Published: 14:49, June 25, 2024
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Instrument steeped in history stirs modern audiences
By Chen Nan and Yuan Hui
The Uxin Banner Morin Khuur Symphony Orchestra of China is devoted to keeping the Mongolian music legacy alive and thriving in the modern era. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Nestled in the southwestern expanse of Ordos city in North China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region lies the Uxin Banner — a vast territory spanning approximately 11,600 square kilometers with a modest population of 160,000 people.

Despite its remote setting, this region has garnered widespread acclaim, owing to a remarkable cultural phenomenon — the Uxin Banner Morin Khuur Symphony Orchestra of China. This ensemble stands as the nation's pioneering and sole professional symphony orchestra predominantly featuring the traditional musical emblem of the Mongolian ethnic group — the morin khuur, or horse-headed fiddle.

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Comprising over 40 musicians adeptly wielding the morin khuur across its three distinct parts — high, middle and bass — the symphony orchestra boasts a repertoire exceeding 100 musical compositions, captivating audiences both domestically and abroad.

"When we showcase our craft beyond Inner Mongolia, particularly in locales where the symphony orchestra and morin khuur are novel experiences, audiences often describe the encounter as nothing short of jaw-dropping," reveals Jin Hai, 49, the director of the Uxin Banner Morin Khuur Symphony Orchestra of China, which was established in 2013.

He continues: "The innovative fusion of the morin khuur with Western brass, woodwind and percussion instruments enthralls audiences, inviting them to delve deeper into the ancient instrument and the rich culture of the Mongolian ethnic group."

Jin initially honed his skills with the morin khuur during middle school before pursuing further studies in music education and morin khuur performances at Inner Mongolia Normal University. He still remembers the orchestra's humble beginnings. Initiated by local authorities, the ensemble initially comprised nearly 30 morin khuur virtuosos.

Driven by a mission to transcend conventional perceptions and breathe new life into this cherished instrument, the symphony orchestra emerged with support from Chagan, a distinguished conductor, composer and the orchestra's current artistic director.

"For individuals of the Mongolian ethnic group such as myself, the morin khuur embodies our people's essence. It's a mystical instrument steeped in history, deserving of wider recognition. Despite its mere two strings, it possesses an astounding range of tones," says Chagan.

The morin khuur is an indelible part of traditional Mongolian music. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Leaving an indelible mark

Challenges abounded in integrating Western classical music with the morin khuur. Jin recollects the initial skepticism and the arduous task of recruiting musicians, exacerbated by the remote location of Uxin Banner. Yet, the Inner Mongolia Arts University's symphony orchestra offered invaluable support, allowing its musicians to collaborate with the morin khuur orchestra.

"With the widespread reputation of our orchestra, more young musicians who trained to become Western classical musicians have become interested in us. We also want to provide them with more opportunities that they can't get from other orchestras, musically and creatively," Jin adds.

The orchestra's inaugural performances in its hometown left an indelible mark on the locals, despite their unfamiliarity with Western classical music. To diversify their repertoire and broaden their appeal, the ensemble invited renowned musicians, including artistic director Chagan, to adapt Inner Mongolian folk melodies while incorporating traditional instruments, such as bamboo flutes, sanxian (three-stringed Chinese lute) and yangqin (Chinese hammered dulcimer).

Chagan, with over 40 film and TV composition credits to his name, also undertook the task of reinterpreting Western classical pieces, alongside crafting original compositions inspired by Mongolian culture and its people.

"Our aim extends beyond mere international exposure — it's about preserving our cultural roots and showcasing the instrument's inherent beauty," says Chagan.

In 2014, the orchestra embarked on its inaugural nationwide tour, gracing esteemed venues like the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing and prestigious music schools, such as the China Conservatory of Music.

In 2018, the orchestra ventured abroad, enchanting audiences in Nice, France, where the soul-stirring resonance of the morin khuur left an indelible impression. Jin recalls a moment when a music school director in Nice, moved by the performance, pledged to add a morin khuur to his institution's instrument collection.

Young performers show their talent on the morin khuur, after receiving training at a school founded by Khetsuumanlai. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Ensuring a legacy

Beyond enthralling audiences, the orchestra remains steadfast in its mission to promote and popularize the instrument.

Altang Huyage, a morin khuur player and orchestra member, highlights the efforts to popularize the instrument among the locals, which began even before the orchestra's official inception, involving training programs for farmers and herdsmen in Uxin Banner.

Before joining the orchestra, Altang Huyage dedicated himself to teaching morin khuur to locals in Ordos city's Dongsheng district, imbuing the instrument with newfound vitality within the region, particularly among the youth.

Similarly driven by a passion for preserving Mongolian musical heritage, Khetsuumanlai, a 34-year-old native of Hailaar, Hulunbuir, ventured to Beijing in 2014 to initiate a morin khuur training program. Expanding the program to online platforms in 2018, Khetsuumanlai now boasts over 6,000 students worldwide, spanning diverse age groups.

"People are drawn not only to the melodic allure of the morin khuur but also to its expressive capacity, capable of evoking the vast expanses of the grasslands and the solitary existence of herdsmen," remarks Khetsuumanlai.

He says the instrument's burgeoning appeal, particularly among the younger generation, spurred by the influence of Inner Mongolian rock bands like Hanggai, which prominently feature the morin khuur in their compositions.

Last year, the establishment of a morin khuur inheritance base in Hohhot, spearheaded by the Inner Mongolia Academy of National Culture and Art, saw Khetsuumanlai assuming the role of director.

With an array of programs planned, including youth bands, performance competitions and livestreaming events, the base aims to cultivate a new generation of morin khuur enthusiasts.

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"With this base, we will focus on training young people of the Mongolian ethnic group to play the morin khuur," says the director.

"For them, it is not simply about mastering a musical instrument but a way of honoring their heritage and preserving a tradition that has been passed down through generations. Through their dedication and passion, these young musicians are ensuring that the spirit of Mongolia's nomadic ancestors lives on in the music they create."