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About the Author
Ken Smith currently divides his time between New York (where he writes for Gramophone magazine) and Hong Kong (where he serves as the Asian–performing arts critic for the Financial Times). He is Co–Music Director of the recordings Dong Folk Songs and Miao Music for China's MediaFusion Group, and he won an ASCAP–Deems Taylor Award in 2008 for his liner notes to Gil Shaham's recording of The Butterfly Lovers Concerto for Violin. Ken is also the author of Fate! Luck! Chance!, published in 2008 by Chronicle Books.

Ancient Paths, Modern Voices Blog

"Guanxi" is not a province

The first word anyone working in China should learn is guanxi, which refers to a system of connections and obligations that weaves inextricably throughout Chinese culture. For a lesson in guanxi and its practical application in music programming, consider Joel Sachs, whose New Juilliard Ensemble program on Monday, November 9, at Alice Tully Hall—part of Ancient Paths, Modern Voices—offers a concise overview of contemporary music by composers currently working in China.

"I'd known Chou Wen-chung for a long time, so I knew the usual suspects," says Sachs, referring to a Columbia University professor who recruited a number of composers—including Tan Dun, Chen Yi, and Zhou Long—from China's Central Conservatory. Sachs's introduction to composers still living in China came in 1996 through a phone call from the Asian Cultural Council. "They asked if I'd like to meet a Chinese composer they'd brought to New York," he recalls. As a result, Jia Daqun's Intonation was included on the NJE's opening program.

Two years later, Sachs got another phone call from the ACC, this time recommending the composer Guo Wenjing. "We gave the US premiere of Guo's Inscription on Bone, which has some very distinctive vocal requirements," he says. "Guo strongly recommended a certain young singer who'd just moved to New York from London. Her name was Liu Sola." Guo's Concertino and Liu's In Corporeal 1 appeared soon afterward on NJE programs.

Sachs's guanxi continued to pay dividends when Jia, whose daughter was attending school in the US, was looking for a way to return. Through the renewed graces of the ACC and the NJE, Jia returned to complete his Three Images from Ink and Wash Painting.

The relationship with Ye Xiaogang, another Class of 1978 composer, was more complicated, Sachs says. Ye had invited Sachs's professional ensemble Continuum to appear at the Central Conservatory's new-music festival in spring 2009, and even offered to write a new piece. But Continuum's trip to China was cancelled because of a flu outbreak, and Ye's commission was delayed due to his administrative duties both at the conservatory, where he is now vice-president, and the National Party Congress, of which he is a member.

As a result, Sachs—and US audiences—will now get their introduction to Li Shaosheng, a junior at the Central Conservatory (and a student of Ye's) whose Skyline on the Moon was commissioned by Juilliard for Carnegie Hall's China festival.

Posted by Ken Smith

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