5 Chinese composers you should know

A look at those who have ushered in China's musical modern age

In the late 19th century, five Russian composers known for their nationalistic flavour and unorthodox training formed what became known as the 'Russian Five' or 'the Mighty Handful.' Around a century later, China’s own compositional 'big five' emerged, and, like their predecessors, changed classical music forever. Coming of age during the Cultural Revolution era meant being awash in revolutionary songs, and having – at best – only a dim memory of now-forbidden Western music. But in 1977, universities, academies, and conservatories opened again to the general public. Around 18,000 would-be students applied for the 100 spaces in Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music, 30 of whom entered the composition department. Having little formal musical training, they brought with them their memories of folk music, ghost rituals and sounds of the countryside. From there, China’s own Mighty Handful emerged.

To be sure, these are not the only notable composers China has produced; talent reaches far and wide, from the lyrical and celebrated Gao Ping to the prodigy Peng Peng Gong, who achieved world-wide renown before age 25. Then there’s 78-year old Wang Xilin, known as China’s Shostakovich, whose traumatic life has informed his passionate, agonised music. But for whatever reason – timing or talent – these five ushered in the country’s modern age of music.

Tan Dun

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The group’s most famous member, Tan Dun is known for setting accessible Chinese culture to his own unique music. Best known for his Academy Award-winning film score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), or for his opera The First Emperor (2006), which debuted at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House and starred Placido Domingo, Tan made his name with his Organic Concerto trilogy, pieces that used natural materials to reflect the sounds and senses of his rural childhood.

Born in a Hunan village near Changsha in 1957, Tan grew up surrounded by shamanistic rituals that used rocks, clay, paper and water, and even dreamed of becoming a practitioner himself. '[Our shaman] had no electronics, no modern media, but he [was] incredibly engrossing,' he recalls. 'He wanted to enslave you spiritually. That organic sound would become so seductive to me, and I wanted to have that power.'

Although he later opted for world-famous composer and conductor status over that of the village shaman, Tan never forgot his organic roots. His Earth Concerto (2009) featured ceramic instruments made of clay dug from China’s six signature ceramic areas. His Water Concerto (1998) centred around basins filled to different levels, which musicians manipulated with bowls, bottles and hands slapping, swirling, and washing to create sounds. His Paper Concerto (2003) had percussionists hitting, shaking, rattling, and striking paper sheets of varying thickness. 'Paper carries the sound of the wind, and represents the passion of the fire, he says. His 2002 opera Tea: A Mirror of the Soul also featured organic instruments, as well as characters reflecting the many personalities of tea. 'My musical ideas should have a philosophical base, but if they aren’t part of my life, I don’t think I could master the sounds,' he says. 'To me, life is music, and music is my life.'

Zhou Long

Zhou Long felt fortunate to be one of the 100 new conservatory students, but also recalls their limited resources. 'The library was not fully opened and our housing wasn’t ready; we were living in a tent,' says Zhou. 'We didn't have the best information, scores, or music, but whatever we had, we treasured it.'

Zhou also says that many of that class had never even touched a piano (compared with today’s composition students, 80 percent of whom have perfect pitch). However, Zhou had preliminary education from his vocalist mother who gave lessons at their home, and who pushed him to play piano until she gave up. 'I loved vocal pieces, but I hated piano,' he recalls. 'I loved music, but I hated practicing.' Fortunately his mother had always said that 'the best musician is the composer,' and that message stuck.

Today, Zhou is best known for the Beijing Music Festival’s first collaborative project with an American company (Boston Opera), Madame White Snake (2010), which is based on the Chinese legend, and took the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for music. He also created Nine Songs (Jiu Ge, 2013), drawn from the Chu dynasty epic poem of the same name, and in 2002 worked with Yo Yo Ma on the Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s Silk Road Project Festival, Music Alive! But he offers advice to young Chinese composers. 'Chinese culture and traditional music is very important; that will give you a unique language, a unique voice,' he says. 'I’ve been living in the US for 30 years, but when groups or orchestras come to me, they ask for my tradition, my voice,' he continues. 'As a composer, that’s very important.'

Chen Yi

While Zhou Long realises that all the 1977 conservatory students were lucky, he was twice blessed, gaining not only an education but an equally talented wife. The only female member of the Mighty Handful, Chen Yi was born 1953 in Guangzhou to a family of doctors who loved music. She continued playing her beloved violin throughout the Cultural Revolution (using the mute, just in case); as a teenager, she headed off to do rural labour – along with the rest of her generation – and brought her instrument with her. At 17, she returned home and was appointed concertmaster and composer of Guangzhou’s Beijing Opera Troupe; later, she continued her violin studies with the late Professor Lin Yaoji, known as the Isaac Stern of China because of how many young musicians he mentored to greatness. In fact, Chen composed Xian Shi (1983), China’s first viola concerto. A programme of her works Ge Xu (1994), Set of Chinese Folk Songs and Tang Poems (1994), and Symphony No. 2 (1993) led to three sold-out gala concerts in San Francisco.

Chen’s list of accolades is formidable, not least of which is being China’s first woman to receive the Masters in Arts in composition. And it would be hard to find a foundation or organisation that hadn’t granted Chen an endowment or award. But her toughest audience is at home. ‘After we finish the work, we criticise each other – it’s not really polite, but it’s honest,’ Zhou says. ‘And two creative artists living together can be difficult, especially if you’re working on a large-scale piece, like opera, and you really need your own space. But [in the end],’ he continues, ‘she has to listen to me, and I have to listen to her.’

Guo Wenjing

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Honoured as one of China’s Top 100 Living Artists, Guo Wenjing has the distinction of being the country’s only famous composer to stay in China. This puts to bed the old trope that Chinese musicians learn technique at home and understanding abroad; if your work draws on traditional Chinese instruments or themes, home might be the place to be. ‘In the mid-to-late ‘80s, there was a frenzy of people who wanted to go abroad, but I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to make a living,’ he says. ‘I would have to [devote] time to daily chores instead of composing.’ But he insists that had he needed the foreign perspective, he would have taken the chance. ‘I’m not afraid to [wait tables] in a foreign country, but I’m not convinced it was necessary.’

One glance at Guo’s career shows his was an equally valid choice. Born in 1956 in Chongqing, the composer has plumbed deep into Chinese history and literature to create world-celebrated chamber operas such as WolfClubVillage (1997), based on Lu Xun’s Diary of a Madman, and Night Banquet (1997-98), inspired by a painting about Song dynasty court official Han Xizai, who found that his only way to protest the corrupt government was to hold regular bacchanalian orgies. Guo has also done countless film and television scores, as well as chamber music and works for piano and percussion ensembles, but his most famous piece may well be his acclaimed one-act opera Poet Li Bai (2007), featuring a soprano (Moon) a tenor (Wine) and a baritone (Li Bai), about a hapless poet torn between earthly desire and eternal bliss.

To Guo, being a Chinese contemporary composer means enjoying relative artistic freedom and being a big fish in a niche market. But to him, selling contemporary music is challenging everywhere. 'I don’t have media savvy,' he says, hastily clarifying that while his life is better than most, he works better in stillness than in the spotlight. But he feels public figures such as Tan Dun are crucial to the art form. 'It’s very good for contemporary music,' he says. 'If no one cares about classical music, the genre is going to die.'

Ye Xiaogang

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Arguably China’s most self-confident composer, Ye Xiaogang feels he has a natural talent for writing music. 'I was born for it,' he says. 'Even when I played Beethoven or Mozart, I was thinking ‘If I had written this piece, I would have done it this way’.' He even compares his speed to Mozart, although he admits he makes changes. 'I’m quick, but the quality is still good,' he says. He also claims a unique ability in the Chinese language, possibly owing to his copious reading of panoramic subject matter; he is even writing an autobiography called Boundless Sea of Bitterness.

A glance at Ye’s life story shows this title to be apt. During the Cultural Revolution, his persecuted father tried to commit suicide; labelled a traitor, he was carted off in front of gleeful neighbours while a ten-year-old Ye watched in despair. 'All my early work is dark and emotional,' he says. 'Some of it still is. You don’t ever get away from that.’ As an adult, his wife gave birth to a Downs Syndrome child, then asked for a divorce, leaving Ye to raise his daughter alone. Fortunately, financial success is not something he has to worry about. He has composed numerous film scores, which have their own challenges, given that ‘you’re not writing for yourself; you’re speaking for the characters.’ But he is equally known as a classical and opera composer. In 2009, he reworked Mahler’s classic Das Lied Von Der Erde, using the same Chinese poem Mahler did but setting it to his own music. In 2010, Ye wrote Farewell My Concubine for the Beijing Music Festival, one of the few (only?) representations of male homosexual love on the Chinese stage. ‘It’s not direct, it’s implied,’ he said. ‘We’ve had some novels [on the subject], but not on stage; everyone’s been dying for that.’ Ye had initially accepted the project because ‘people trust me; they know I can do a historical opera’, but also because he felt a Chinese storyline worked better with Chinese music. ‘The revolutionary operas, the melodies were so good, but the subject can never be played outside of China,’ he says. ‘The Western form, it’s hard to fix the melody because of the four tones.’ Whatever his formula, something works.
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