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


Sadly, with the demise of the Tang dynasty, China began to turn inward and while some of what had been acquired during this musical efflorescence was passed down to enrich a tradition of Chinese ensemble music, the grandeur of courtly orchestral music gradually disappeared.

Somewhat ironically, it was Liu's Japanese education in Northern China that gave her access to some of the most advanced scholarship in the field of Tang music -- the imperial court of Japan, where extensive records had been created by order of the Meiji emperor.

"In 1966 I went to Japan to study for seven months, working every day transcribing scores and speaking with court musicians. Over 1,000 years ago, the Japanese had sent ambassadors to study Chinese music. Now I was bringing the tradition back to its source," Liu said.

Banquet for the senses

The highlight of the current performance is Whirl Around, the last of four major pieces of Tang music that are currently preserved in their entirety. The other three, The Emperor Destroys the Formations, The Singing of Spring Orioles and Liquidamber have all been performed before, though the latter two will also be presented with new material that hasn't been performed before.

The show will also include an incidental piece Sogdians Drinking Wine, which is also being seen for the first time.

In earlier works, Liu relied heavily on materials from Japan and the work of musicologist L.E.R. Picken of Cambridge University for the musical elements of her productions, focusing more on recreating the choreography.

"For Whirl Around I started to become deeply involved in recreating the score as well," Liu said, based on a study of Tang musical notation that she began seven years ago. Musical notation in the Tang dynasty was very different from that used by traditional Chinese musicians today.

This painstaking process involves a good deal of interpretation and Liu admits that an aesthetic perspective was critical to recreating these works, especially with the lack of detailed academic knowledge on the subject. "My personal vision is also very important," Liu said.

Confucian music held sway over the ceremonial aspects of life, but it was to the music of Central Asia and the steppe that the courtiers of the Tang looked to for entertainment. All the same, with the four major pieces, we are a long way from energetic gavottes or roundels that might have enlivened a medieval European court. Majestic is probably the best word to describe these dances, and one can feel the intense desire for ordered beauty that they express. They are an entry into a world of thought very different from our own and can be appreciated from an aesthetic as well as a historical perspective.

Liu describes Tang dance as displaying "the elements of the universe that Isaac Newton studied ... space, time and gravity."

For the record

Putting China's rich musical heritage on display is not the least of Liu's ambitions. There is little in Chinese traditional music as it is currently performed that can seriously challenge the global dominance of the Western classical tradition, which has comprehensively taken hold in Asia. But, as Liu is more than happy to point out, the Tang had a level of musical sophistication that has not been fully appreciated.

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