Sun, Jul 15, 2018 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: ‘European voice, Asian mind’

Known for his integration of Western and Eastern musical traditions, Ma Shui-long became the first Taiwanese composer to play at New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Ma Shui-long poses with the poster for his 1987 concert in front of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York.

Photo courtesy of Taiwan Music Institute

July 16 to July 22

The news was mostly overshadowed by the 22nd Golden Bell Awards, but on March 21, 1987 Ma Shui-long (馬水龍) became the first Taiwanese composer to have his work performed at New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Some sources — including his biography, Musical Maverick: Ma Shui-long (音樂獨行俠馬水龍) — maintain that he was the first composer from the Far East to have a solo show at the prestigious performance hall. However, the honor only received a brief mention in the Central Daily News (中央日報) entertainment section under the title, “Composer Ma Shui-long debuts new material today in the US.”

Born on July 17, 1939, Ma was just 47 years old.


Despite the newspaper headline, it appears that just one of the six songs in the program was new — an adaptation of a Yuan Dynasty play, The Injustice of Dou E (竇娥冤), which featured only vocals, suona horn (嗩吶) and a variety of percussion instruments. The study, When Tradition Becomes Modern (當傳統成為現代), notes that while the song is deeply rooted in Eastern traditions, Ma took many liberties to modernize it.

“The chorus provides a rich layering that’s often missing in traditional Chinese music. The composer’s decision not to use lyrics may have been for the convenience of the performers and for those in the audience who didn’t understand Chinese. But not only has it erased language barriers, it also removes the barrier between voice and instrumentation,” the study states. “Perhaps the combination of suona and chorus can serve as an example of the fusion of East and West.”

Ma’s unique approach earned him praise from notable New York Times music critic Bernard Holland two days later.

Holland writes that Ma “balanced the largely conventional use of Western instruments with the pure intervallic skips and pentatonic melody from his own culture — and it did so without descending into the usual cloying chinoiseries.”

“How does he do it? Partly by letting his instruments speak in a European voice but with an Asian mind.”

In addition to Chinese classics, Ma also rearranged Taiwanese folk songs such as the classics Yearning for Spring (望春風) and Mending the Net (補破網). He also composed his own Taiwan-inspired material such as Thoughts of Kuandu (關渡隨想) as well as the score for Cloud Gate Dance Theatre’s 1979 production Liao Tien-ting (廖添丁), a performance about the legendary anti-Japanese “Robin Hood” of Taiwan. He expanded the latter into an orchestral suite in 1988.

As a music professor, Ma strongly believed that cultural preservation and protecting traditions was an “inescapable responsibility,” according to a brief biography by the National Central Library. He would frequently warn his students that while learning Western instruments, theory and techniques, they should not forget their origins, insisting that each student learn at least one traditional instrument.

“He was not anti-Western, but he did not want to see music, or even culture in general completely lean toward the West. He also was a proponent of ‘world music,’ which he thought could loosen Western music’s dominance,” the report stated.


Ma grew up in the coastal towns of Keelung and Jiufen, and in the 2008 essay, My Musical Journey of Composition (我的創作心路歷程), he notes that his biggest influences remain the classical beiguan, nanguan and Taiwanese Opera he was exposed to in his youth.

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