Invisible drums and hidden cultures this Lunar New Year
Orchestras across Australia recently celebrated the Lunar New Year with symphonic images of China. A radio broadcast of Dance of the Yao People by Liu Tieshen and Mao Yuan included an introduction “… this work was inspired by the one-metre long drums and colourful costumes that the composers heard and saw in the 1950s”. It made me want to hear those one-metre drums, and discover what the costumes looked like.
Unfortunately I was unable to find out much more about these elements: the piece was hardly percussive, and it was near-impossible to find recordings or information from other sources. I was perplexed: What obligations do we have to ensure that we engage with the artforms and music that came before (and presumably continue to evolve)? How do we experience the sounds of the long drum and fabric of the costumes that Dance of the Yao People celebrates?
How can we hear music that isn’t there?
I genuinely adore copies of copies of copies – creativity often arises from a cultural melting pot where imitation and variation are crucial utensils. The symphonic repertoire’s Copland’s Rodeo and Dvorak’s New World Symphony exist because of the American folk music that inspired such works. It could be argued that all art is created through cultural interactions, and we rightly celebrate these works. But do we place appropriate focus and artistic value on cultural works that inspire such standard pieces?
The ethics and consequences of cultural appropriation within such works adds another critical dimension. In this instance, the circumstances of the Yao/Mien being an ethnic minority and the history of Western composition in China are important to consider. Do these works imply that one type of music has an authority over another? These are complicated issues that perhaps will be unpacked here another time – in the meantime I can suggest some other resources that explore such topics.
What happens when music migrates?
It would make sense if this was the case: artists will make decisions about what to perform to an audience who isn’t familiar with their artistic language. In addition, orchestras made of Australian musicians are unlikely to adequately interpret the unwritten expressions implicit in Chinese music. I discovered this first hand when my group The Griffyn Ensemble worked with one of the world’s premier pipa players, Zhang Hong Yan. We spent over an hour workshopping a sequence of eight notes that had to sound exactly like a waterfall, with an implicit detailed understanding of changes in speed and dynamics over this short passage. For an ensemble the size of an orchestra these luxuries of time and mentoring don’t exist.
(It has also been my observation that Western orchestras performing in China exhibit similar processes, where works or arrangements that are often described as ‘simpler’ are more frequently performed).
What can we all do to celebrate cultural diversity?
For my part, I will continue investigating these long-drum dances. Dr Nicholas Ng left a couple of clues: “I think there is a drum culture among many of the Southern ethnic tribes where there is a rich tradition of instrument making and connects to spirituality”.
If you know more, I would love to find out!