Invisible drums and hidden cultures this Lunar New Year

by | Feb 16, 2020 | Creative Arts Industry, Creative Development | 0 comments

“there is so much opportunity to listen to, search for, perform and program music that digs deeper into the cultural richness of those around us. If we can do a better job at demanding and promoting such works we can only increase our cultural literacy and understanding of one another.”
How should listeners, performers and programmers engage with the cultural context of music we experience and promote?

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 contacted my good friend and wonderful musician Dr. Nicholas Ng, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Chinese Arts and Culture at Western Sydney University. Whilst he is not an expert on Yao culture, he told me that “everyone who learns the pipa or guzheng (commonly played Chinese instruments) will play Dance of the Yao People, a bit like AMEB Grade 4 (an exam that young musicians in Australia would take)”. This piece is literally played by millions of people, and has been adapted into the symphonic form that I heard on the radio (which is also performed regularly). Yet it is difficult to hear or see the actual long-drum dance that inspired the work.

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?

In Australia, we understand Chinese culture through performances of works such as Dance of the Yao People. I often wonder if exoticised perceptions of ‘simple’ foreign cultures are influenced by the standardisation (and watering-down) that can occur when art is exported from one country to another. When I visited Shandong province several years ago I was blown away by the intricacies of their plucked string orchestral repertoire. No anglicised references to recordings or music exist to these works – they haven’t even made it through the language barrier of transliteration. But what about works that are more successful at emigrating out of China? Are they more likely to be standardised and simplified interpretations of a richer cultural tradition?

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?

It is wonderful that Australian orchestras perform works such as Dance of the Yao People, even if it is a watered-down copy of a richer artform. Artworks often result from cultural interaction, and performing these works can enrich us all. However, there is so much opportunity to find out more: to listen to, search for, perform and program music that digs deeper into the cultural richness of those around us. If we can do a better job at demanding and promoting such works we can only increase our cultural literacy and understanding of one another.

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!