time reading all kinds of books and magazines. Sometimes I also watch artistically important international films. Actually, I have composed the music for more than 30 films and TV series. That is why I have won three national awards for Best Score as well as an Outstanding Contributions Award for Chinese Film Music.
Has the coronavirus made any changes in your plans?
The coronavirus has given me more time at home to compose, think, read, listen to music, and sort out my scores. Thus, I can have some of my scores published this year, and for this I should be grateful that I have been able to concentrate on proofreading my scores for so long.