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Musical Landslide for Taiwan

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Formosan Ocean Drum

Chihchun Chi-sun Lee’s BSO-commissioned Formosan Triptych takes wing on Thursday as part of subscription concerts which will also feature pianist Till Fellner in Mozart’s second-to-last piano concerto (no. 25) and Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, “Polish.” BMInt talked with the Taiwanese composer and her husband, composer Michael Timpson.

FLE: The BSO apparently gave its new young assistant conductor Yu-An Chang quite an honor in encouraging him to make a commission in honor of his native Taiwan. What did he tell you that he heard in your music that made him want to commission you? Please give us some background on how it came about.

CCL: Conductor Chang and I did not know each other prior this encounter. He had opened a call on Facebook for people to submit orchestra pieces to him for consideration, especially looking for women-composers’ works. Chang had gone through hundreds of pieces, eventually choosing my Fan-Jen: The Poem of Formosa (1995) to propose to BSO for programming. He found my musical language intriguing. Later Tony Fogg and Chang decided to commission a new work instead. Working with a world-renowned orchestra gives me a great opportunity to share my native cultures of Taiwan which are not actually well-known, especially due to political suppression.

Formosan Triptych is about the three main groups in Taiwan: the original Formosan aboriginals (of Austronesian decent), the minority Hakka ethnicity, and the majority Hoklo ethnicity. I have taken these rich Taiwanese heritages and materials, transforming them into my own musical language that bridges both Eastern and Western music.

In your Formosan Triptych, the only traditional instruments are some of the percussion. Of course, you also use western instruments in an unusual manner. A quick look at the full score gives one very little sense about what one is about to hear, without also studying the extensive special explanations to the various instrumentalists. When I’m hearing quarter-tones and slides and all sorts of unconventional effects with toneless blowing and singing, this set of instructions makes it more clear. And then there are the polyrhythms. Most of the score is in 4/4, but it doesn’t usually sound that square and the conductor seems to be doing a lot of off-beat cuing. Is this a challenge to conduct?

CCL: From scanning through the score, people might think the piece is quite conventional, since it uses Western notation: more than 90% of the meter is in 4/4. However, the outcome from listening might bring out some surprises, e.g. movement 2 sounds like floating with breath rhythm, in movement 2, each melody is blurred over barlines in different durations; movement 3 involves polyrhythm sounding like mixed meter. Being a composer for most of my life, I have learned to use easiest and clearest notation so as not to scare musicians away. This way I get to hear exactly what I imagined.

In fact, by using standard 4/4 to conclude all the complicated mixed meters, makes musicians feel more confident to play precisely; the conductor can give very clear counting while also guiding the important entrances to make it all work more efficiently and effectively.

There’s stuff going on within the bar that isn’t strictly in time.

CCL: Yes, it’s intentionally designed that way (calculated rhythm very precisely in order to achieve the meterless, breath rhythm, or what it sounds like mixed meter, etc.) This type of technique is not new, in that it was even used subtly by western composers throughout history in evolving ways.

The players really have to know when to come in because the conductor can’t conduct every rhythm or cue every entrance. But he makes the main rhythm unmistakable, of course. So it’s up to the players to deal with those vagaries. It’s challenging to conduct those very delicate variations from the main tempo.

CCL: That will be determined by the conductor. In many cases, maestro Chang does give cues to entrances while also taking care of the beat. Actually, this is very common, as advanced and professional musicians don’t need the conductor to show the rhythms, just to give a clear beat and help balancing the dynamics, while occasionally giving cues if it seems needed.

Will the BSO have sufficient looseness and freedom?

MT: We Western composers can imitate looseness and freedom through advanced modern rhythms, so as to not specifically require the musicians to play any differently than normal. It’s the contemporary composers’ trick to use sophisticated rhythms to emulate music that has no time or sounds like improvisation. The outcome will give the audience this feeling, even though the music is completely written out. 

It’s just hard to imagine how players who are used to more rigidity in time can achieve that, though the way you stagger entrances makes that somewhat automatic.

CCL: Often the music is mostly in 4/4, but uses a variety of tuplets and mixed-match rhythms—this makes it easy to hold together. That will allow listeners to experience a sonic scenery that seems to have neither time nor beat.

Tell me politely how close the first rehearsal compared to what you have in your head.

CCL: In my head I was almost shouting with delight about how professional this orchestra of yours sounded at the first rehearsal. It allows me to just focus on the details and be able to fine-tune.

***

How can we help listeners get into your Triptych? It’s neither darkly foreboding nor Darmstadt-esque.

CCL: Certainly that’s not my focus or approach!

But the second section sounds a little bit like Atmospheres of Ligeti, and if the polyphony of the first movement summons an aboriginal Palestrina, it thankfully does not pile up on us in loud cacophony. In fact, the slow build and relaxation are your calm-seeming norm. But you do stretch our great instrumentalists to simulate wind machines and a percussionist makes waves with the ocean drum.

CCL: The nature of Taiwanese people is kind and unconfrontational. That is the reason why Taiwan is voted as the number-one country to be retired to by the foreigners. This beautiful country is a big island, surrounded by several smaller islands, so the ocean sounds brings us peacefulness. In the western orchestration, many of the lower brass instruments are perfect to produce the shifting wind sounds, simply by blowing the air into the instrument. The wind tone changes while the players subtly change the shape of their mouths (i.e. different vowels like i-o-a, etc.), switching between soft and heavy breath, etc. In combination with ocean drum, these elements build a perfect scenery from Taiwan.

Michael Timpson: In reality, the type of music in the second movement is best described as “Heterophony” (which is multiple variations of the same melody played simultaneously) which is a common way music is put together in East Asia. Ligeti does use heterophony as well, albeit not influenced by Asian music directly. However, one of Chihchun’s favorite composers is Ligeti.

Listeners steeped in the received classical tradition should also enjoy it without feeling they are listening to ethnographic research. But are we hearing any scales or modes that can ground us?

CCL: Austronesian tribes, such as the aboriginals of Taiwan, have participated in this microtonal singing for centuries. The Bunans, for example, sing before they go hunting; in their religious ceremonies, they sing of animistic spirits as well. But don’t think of western scales with starting and stopping points. Imagine gradual humming and swelling in many independent and staggered voices. You will hear this kind of singing realized on orchestral instruments. Even though the oral tradition has continued, the unadulterated (non-western influenced) form will sound very strange to people who are used to Western music.

MT: Hoklo and Hakka music also has variable timbre and intonation giving them their own unique qualities. Standard Western music is about very specific fixed pitches and rhythms and a consistency of timbre, so it is quite unrelated to this. However, modern classical composers (of both acoustic and electronic/computer music) have been exploring variable timbre and intonation, so this kind of music is more compatible for inspiration in contemporary music.

And all the timbrel elements seem equally important because I was hearing things that sounded like portamento, but without clear destinations or starting points.

CCL: Exactly what I hoped would be heard. 

MT: Another example comes in the opening material of the third movement, where she has the players imitating the traditional Beiguan double-reed instrument called Suona, which sounds very noisy and out of tune to our ears. She orchestrated western instruments with contemporary techniques to imitate that timbre and recreate that raucous quality.

So all that suggests two questions. One is if you were to reverse this process and try to make Western music speak to aborigines, what would you do?

CCL: Actually, that is a very fun process, which I have also done before. On the other hand, no one escapes Western music these days, no matter what culture one is from. Indeed, Aboriginal and other traditional music all over the world has always been threatened by colonists, foreign settlers, and westernization.

But do you ever think there was a time when Western music sounded as exotic to Easterners as Eastern music has to ours? When Mozart wrote Turkish music, it was to take us somewhere we’d never been before to places magical and strange and exciting. But Western music might just seem boring and mathematical to the unexposed Eastern devotee.

MT: It would be interesting if you could actually find someone who had never heard Western music, but that’s practically impossible now. Everyone’s been so westernized, they have to shed their Western musical practices to relearn their own traditions. Many musical traditions in Asia do not actually work in western notation, as you have to discard the concept that a note is fixed in time and space. In the Eastern traditional notations, notes are represented by characters. There are no staff lines, and pitch is only a small part of it, with intonation being variable, manipulated by ornamentation, and constantly changing timbre. The music originally was quasi improvisational and is far more flexible than Western notation, (which would impose to0 many constraints on their music). [Notably, there is a story back when Japanese aristocrats were first exposed to Western music like Palestrina for the first time, they considered it to be an unbearable noise, as they had never been exposed to Western music before.]

I understand that some Asian languages are pitched, but that doesn’t mean everyone who speaks tonal languages has absolute pitch.

MT: Tonal languages are about relative placement and directional bending of syllables, and has nothing to do with the western concept of equal-tempered perfect pitch. However, tonal languages do have a relationship to how their traditional music is gestured very differently than Western music.

***

You refer to William Schumann’s New England Triptych of 1943? Are you responding to his basic structure of evoking three different musically naïve but pungent hymns by William Billings? Is your use of a lens of time anything like Schumann’s borrowings?

CCL: The reason that I chose this title is that it references traditional songs and music of three Formosan ethnicities: Aboriginals, Hoklos and Hakkas (thus a Triptych—like three painted panels) and it was commissioned by Boston Symphony Orchestra (New England), as a tangential reference to the famous work.

Can you enlarge on how some of people might have heard Taiwanese aboriginal music before?

CCL: Unlike the Sinitic Hoklo and Hakka ethnicities of Taiwan, most people don’t know about Taiwanese (i.e. Formosan) Aboriginals, a different (Austronesian) racial group that are the progenitors of the Filipinos, Micronesians, and Polynesians. However, people might have heard some of their native “polyphony” before in the well-known new age pop song by Enigma “Return To Innocence”, the theme song at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, which uses pre-recorded sample of the Taiwanese aboriginal A-Mei tribe. 

Is this ethnographic in the sense that you’re going out and recording sounds that would otherwise be lost… like Bartok and Kodaly did?

CCL: Exactly—it’s a kind of similar type of thinking, but then of course, the music comes through me using my type of interpretation, so that I’m hoping people still can hear my own characteristics attached to the traditional motivic links.

***

But if you were doing this for a traditional orchestra, would you rely on the traditional musical calligraphic characters or would you have a score with lines?

CCL: For most places, using an orchestra of traditional East Asian instrument is actually a modern construct (primarily the traditional music was only for chamber ensemble). Therefore, most of the scores for traditional orchestra are in Western notation and utilize western techniques.

So there would not be the equivalent of a gamelan?

MT: In East Asia, there are some examples in Korean court music. But it is put together in an entirely different way.  In most East Asian music, the ensemble plays together through “heterophony” which is very unlike traditional Western orchestra, (Gamelan uses something similar, but it is not as flexible.). Nevertheless, composers will use a combination of traditional notation, Western notation, but also modern aleatoric notation in these instances.

Are you talking about Swing?

MT: Well, not in ritual and court music, where the instruments are being held together by flexible “breath-rhythm”, in which the beat will expand and contract. It floats in a variable way. However, in folk music, it’s very rhythmic and grooving almost in the same way jazz or African music does.

***

We’ve talked a little bit about politics. We live together in such a turbulent world. Therefore, I’m a bit surprised to hear no anger or angst in the Triptych.

CCL: In fact, it’s a celebration. The party in Taiwan that supports our unique identity, just won the presidential and congressional election in what you would call a landslide. When I received the commission from the BSO, the first thing that came to my mind was that I’ve got to write something that is related to Taiwan. The BSO is such a world-renowned orchestra, that this is a step not for myself, but for my country. I sincerely hope that Formosan Triptych can bring all the audience to a cultural tour of Taiwan in order to share its beauty the kindness of its people. Through this experience, we can refocus the world’s attention to  our country to the rest of world, and seek support and fairness for our suppressed international relations.

Yet among the 87 examples of your works I have mostly visited on YouTube, your music seems very abstract; does it still refer to your homeland?

CCL: Each project and commission comes with a certain emphasis. Some of my works were commissioned in a way to tailor music based on Taiwanese historical monuments or to the memory of certain historical moments, or to discover different aboriginal music from newly recognized tribes, etc. But this is not limited to composing music that relates to Taiwan. In many cases, my commissioners have their own requests and focus. Therefore, as a professional composer, I am ready to take on any challenges on my way, as long as I commit to the project/commission. However, many people when exposed to non-western music, only hear it in a “Westernized” form, not in the original form. The original form of the music would actually sound strange to first-time listeners, and thus they may not realize it is actually directly related to the traditional Taiwanese elements.

***

Thinking about what I carried away from my first hearing…that polyphony that almost sounded vocal (and in fact some of the players sing into their instruments) and that trio of vibes, xylophone and marimba, those stuck with me, and sounded almost Bartokian. Was that something tribal?

CCL: The first movement of the polyphony is related and transformed from the Taiwanese Aboriginal Bunun tribe’s “Pasi but but”, that originally is for eight or more voices. Each voice moves either ascending or descending by microtones. In replicating the traditional Bunun singing, the French Horn and trombone players are asked to play while humming the same pitch. So we can still hear the vocal timbre from the orchestra. 

The trio of vibraphone, xylophone and marimba is my personal touch with my personal musical characteristic. Nevertheless, all those materials are initially from the motivic ideas that I have abstracted from the music that we actually heard previously in the piece. Tangentially, however, like Bartok, my music is inspired by ethnomusicological research, and the desire to celebrate the true nuances of the music through contemporary techniques.

So it’s a little bit of a “concerto for orchestra” in the way you’ve treated these sections independently.

CCL: I guess that is a good analogy in a way to bring the connections. The running mallets starts at the end of second movement as a forerunner of the third movement; that also brings out the emphasis on the traditional percussion parts. It gives people foreshadowing that the percussion is going to take over with my own approach and musical language.

Overall it’s peaceful, tranquil, scenic and there aren’t a lot of big tuttis. It’s unlike some of the new pieces we’ve heard lately that just start out screaming. You begin with a tuning note and gradually add timbre and color. I think people will like it.

CCL: I sincerely hope that the Formosan Triptych can somehow touch audience’s hearts, and help them understand and appreciate Taiwan.

also of interest:

Sunday, January 19, 2020 at 7:30 pm
Pao Center for the Arts presents

Semiosis Quartet

Special Effects

Shih-Hui Chen: Fantasia on a Theme of Plum Blossoms
Hong-Da Chin: …the clock is ticking…
Chihchun Chi-sun Lee: Quartet for Arirang
Aaron Jay Myers: I’ll Swallow Your Soul
Shelley Washington: Say

$10-15 suggested

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  1. This is an extremely important interview — evocative and revelatory, and a perfect complement to the music itself, which I just heard this afternoon (Friday). The interview explains some of the more mystifying (but beautiful) sounds, and the music embodies descriptions and emphases made by both the interviewer and the composer. And the orchestra seemed entirely at home in such exotic rhythmns and sounds. Congratulations to all.

    Comment by Jerry — January 17, 2020 at 6:13 pm

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