CIMF talks about Chinese music with composer Nicholas Ng

Dr. Nicholas Ng is a composer, performer, and Chinese instruments scholar who recently appeared at our 2017 Festival launch. We were absolutely captivated by his performance, a spellbinding piece composed by Nicholas himself and performed a gourd flute - an ancient Chinese instrument many of us had never seen before! With such a strong focus on Chinese music and instruments in our upcoming Festival, we wanted to know more. We asked Nicholas some questions about the history and practice of Chinese music, how he got involved in the field, and what to listen for.

 Nicholas Ng performing at the 2017 Festival launch. Photo by Peter Hislop

Nicholas Ng performing at the 2017 Festival launch. Photo by Peter Hislop

Q How did you become interested in Chinese instruments?
This story doesn't start pleasantly: I had a breakdown on the piano in my early teens while preparing for an AMus exam, so my teacher suggested composing and studying the music of my cultural heritage. I started researching traditional Chinese music and kept this interest up during my BMus at Sydney University and PhD at ANU. This took me into communities in Australia and abroad where mainstream and not so mainstream Chinese instruments are played. I have come across many interesting instruments along the way!
Q How much of the songs are traditional and passed on through generations. How much is improvised?
There are many genres of Chinese music where traditional tunes have been passed down through the ages. This includes the various types of Chinese opera, the zizhu ('silk and bamboo') repertories, and other folk and sacred genres. A lot of this music was orally taught, but over time, a system of tablature notation evolved for each instrument family, mainly as a learning tool and memory aid. This notation does not include ornamentation and other musical elements of performance practice that only experienced performers are able to teach.

There is much improvisation found in folk and older genres of music, such as music composed for the qin (7-stringed zither). Meanwhile, the 'classical' genre that was developed and refined with the building of conservatories in the 1950s does not call for much improvisation at all. This music is notated in jianpu, a kind of cipher script brought to China via 19th century missionaries from Europe.

Q The gourd instrument you played in our Festival launch, does it work like the sheng (mouthorgan)?  
The hulusi (gourd pipe) is similar to the sheng (mouthorgan) in that it is a wind instrument with reeds in its drone pipes. Both instruments are built around a wind chamber. However, the hulusi has a main fingering pipe, quite similar to a recorder with 6 finger holes and 1 left-hand thumb hole at the back of the pipe.

Q All the Chinese instruments will be represented at our 2017 festival: pipa, erhu, zhang, sheng, dizi, etc…. Were they always meant to be played together?
There is a wealth of archaeological evidence (statues, paintings, murals) from roughly 500 AD depicting small and large ensembles of Chinese instruments played at court and at various ritual events. Many of these instruments were imported from the Turkish side of the Silk Road and eventually Sinicized (for instance the Arab zurna became the Chinese suona). Meanwhile all 'foreign' modes were stamped out during the purist Ming Dynasty so that only the pentatonic and heptatonic modes prevailed. Similar to other folk music genres around the world, there was no conductor while the performers played variants of the the same melody together in heterophony. This music is still heard in the zizhu ('silk and bamboo') ensembles of China.

Q Where does the notion of Chinese orchestra stem from?
The notion of a Chinese 'orchestra', where there is a conductor leading a very large group of musicians, stems from the late 18th to early 20th centuries. Many Chinese artists and scholars of the time began studying French art and music, and a kind of intellectual revolution erupted with the sentiment that Chinese music was antiquated, out of tune, and in need of major adjustment!

And so an orchestra of traditional instruments developed. Duplicate lines of carefully orchestrated music were executed by instruments organised en masse into sections of bowed, plucked and struck strings, and percussion (there is no brass section). French and Russian-flavoured triadic harmonies were adopted in arrangements of folk tunes and new compositions, and physical modifications were made to the instruments themselves for playing in equal temperament.

Q Is it important to understand the Chinese language and its syntax in order to ‘understand’ Chinese music?
I think there are numerous benefits from understanding the language, especially if the music you are trying to appreciate is sung. However, it is important to point out there are many genres of Chinese music and in fact many languages spoken amongst the Han Chinese majority group and 55 ethnic minorities. While Mandarin is the language spoken in the capital of Beijing and therefore all throughout China, many dialects of Mandarin are prevail amongst the Han majority itself, some so far removed and unrelated that they are mutually unintelligible.

The greatest divide in language, culture and music within the Han Chinese population is between the north and south. The language of the north, Mandarin, is a modern construct developed with many Mongolian, Manchurian and even Russian influences. It is spoken with 4 tones. The languages and dialects of the south are considered much older and closer to ancient Chinese, and their tones number up to as many as 9.

So to really appreciate Chinese music, I believe it is important to take into account the genre, its origin, and the language (or dialect) associated with it.

Dr Nicholas Ng is an award-winning performer, composer and researcher. Committed to the practice of Chinese music and the awareness of Chinese culture in Australia, Nicholas co-established the Australian National University Chinese Music Ensemble (2003) and edited ENCOUNTERS: Musical meetings between Australia and China, a book based on the festival that he curated while working at Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University (2010). He now teaches erhu at Sydney Conservatorium of Music in the newly established Chinese Music Ensemble course.

Nicholas's compositions can be heard in Concert 14: Harvest of Endurance, an evening of stories and music that commemorate Chinese immigration to Australia, inspired by the eponymous 50-meter painted scroll. Thursday May 4 at 6:30 pm, National Museum of Australia.

You can hear music performed on Chinese instruments at Concert 7: Red Dragon, a scenic outdoor concert featuring the Chinese Oriental Orchestra. Monday May 1 at 11am, Embassy of Peoples Republic of China.

 Singapore's Ding Yi Company

Singapore's Ding Yi Company

Singapore's Ding Yi Ensemble mix traditional Chinese music with Western influences for a truly modern sound. You can hear them on Tuesday 2 May at 11am with Concert 9: Taking Flight, a free musical showcase hosted by the Canberra Airport. And don't miss their headline concert the following day with Concert 10: The Lion's Roar, your chance to experience an intimate performance with this unique ensemble. Tuesday 2 May at 4pm, Ainslie Arts Centre.