Chinese music dates back thousands of years and sounds different from Western music thanks to important differences in tone, musical scale, pitch, instrumentation and individual instruments. With instruments crafted from a wide variety of materials, including, bamboo, silk, gourd, clay and stone—-and played in a diverse range of styles, from single voices to richly melodic orchestral pieces--Chinese music is as varied as the people who create it.
ARTSEDGE, the online arts education project of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, has created this series with classrooms in mind. Each story explores a different aspect of Chinese music—the endangered music of the Yunnan peoples; the traditional sounds of the pipa, bamboo flute, qin and other Chinese instruments; and the creative space between them, where sounds ancient and avant-garde intersect.
Endangered Music: Yunnan Culture
Living in a remote, mountainous region of China’s “Land of Clouds” has buffered the Yunnan people from the outside influences of non-native cultures for centuries. With a wide range of voice techniques and instruments as unusual and diverse as the tree leaf, the moon guitar and the spirit drum, the musicians of the minority ethnic groups of the Yunnan province now perform their traditional songs and dances before world audiences, sharing their native arts and way of life.
In this first of a series on Chinese music designed for use in the K-12 classroom, Professor Lan Lan Wang discusses the art and culture of the Yunnan people and the pressures of globalization that threaten their ancient cultural expressions.
Traditional Music: Chinese Orchestras
Despite China’s long musical history, Chinese orchestras are relatively new. The push for developing a distinctly Chinese performing arts repertoire came with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In the years after, Chinese orchestras mirroring the operational style of Western orchestras, such as having a baton-waving conductor and divisions of instrument families, began to form.
Chinese orchestras initially focused on indigenous folk music, but in the last twenty years, they have developed and performed new works, and their four sections-- bowed-strings, plucked-strings, wind and percussion—have been augmented with new instruments with lower pitch ranges to balance the high pitches of the more traditional instruments. Join scholar Joanna Lee as she guides classroom audiences through the sounds and structures of the traditional Chinese orchestra.
Creative Crossroads: Tan Dun
Composer and self-described “musical anthropologist” Tan Dun (perhaps best familiar for his Oscar-winning score to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) creates works that bridge time, place and culture through the fusion of ancient and avant-garde sounds
Celebrating the vocal, instrumental, and environmental sounds of the remote Chinese countryside, Tan explores the minority cultures of Hunan Province, where he was born, and brings it into play with modern instruments and orchestrations.
Expanding on the video and audio field recordings gathered for his multimedia concerto The Map, a Concerto for Cello, Video, and Orchestra, Tan and scholar Joanna Lee discuss the vanishing musical cultures of ethnic minorities in western Hunan and reflect on the creative challenges of preserving cultural legacies while creating new music fusing traditional, indigenous and contemporary sounds.