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

Fri, Nov 21, 2003 - Page 17

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.

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."

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.

"In Western classical music, atonal composition was unheard of before Arnold Schoenburg. But it was part of the Tang musical repertoire more than 1,000 years ago," Liu said. Through the use of the 13-reeded sheng panpipe, a uniquely Chinese instrument, the non-harmonic tonalities are transformed to harmonic effect. It is for such technical accomplishments that Liu believes Tang music should be recognized.

Having spent so many years working to reconstruct long-lost music and dance from incomplete records, Liu has decided to try and make a complete record of one of her own works -- Vast Desert, Solitary Smoke Rises Straight, which premiered in 2000.

"This is probably the first such record containing every aspect of a dance performance, including all the music and choreography," she said. The book, which runs to over 1,000 pages for the-80 minute performance, is set for release in mid-December.

Liu said that with Whirl Around, she will be putting aside her work reconstructing Tang music for a few years and return to working in a more contemporary style. The experience of working on recreating Tang music served its purpose of providing a "Chinese spirit" for Liu's own creative work.

This 30-year journey of discovery, whatever else it may have achieved, has added diversity and richness to the language of Chinese dance and for this reason alone is a worthwhile experience. Tang Grand Piece is more than a dance, it is a doorway into an all but forgotten historical world.