ECCENTRIC folk singer Gong Linna and her German composer and musicologist husband Robert Zollitsch have shaken, rattled and rolled the world of contemporary Chinese folk music.
Together they have created discord with three controversial experimental songs that some say disrespect traditional Chinese culture and make light of icons like the Monkey King, but others call a welcome innovation in music that tends to be uninspiring and saccharine.
The colorful and extravagant performances, with sometimes incomprehensible lyrics, have gone viral on the Internet, where opinion appears to be running against the light-hearted, if somewhat jarring to conventional taste, spectacles.
Gong and Zollitsch, an expert in traditional Chinese, Tibetan and Mongolian music, say their aim is to create a "new Chinese art music," integrating Chinese folk elements with modern musical forms. It's a bit like world music. Some songs are experimental and playful. Others are serious, such as "Quiet Night Thoughts," using the lyrics of a poem of the same name by Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai (AD 701-762). Zollitsch also composes for a full, Western-sized orchestra of mostly Chinese traditional instruments.
"China has incredibly old culture and history but where is the sound to represent China in the 21st century?" asks Zollitsch, also known as Lao Luo or Old Gong in English. "The world is waiting for this sound, music to help people understand the soul of Chinese people. And it isn't just one sound, but should be as colorful as today's China," he told Shanghai Daily in a recent interview along with Gong Linna at the Chinese Top Ten Forum sponsored by China East Radio.
Gong herself is famous for her outlandish costumes, makeup and exaggerated facial expressions. She created an Internet sensation in 2010 with "Tante" ("Perturbed" in English), a composition of eloquent but meaningless vocalizations and clicks in a sweeping range, performed in a lavish and bizarre costume incorporating fantastic elements. Her facial expressions changed rapidly and were described as quirky but fascinating. Lao Luo wrote the music and together they created the "nonlyrics."
That was when she made her first big splash. Internet users struggled to figure out what she might be saying. It was so intriguing and incomprehensible that it was called shenqu or sacred song, an apparent reference to the repetitive chanting and murmuring of religious music. It was cool.
Now Gong and Lao Luo have done it again, but this time there's mounting indignation on the Internet that they have gone too far with their colorful, catchy and somewhat jarring works. Zollitsch composed the music and together they work on lyrics, her costumes, stage design and a bit of choreography.
To a Western audience, the performances are interesting, sometimes humorous and not a big deal. It is quite funny when Lao Luo breaks into "Only You," in English, a hit in 1955 by The Platters.
"Slapstick" and "auditory pollution" are a couple of the terms used to describe her shows, which are mini musicals. Lao Luo appears on stage in ancient Chinese costume; in one scene he's her lover and husband, in another her idiot husband (he sings, "I'm such an idiot"), and in a third he's the Buddhist monk Xuanzang in "Journey to the West." They are accompanied by a band in which musicians are costumed as gods and goddesses; Guanyin, for example, plays the "guzheng" (a zither with at least 18 strings.)
Gong and Lao Luo performed them recently, two of them on Hunan Satellite TV's New Year's Eve gala. They are "Fahai, You Don't Understand Love," "Golden Cudgel," and "I'm In Love With A Big Idiot."
Break with tradition
"Golden Cudgel," or "Jingubang" in Chinese, is the Monkey King's magical weapon. Gong dressed like a glamorous Monkey King with strange headgear and shimmering golden powder on her face. She sang, "I am the Monkey King from the Flower and Fruit Mountain and I have a golden cudgel, golden cudgel, golden cudgel," repeating the words for many lines. She also makes the nonsense, jibberish sounds "made" by a golden cudgel. This goes on for quite a while, until she concludes, "I am the Monkey King with a golden cudgel."
The Monkey King is one of the most beloved characters in Chinese legend, depicted in books, film, TV and animations. His golden cudgel changes shape and size and can be wielded in any way imagined. It can be as small as a needle or, according to modern measurement, it can weigh more than eight tons.
Many in the audience were not amused, some Internet users called her physical image and performance "weird" and "frightening." Some said her performance belittled the iconic Monkey King in what seemed like a comedic but unfathomable performance - with a chorus of all-red monkeys wearing monkey masks and pig masks.
Xu Jingqing, composer of a song for a "Journey to the West" TV series, called the performance "auditory pollution."
Gong and Lao Luo are not in the least put off by criticism and plan to continue with original songs that push boundaries.
"Controversy makes songs more meaningful and then people can think more deeply about them," she told Shanghai Daily.
While singing "Golden Cudgel," she was expressing both her own emotions and depicting the character, she said.
"Our design was meant to break with tradition. Lao Luo and I spent a whole afternoon making the Monkey King's Golden Hoop with my own hair and we created a remarkable feather decoration traditionally seen on the Monkey King's head or shoulders."
Another song that disturbed listeners was a love song of separated lovers, based on the beloved love story "Madame White Snake." No one had ever before turned the legend into catchy folk-pop-new music tune.
"Fahai, You Don't Understand Love" is about love conquering all, and the chorus "Fahai, You Don't Understand Love" is repeated again and again. It refers to the wicked monk Fahai who separated Lady White Snake (a benevolent snake sorceress in human form) from her mortal lover and husband Xu Xian (and imprisoned her beneath the Leifeng Pagoda. Gong, as White Snake, sings to Fahai. Lao Luo appears as Xu Xian.
In another number she sings, "I Am In Love with a Big Idiot," which is definitely not conventional and talks about the difficulties of ordinary marriage. He sings "I'm such an idiot." Performed in three parts, it includes an adaptation of a Jiangsu Province folk song and a well-known poem by Song female poetess Li Qingzhao (1084-1155), titled "Like A Dream." The poem depicts an interesting lake cruising when the drunken poetess accidentally rowed the boat into the deep lotuses on her way back home.
It was altogether unsettling and some of the musical arrangements were strange to Oriental musical sensibilities.
Just because some people don't like her music doesn't make it bad music, Gong said.
At the Chinese Top Ten Forum to honor the best original Chinese songs of the year, Gong and Zollitsch were outspoken about the shortcomings of the domestic music industry, which they described as shallow and lacking in vitality and originality. Zollitsch once said there were too many Western elements in Chinese music today; that provoked a fire storm. They called for stronger financial and social support for talented musicians and for creative, non-mainstream ideas.
Their message: Originality is the soul of art.
Gong, who is around 38, grew up in Guizhou Province and studied folk music at the Chinese Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Honors followed. In 2000 she was named the best female singer at the national singing competition and became a popular performer at galas. But she was dissatisfied with stereotypical performances, frequent lip-syncing during shows, and general lack of imagination.
In 2002, she met Lao Luo at a small concert in Beijing. He would later tell her that her former stereotypical gala performances were not the "real" part of her and called them a waste of her talent. When Gong told him, "I don't want money, I just want freedom," Zollitsch responded, "I don't have money, but I am so rich because I have freedom."
Two years after meeting, they married and moved to Germany. They traveled widely and Gong said she absorbed the music of many cultures, enriching her own art. They have two sons, seven and five years old.
The couple moved back to China in 2010 after "Tante" became a hit.
Lao Luo, a native of Munich, has written most of the music for Gong's albums, including "Tante." He is an established composer, producer, director, ethno-musicologist, and musical painter. He used to perform on classical stages, at folk and world music festivals, and at jazz clubs.
In 1993 he arrived in China to study traditional Chinese music at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where he also studied guqin, a seven-string zither favored by ancient poets and literati. He combines elements of Chinese folk tradition, ancient poetry, Peking Opera and Western harmonies and aims for a kind of global language.
The couple also has a band, "Five Elements," including musicians from around the world. They returned to China in 2010, opening a studio, Gong Linna and Lao Luo Music Creations, to promote their new sound.
They are well-received in the West, but at home, there's still disharmony.
One Internet user called "Ahdahada" said he was shocked at the repetition for a couple of minutes of the simple words "golden cudgel" in different tones and rhythms. "If a golden cudgel were a commodity for sale, the song would be the best promotional video," he joked.
Some Chinese listeners tend to be conservative and sensitive to any perceived slight to what they consider traditional culture.
But Wang Peng, a folk song music expert and critic from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, said some are too critical of new music. In fact, meaningless repetition of lyrics is commonly used in traditional Chinese art forms, such as folk music and Peking Opera, he said.
"The couple's efforts in preserving the basic elements of traditional music while making innovation in the form should be recognized and respected," said Wang.
"It is a challenge to anyone, let alone to a foreign composer like Zollitsch. Perhaps these songs are not yet artistically mature."
The couple recently presented a music salon of ancient Chinese poems. "We hope the beautiful music of these poems can be performed for larger audiences," Gong said. They plan more such music salons featuring Chinese poetry.
In June there will be a concert of Lao Luo's compositions. He is now working on a new composition for a very different kind of Chinese orchestra, one the size of a Western symphony orchestra with mainly Chinese traditional instruments. It will be the final work in a concert featuring all the works he has written for orchestra, including the song-cycle "Song of Love" with lyrics by Song Dynasty (AD960-1279) poetess Li Qingzhao.
Early next year he plans a concert by a traditional Chinese orchestra.
"Then we plan light-hearted concerts with surprises from musicians from different countries," said Gong.
Ask the musicians
Q: What's your reaction to all the controversy?
Gong: Controversy makes songs more memorable and meaningful. These were our first performances. We're grateful for the feedback.
Q: What makes for good music?
Gong: The singer and songwriter must be sincere; good music always touches the heart and is unforgettable. Take "Fahai, You Don't Understand Love." I can't say if the song is good or not. But its lyrics and melody are hard to forget. The song encourages people to pursue true love. That is another function of music - to give your life new vitality and inspire you to deal with problems.
Q: What inspired you to write "Golden Cudgel" and "Fahai"?
Lao Luo: I wanted to write a song for the Year of the Snake and was looking for a "good" snake in stories and mythology. "Madame White Snake" is a perfect fit and I looked for a perspective that people today can relate to. As for "Golden Cudgel," I always loved the Monkey King and wanted to write a song that fits his eclectic personality and outstanding skills. So, of course, the song (of repeated words) is very difficult to sing and has very different aspects, just like the Monkey King.
The most important thing was to stage the songs during TV shows and we tried something new, we created little stories and staged the songs like miniature musicals. It was a lot of fun for us, and hopefully, for the audience.
Q: What is Chinese new art music?
Lao Luo: We are not pop music, not rock, not traditional, not Western classical. Our music is Chinese, newly created, and we take quality very seriously. We don't want to create a narrow concept again but allow many musicians to find their own new, Chinese musical language.
It's important that with this term, Chinese new art music, we avoid Western stereotypes and we should keep our mind open and free to create versatile music. China has incredibly old culture and history but where is the sound to represent China in the 21st century? The world is waiting for this sound, music to help people understand the soul of Chinese people. And it isn't just one sound, but should be as colorful as today's China.
Q: How does Chinese culture affect your music?
Lao Luo: To cite just one point. If you want to understand the beauty of Chinese music, consider the term "yun," which is often translated as "elegance." Yet this does not really capture the idea of "yun" in Chinese music. It's something like flavor, but it is not a condition, it's a process, the movement in a melody, slides, tiny variations - like the flight of a butterfly, or the movements of a taichi master.