Fri, Nov 21, 2003 - Page 17 News List

Looking back on China's classical music

The best-known forms of Chinese music today are relatively late arrivals on the scene, and the sounds that bear comparison to Western symphonic music are only now being painstakingly recreated by scholar's and performers

By Ian Bartholomew  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Cosmic order and corporeal beauty are on display in Whirl Around.

PHOTO COURTESY OF NEO-CLASSIC DANCE THEATER

The continuity of Chinese culture is something that is often remarked upon. But its musical history seems remarkably truncated, with the most popular form of traditional music -- Beijing Opera -- having a history of less than two centuries. Liu Feng-Shueh (劉鳳學), the artistic director of the Neo-Classic Dance Company (新古典舞團), is trying to put things right, by recreating the music and dance of China's Tang dynasty (618 to 907). The results of her research, over the past 30 years, will be put on display at the National Concert Hall tonight through to Sunday.

This is not the first time that Liu's research has been realized in performance. Far from it. Parts of the musical program were first seen on the stage at Chungshan Hall back in the mid-1960s. Since then they have been periodically performed by the Neo-Classic Dance Company as a work in progress in Taiwan and at venues overseas. The current show -- Tang Grand Piece: Whirl Around (唐大曲) -- is a mixture of dances that have been performed previously and others that have only more recently reached a stage in which presentation through performance has been possible.

The difficulty of the task that Liu has given herself is hard to overstate, for the resources available are scarce, vague and difficult to interpret. The results are a collection of majestic formal dances that reveal a rich musical tradition on a par with Western orchestral music; one that for a variety of historical reasons has become lost in the mists of time and is only now being gradually revived in the work of scholars through a study of historical records, archeological finds and a small number of scores that have survived.

FactBox

Who: Tang Music and Dance, The Neo-Classic Dance Company

What: Tang Grand Piece -- Whirl Around

When: 7:30pm today and tomorrow; 2:30pm Sunday

Where:National Concert Hall

Tickets:NT$300 to NT$1,500 from the CKS Cultural Center


Lost heritage

Trained as a contemporary dancer, Liu started to take an interest in historical dance in the 1950s, when she embarked on a search for creative inspiration within the Chinese tradition. "I felt there was something missing in my education," she said, "And I set out to rediscover it."

As a child in China's northeastern province of Heilongjiang in the 1930s, Liu's education was heavily influenced by the Japanese occupation of that region in the lead up to World War II. She came to Taiwan in 1949. Liu said she felt a powerful need to "complete my education and make a contribution to my heritage."

Instead of turning to musical traditions such as Beijing opera, which was of relatively recent origin, or to venerable regional musical traditions such as nankuan, she sought something more fundamental and found it in the historical records of the Tang dynasty, which talk of music at great length. The only problem was that nobody was quite sure what this music sounded like beyond the rather elegiac descriptions provided by contemporary writers.

The Tang dynasty was one of the most vibrant in China's musical history. According to Liu, the foundations of this grand musical tradition were laid during the Northern Wei (386 to 534), a period of centuries-long conflict, much of it in the northwestern regions of modern China.

"Music from places as far away as modern Iran and from the northern steppe and Central Asia entered China and was gradually absorbed into the local culture. At this time the music of the court was still largely based on Confucian rituals, and this `barbarian' music was largely snubbed by the elite of that time," Liu said. "But by the Tang dynasty, this music had filtered upward and became the banquet music of the imperial court."

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