Carnegie Hall’s Director of Artistic Planning, Jeremy Geffen, spoke at a recent Professional Development session about The Academy’s role in the upcoming Ancient Paths, Modern Voices festival. The five works featured on Ensemble ACJW’s concerts on October 25 and October 26, were each written by composers who entered the Central Conservatory in Beijing in 1978 when its doors reopened after the Cultural Revolution had sealed them since 1966 (with the exception of Bright Sheng, who entered the Conservatory in Shanghai the same year).
Part of Geffen’s presentation included a short video with Tan Dun speaking about the sudden, drastic change in the lives of the ’78 class when they were admitted to the conservatory after a period of “re-education” in the countryside. “After the Cultural Revolution, we came in from real life,” recounts Tan Dun. “We were standing on the ruins, thinking, How could we create our musical kingdom again? … Then, of course, China opened.” Western musical ideals, along with the ever-evolving concept of modernism, flooded into Chinese musical thought. This newfound wealth of sonic and cultural influences, coupled with the experience of having been exiled to the countryside and exposed to varying dialects and folk songs, gave the composers of the class of ’78 two diametrically opposed aesthetics to draw from. And although they shared a similar history, their futures beyond the conservatory—and the music they wrote—are all very distinct.
Composers Tan Dun and Chen Qigang discuss their membership in the Class of 1978.
Preparing for this concert has presented Ensemble ACJW with a unique and exciting challenge. For the better part of our season thus far, discussions in rehearsals have largely been focused on the contrasts of first and second themes, the texture of accompanying voices, and the structure of Western-based musical forms. Given the specific historical and cultural basis of this repertoire, however, the language we’ve used previously doesn’t help here; we are also being forced to examine this music with a different set of ears. The structures of many of these pieces are articulated through evolving textures. Melodic material is generally very fragmented and motivic, if not altogether absent, and it rarely takes the driver’s seat in establishing musical cohesion. Instead of choosing bow techniques or breath schemes to best shape a phrase, we often search for the best possible way to imitate folk instruments on our modern concert instruments.
These are, of course, generalities. The composer featured on ACJW’s concert have their own distinct musical languages that contribute to China’s high profile in today’s contemporary music scene. As rehearsals continue throughout the week, check back here for thoughts, observations, and anecdotes from the performers.
Posted by Gregory DeTurck, an award-winning pianist and current Fellow of The Academy—a Program of Carnegie Hall, The Juilliard School, and The Weill Music Institute, in partnership with the New York City Department of Education.