Published: 10:45, May 27, 2024
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The sound of global connections
By Minlu Zhang

New York's Bard College Conservatory of Music brings ancient culture and modern innovations to new audiences around the world, Minlu Zhang reports in New York.

Jindong Cai and The Orchestra Now, at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Four days after Yixing Wang moved to the United States with her parents, she found herself sitting in an empty apartment in Texas. The room had no furniture, just her guzheng, a zither-like traditional Chinese stringed instrument, keeping her company. She was about 13 at the time.

Moving to the US from China at that age meant she had spent enough time in China to master the language and culture. However, she also arrived when she was young enough to quickly adapt to American culture. But for a while, she struggled with her cultural identity.

The guzheng was like a lifeline, helping her navigate between the two cultures. "Through playing music, I was able to find personal fulfillment and foster a deeper connection with both my heritage and the wider world. I feel very proud of being Chinese American because I can appreciate other people's cultures and environments a lot more. I've learned to be flexible and understanding of everything around me," Wang tells China Daily.

Wang is an undergraduate student of the guzheng and math at the Bard College Conservatory of Music in New York. Around Wang in the Hudson Valley, a group of musicians is engaging in such music and culture exchanges every day. The conservatory established the US-China Music Institute in 2017 and is one of the few offering a comprehensive combination of Chinese instruments and liberal arts degree programs in the US.

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"Globally, music is the most effective way to connect people. When you look at various cultures or regions, you often see conflicts. However, when you consider music, it has a way of connecting everyone," Jindong Cai, professor of music and arts and the director of the US-China Music Institute at the Bard College Conservatory of Music, tells China Daily.

"For instance, music from other countries often has significant historical connections or political connotations but essentially, they are intertwined. Music naturally brings people together without the burden of political content. Good music moves people and this emotional response fosters a positive interest in that culture, the composer and their background," he says.

Cai is one of the founders of the US-China Music Institute. Reflecting on the initial motivation for creating the institute and its programs, Cai recalls the impact of US-China musical exchanges during his musical career.

Beitong Liu plays the erhu at The Sound of Spring Chinese New Year Concert at Lincoln Center, New York, in 2023. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

In 1973, the Philadelphia Orchestra visited China, marking the first time an American orchestra performed in the country since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

"I was influenced by that event and decided to become a conductor to bridge together cultures," says Cai, who received his early musical training in China. He began his professional conducting career with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and has collaborated with numerous orchestras across North America and Asia. In 2004, he joined the Stanford University faculty as the director of orchestral studies, where he conducted the Stanford Symphony Orchestra for 11 years.

When Cai began learning music, his influences were figures such as Herbert von Karajan, Seiji Ozawa and Leonard Bernstein — Cai even studied under Bernstein. "Their inspiration for me was unimaginable," says Cai.

"Now, I've become a teacher at their age. If I can pass on what I've learned to the next generation and bring the two countries closer together through music, I believe it will be incredibly meaningful," says Cai, calling himself a member of a generation of Chinese musicians who benefited from good US-China relationships.

"Due to China's openness, more Western music has come to China. I think one of the most meaningful things we can do is introduce the elements of Chinese music to composers around the world. I hope this continues, with more non-Chinese people learning Chinese music and about the instruments," Cai says.

Kendall Griffith is a student at Bard College majoring in both the pipa, a four-stringed Chinese lute, and Asian studies. Born and raised in Boston, Griffith's journey into Chinese culture started nine years ago, when she began learning Chinese for its writing system and tones.

Kendall Griffith, a student at Bard College Conservatory of Music majoring in the pipa and Asian studies, at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, in 2023. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

While learning Chinese, she was captivated by traditional Chinese music in a drama she was watching. Griffith did some research and discovered that the instrument she was drawn to was the pipa.

"I like the sound of the pipa, especially the techniques that are incorporated with it," Griffith says, adding that her parents and friends have been very supportive of her learning Chinese traditional music.

Griffith's father helped her discover the instrument and she found her first pipa teacher, who was part of the Boston Chinese Ensemble. Sometimes, after performances, people would tell her, "I've never seen a non-Chinese person play this before. That's very cool."

Last semester, Griffith studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Learning the pipa in the city, where "Chinese music is happening", Griffith felt pushed beyond her comfort zone and learned more about her passion.

"There was an interesting lecture that talked about how most Chinese music emulates things in calligraphy. There's a lot of empty space, and I can now incorporate that feeling into a lot of the music I play," she says.

"Chinese music also emulates nature in a way. The sound it makes can resemble a horse; you can visualize it. There are many techniques not seen in Western instruments, such as bending the strings or using your five fingers to create a tremolo. I enjoy telling my friends about it," she says. Griffith's friends, who were amazed by her impressions, started attending more Chinese music concerts, wanting to learn more.

Diving into another culture through music makes Griffith value the art more. She said, "When you learn about a different type of music, it makes you appreciate the culture more. It makes you realize how important it is to be open-minded. I feel more open-minded about why things are the way they are."

Griffith participates in the Beijing Garden Expo Park Opera and Music Week during Mid-Autumn Festival, in 2023. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Cai says he hopes to train a new generation of Chinese musicians with a global perspective.

"Our faculty comprises top experts in their fields, which naturally fosters interaction and collaboration. At Bard, students studying Chinese music and Western music work closely together, becoming friends and often forming duets, trios, or learning each other's instruments. This integration creates a vibrant musical community," he says.

"This concept of musical exchange and collaboration is why Western music has made significant inroads in China, turning many of us into Western-style musicians. So, why can't we do the same in reverse?"

Many students studying Chinese folk music at Bard have introduced the music to a wider American audience.

Andrew Chan is a Hong Kong musician who plays the suona, a traditional Chinese double-reed woodwind instrument. While learning Chinese traditional music at Bard, he encountered many American classmates and audiences curious about the instrument.

The suona, different from many Western instruments, can easily mimic the human voice, making it very expressive. It has a strong emotional impact and powerful expressiveness.

It is still quite new to American musicians and audiences, says Chan. After his performances, he meets many audiences asking questions such as what the instrument is or how it is made.

"Some American musicians would suggest including the suona in ensembles, making it more accessible for collaboration with different instruments," says Chan.

The instrument's unique timbre and strong character make it stand out. For instance, Chan once performed Birds Saluting the Phoenix (Bainiao Chaofeng), where the suona is the main instrument and the musician mimics bird calls throughout the piece.

This artistic expression is easily understood and appreciated by people from various cultural backgrounds because they can instantly recognize the bird sounds. The feature of mimicking animal sounds broke language barriers and created communication and connections among audiences around the world.

Since the 21st century, the development of contemporary Chinese music has been strong, putting it at the forefront of the global music scene, says Cai.

Andrew Chan plays the suona at the Chinese embassy in the US with the Bard East/West Ensemble in December 2023. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Since the reform and opening-up in the 20th century, many Chinese musicians, composers and performers have studied abroad, absorbing influences from diverse cultures.

"These individuals, much like scientists, aim to create unique works that reflect their cultural identity. As a result, in the 21st century, Chinese composers are undoubtedly among the leading figures in the world of music," Cai says.

Just as Chan's classmates hope to include the suona in their ensembles, the exchange of Eastern and Western music provides new inspiration for each other's musical creations.

"As musicians, we constantly seek new idols and artists because the essence of being an artist lies in the originality of your ideas. The most important measure of art is your unique perspective. The uniqueness of your performance is crucial, and it depends on where your ideas originate and the foundation upon which they are built. This individuality is a key factor in evaluating the development of art," says Cai. "Nothing excites me more than introducing a set of entirely new Chinese works."

The US-China Music Institute at the Bard College Conservatory of Music has held the China Now Music Festival and Chinese New Year Concerts at Lincoln Center in New York City for years.

Beitong Liu, a master's student of musicology at Bard, is an example of the new wave of Chinese musicians in New York. Her work demonstrates how contemporary Chinese musicians establish their cultural identity and engage on the world stage.

Liu and her partner are planning to compose music after graduation that is based on a fusion of Chinese elements with other styles.

"We focus on contemporary Chinese music, incorporating its elements with jazz, particularly emulating the jazz style that emerged in Shanghai when jazz first arrived in China. We also explore modern interpretations of Chinese pop music," says Liu. She says one highlight of her work is the emphasis on improvisation.

"Traditional Chinese music has many opportunities to be performed in the United States, but when people think of Chinese music, they often only think of the pentatonic scale," says Liu. A pentatonic scale has five notes per octave, in contrast to the heptatonic scale, which is common in Western music.

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"Chinese music is much more diverse than many realize, with a variety of new elements. We aim to introduce these to American audiences and believe blending Chinese music with other styles is important. We would love to use our creative work to explore the future of Chinese music," she says.

Across different historical periods, European countries adapted classical music from Central Europe and Austria, spreading it to Norway, Finland and Russia, where it evolved into their own styles, says Cai, recalling the history of classical music. He believes the 21st century marks a new phase where Asia, especially China, is transforming symphonic music into its own art form.

"If you visit concert halls in the United States, you'll see that the audience is mostly elderly. New works rarely receive significant performances. I think this is a global issue, especially in the West. I believe we haven't reflected on how our music should represent contemporary voices," Cai says.

By establishing the Chinese music program at Bard College in New York, Cai hopes to explore Chinese music with contemporary voices.

Contact the writer at minluzhang@chinadailyusa.com