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Composition contest aims to revive traditional, classical Chinese music
By Wang Jie

FOR many Chinese people today, traditional, classical Chinese music is too delicate, restrained and soothing, especially compared with the powerful music of a Western orchestra or band and blaring, surround-sound pop.

There is ongoing lament in music circles about the lack of interest in the elegant, peaceful music that sometimes is called the essence of Chinese culture. Playing the guqin or seven-string zither was a favorite pastime of China's ancient literati. Today it is frequently played solo or presented in "chamber music" concert with other traditional stringed instruments, and perhaps with ancient-style oboe or bamboo flute. Traditional folk music is livelier, with drums, oboes and horns.

But more and more people are trying to revive ancient, classical music and China is full of amateur musicians and eager learners. Still, there's no mass appeal.

"I once attended a traditional Chinese music concert and only 23 tickets were sold," says Wang Yong, vice dean of the art management department at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. "Today Chinese folk music and traditional music are heard in noisy Chinese restaurants and entertainment venues, where they are merely background music. Sometimes the music is played during major Chinese festivals.

"It's sad to see that Chinese traditional music has retreated from serious social occasions."

Building up a repertoire

That's why Liu Tianhua Chinese Traditional Chamber Music Competition, the nation's first competition in composing traditional Chinese music, has received attention from music circles and conservatories since its launch a decade ago.

The 5th competition, launched in March 2011, has ended and 20 winners were announced this week in Shanghai. Zhu Shirui from Shanghai Conservatory of Music reaped the top prize with his composition "Capriccio II," a duet for erhu (two-string fiddle) and guzheng (Chinese plucked zither). It is the first top prize winner in the past decade, when the top spot was left empty for lack of a stellar composition.

"I am amazed that the organizer and staff of the competition are not professionals, but all amateur players and lovers of Chinese traditional music," says Wang. "I admire their passion in promoting traditional music."

The idea of organizing a competition for Chinese traditional chamber music compositions was initiated by Tang Sifu, a veteran music and art critic journalist at Wenhui Daily. It was supported by Loretta Yang and Chang Yi, founders of Liuligongfang art glass.

Chang fondly recalls his experience attending a gagaku traditional Japanese music concert in Japan. Gagaku is the oldest classical music in Japan, introduced to Japan along with Buddhism from China in the 7th century. It is ancient imperial court music played by a 13-string, zither-like instrument, the koto; a short-necked, four-string lute or biwa; a three-string, long-necked lute or shamisen; and bamboo flute or shakuhachi. They correspond with Chinese instruments, such as the guqin (seven-string zither), pipa (four-string lute), erhu and dizi or bamboo flute.

"There were around 800 people, all silently appreciating the music from ancient times," Chang says. "I was moved by their respect and piety toward gagaku, which actually originated in China. But what's the situation for Chinese traditional chamber music in China today? We cannot afford this loss of tradition for ourselves and our future generations."

A big challenge in reviving Chinese folk chamber music is the lack of a repertoire. "There are not many good pieces to play on the list, only some often-repeated old masterpieces such as 'The Moon Reflected on the Erquan Spring" or "Blooming Flower and Full Moon.' The melodies are so familiar that they cannot ring a bell for listeners," says Tang Sifu.

"We wanted to have some new melodies, easy to remember, with intricate notes. Of course, they will be infused with a modern feeling through rhythm and background."

The competition has attracted nearly 400 composers with 500 submissions in the 10 years, which has encouraged and energized training and education at music conservatories in China.

"But this is only a beginning, since we clearly understand if these compositions cannot be spread to more people, then they are dead," Chang Yi says.

Shanghai has nearly 100,000 classical music enthusiasts and 50,000 lovers of ballet, according to Chen Dong, vice minister of the Publicity Department of the Shanghai Municipal Government. But those who love traditional Chinese music number far less, he says.

"Holding a concert, or a high-quality Chinese traditional music concert won't solve the problem of promotion," Chen says. "Stage performances are limited and even if the melodies are good, only a few people can hear them."

Reviving interest

He says radio and television broadcasting is very important, as are free concerts, so more people have opportunities to hear traditional music.

"Today many parents ask their children to learn some traditional musical instruments such as guqin and erhu," says Wang Yong. "They think that is the best way to teach them the essence of Chinese culture."

Some parents say so many young people are learning piano and violin that the ability to play traditional instruments has become very special.

"I plan to send my daughter to the US for further studies. I am sure her ability to play the guqin will win her more points for college admission," says Xie Fang, who has a daughter in middle school.

"We can develop the potential of these parents who initially don't care about traditional Chinese music but due to their children's involvement, but later may become interested," Wang says. "If one child is learning a traditional instrument, then maybe we could have three people, including father and mother, who appreciate the music."

Wang says that in the past couple of decades too much emphasis was placed on Chinese folk music galas and attempts to create a lively, festival atmosphere for the audience.

"But traditional Chinese music, played in a chamber music setting, is soothing with lingering notes and melodies that may inspire reflection and yearning for a peaceful and harmonious life," says Tang Sifu. "That's the real charm of the timeless melodies."

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