He Said, She Said: Zhou Long and Chen Yi

Frank J. Oteri: The first time I heard Zhou Long’s music, it was at a Music From China concert and was scored only for Chinese instruments.

Zhou Long: At that time they were doing only music for Chinese ensemble.

FJO: We new music types here in the West complain about classical music emphasizing 19th-century repertoire, but Chinese standard repertoire goes back thousands of years, which is even more history for any new music to be competing against.

ZL: Qin music was formally notated about a thousand years ago. But most music was not notated. It’s an oral tradition. Today, they train pipa players systematically in conservatories, so they are also trained in harmony, ear training, and compositional techniques. And they read Western notation.

FJO: But how does a traditional Chinese instrument player respond to someone writing a piece of new music for them? Are they open to it or is it like the old school conservatory-trained players of Western instruments who are more interested in standard rep?

ZL: In earlier times in the conservatories, they were not happy. I remember having a composition for a Chinese quartet called The Valley Stream. It is a prize-winning piece in China. But when I gave this score to the students, their teachers were not happy because they don’t want their students to practice this unknown unfamiliar music and ruin their careers. But later on, Chen Yi wrote this solo pipa piece called The Points and it’s now a repertoire requirement for conservatory students. It’s become a tradition.

FJO: That’s the best thing you could ask for!

Chen Yi: I wrote this piece for Wu Man in 1990. I got the inspiration from calligraphy because the eight most standard strokes could be combined in one character which means eternal, and this character should be repeated one hundred times in primary school for each student in order to learn all kinds of strokes. In order to make this shape in balance, you have to practice and repeat. Then you get different gestures. I used this to make my piece. I borrowed a lot of violin fingering and guitar fingering. As you know, Paganini was a guitar player before he became famous as a violinist. He borrowed guitar techniques like double-stop harmonics using all four fingers continuously or crossing from the first to the fourth string using the bow to jump around. I borrowed that kind of technique from playing Paganini for writing for Wu Man. I told her, “This fast passage, don’t worry. You change your fingering by crossing strings, and then you can jump very fast. It’s playable. If I can do it then you can do it.” And she wrote down all the fingerings and then she showed me what she had learned from modern masters—which is different from older masters—like a vibrato that is played from the top of the instrument to make a special sound. I also took it.

FJO: I know you play the violin and you have a piano in your apartment. Do you also keep a pipa lying around somewhere in order to work things out?

CY: No, but there is a story behind this. I worked as a concertmaster for eight years in the The Beijing Opera Orchestra playing the violin, so I got to watch everybody. They had a whole group of Chinese instruments, and my roommate was a pipa player. At that time the scores for the Revolutionary operas were written in Western notation, and we had to translate the score from Western notation to Chinese notation in order for traditional players to learn to play. Orchestra members should take the score to copy their own parts. I always help people. Even at the conservatory I helped every classmate to play their piece—violin solo, string quartet, whatever. This is natural for me. So I helped my roommate to translate her part into Chinese notation, and I learned all the fingering. I saw her symbols, and I watched her play every day. She showed me formulas she did with the five fingers to make them even, rolling very loud and rolling very soft. And then vibrato you have from different directions. I learned all that from her.

FJO: When you write for pipa, do you use Western classical or traditional Chinese notation?

CY: I use Western classical notation because most pipa players are trained in conservatories, except for some very traditional ones. They can translate the Western notation automatically into the Chinese system, which is not really Chinese because we use the cipher system: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5—Arabic numerals—to represent the movable Do system. In ancient times we had many notation systems including characters to represent different fingerings for both hands. Before those characters we had articles to describe what you do with each hand, except for duration. We couldn’t write that down, but everything else was written.

FJO: So is there any sound that you’d want to get from a player that can’t be conveyed through Western notation?

CY: No. Particularly now, modern musicians are really advanced. There are a few things that need to be explained. You need to learn it the first time, but then you learn it forever.

FJO: Can Chinese instruments play any kind of music?

CY: Yes, the pipa particularly.

Zhou Long
Zhou Long
Photo courtesy Oxford University Press

ZL: But I can’t stand the Chinese orchestra playing Rossini. It sounds really funny to me. But I’ve seen Western audiences really enjoy it. But maybe sometimes for the Western ear hearing Western instruments play Chinese music also sounds funny. Technically there’s a tuning problem. Chinese string players have their scales, which is not really the 12-tone equal temperament, the intervals are different. But the Rossini is written for that. They played the violin part on erhus, and it felt out-of-tune. And these instruments are also not designed to play harmony, so it sounded uncomfortable. But the audience is mostly not musicians so they don’t mind if there’s something out of tune, but I can’t stand it. When I do something with Chinese instruments, I really have to think about the tuning. If I can’t solve it—the vertical relations, what kind of harmonic language—I don’t let it go. I think simply adapting Western classical music to Chinese music is a stupid thing.

FJO: I think your case is atypical because you know Chinese music and you know Rossini. But perhaps most of the people who hear your pieces in classical music concerts around the world won’t really know what a qin or a pipa is supposed to sound like. Most listeners won’t have a real context for what you’re doing, but I think authenticity is important to you.

ZL: I think different people will have different opinions. Some Chinese artist or musician might come along and say: “Hey Zhou Long, what are you doing here? Why are you fooling people?” But I think I can control my taste. I will adjust. If I feel comfortable, I will put this work on. If I don’t feel comfortable, I don’t.

FJO: You’ve both written pieces using Chinese instruments that you have later revised for Western instruments, which I assume is due to the practical issue of making the music available for a greater number of musicians to perform. But to my ears, the solo pipa and solo piano versions of Chen Yi’s Duo Ye sound like completely different pieces.

CY: Because idiomatically you have to adapt for another instrument. I have many such things. I didn’t expect to have two pieces, but I do think that when you change instruments, the sound changes. Like the piece written for harpsichord, bamboo flute, and zheng (the traditional Chinese zither). I switched to Western flute and piano, and then I added percussion because I wanted to create that kind of sound. The piano would be too real, too much in front of you, so I added another instrument to have layers. But the trio, Ning, for violin, cello, and pipa—that has been played by Young-Nam Kim, Yo-Yo Ma, and Wu Man—I don’t think this one could be adapted for anything else. Some pieces I couldn’t redo because they’re too specific. I wrote for these instruments; I had them in mind.

FJO: It does seem, though, that Western instruments are more adaptable. Making the violin sound like an erhu seems very doable—use a mute, play closer to the bridge, etc.—and Zhou Long even managed to get Fred Sherry to play the cello like a qin. Can Western instruments evoke any Chinese sonority you could conceive?

CY: Yes. The violin is my instrument. When you go to the mid to low register it can really sound like an erhu, although this fiddle has the most unique timbre and even a synthesizer cannot imitate it. And if you hear Zhou Long’s duet Su for flute and harp, it has a lot of techniques imitating Chinese instruments.

FJO: What about the piano?

ZL: Piano is hard. You can’t bend it. You can’t push it. You only can produce some percussion sounds. So you have to stay away from piano.

FJO: Perhaps the Western equivalents of that Chinese orchestra playing Rossini are all those silly little piano pieces from the 1900s that evoke Chinese pentatonic scales by playing only on the black keys.

ZL: Well, you can use clusters with different harmonies to solve this problem or a half step interval followed by a cluster sound. But very consonant harmonies on the piano will sound very silly.

FJO: One of the more challenging sets of sonorities Zhou Long has worked with is the brass quintet, in The Five Maskers. I think it’s a really wonderful piece, ironically because to me the use of brass instruments to evoke Chinese instruments doesn’t really work. As a result you’ve wound up creating something completely different.

ZL: If you want to explore the power and the beauty of this form, you have to find a way to deal with using all the combinations in a brass quintet. My view on this thing was I didn’t want to change the sounds and force them into something Chinese. But I sometimes used extreme range and very tense clusters to force the sound a little bit away from the traditional brass sound, but I still used a lot of idiomatic brass sounds.

FJO: What other ensembles are problematic for evoking Chinese sonorities?

ZL: Wind ensemble is a little hard. I don’t have a wind quintet. Chen Yi has, and she feels very good about it; it’s very Chinese. I don’t have a sax quartet; it’s a little hard. You will immediately think a sax quartet sounds like jazz. But I just finished a sax and cello duet.

CY: When I wrote a wind quintet, I did research on all possible repertoire I could get in order to jump out from there. You learn how to do it and what you can do, and then you learn what you can do that is new. With five instruments you can do a lot. The French horn, the lone voice, could sound like a Tibetan ragdung, a low blowing instrument. But those things are just imitations; more important is to combine things and regroup them.

FJO: In one of the wind quintets you have simultaneous layers of triplets, quintuplets, etc., the way Elliott Carter does, but it didn’t sound like Carter. What was going on there?

CY: It’s complicated. If I tell you all the details it will sound funny. One time I went to Zhoushan Islands to collect folk songs. It was one of the requirements of the Central Conservatory in Beijing. Every year after the school semester ended we would go to the countryside to collect folk songs. In this particular year we went to the Buddha Mountain in Southeastern China near Shanghai. We went to as many temples as possible. We climbed up to the top of the mountain—I had to buy two sticks to help me climb because it was really hard to get to the top. And then the nuns sung, not in the same tempo, not in the same pitch. It was a kind of heterophony. It was so touching. Near this there was a big cave that went maybe one mile deep and the cave received water coming from the sea. And wind would come in and hit the cave with a large low sound. I got the imagination from all of that.

After that trip, I graduated and came to Columbia to study, and this was the first piece I wrote at Columbia with professor Chou Wen-Chung. I didn’t tell him such a story because he is a strict teacher. He would ask me to play everything on the piano and sing back to him. And then he would fix notes. If I didn’t fix one of the notes, he would come back the next week pointing his finger and saying there’s something wrong here. I didn’t tell him about this story, but I was excited by this scene to write this piece. In the beginning you have a chanting line on the bassoon until other layers overlap on top in different tempos. It’s kind of exaggerated because when the nuns were chanting they were almost together. For me, I used them as counterpoint parts, layers which would take the idea, but not exactly the same. And then I used the French horn to imitate the ragdung, which I have also seen in performance in the countryside.

FJO: So can a musician who has none of this background recreate these sounds in a satisfactory way just by looking at the score of your music?

CY: Yes.

ZL: Well-trained musicians.

FJO: Even if they never heard a note of Chinese music?

ZL: Doesn’t matter if they are well-trained. But you have to make the notation very detailed and precise so that Western musicians can express it correctly. Otherwise you have to give them notes, but I prefer precise notation. I teach at the conservatory and I tell the students that if they use jazz material they need to find a way to make it as detailed as possible, and then even players who can’t improvise can easily play in that style.

CY: Zhou Long and I both tend to use precise notation to guide musicians, whoever he or she is, to read the symbols and explanations to play the sound we want. We learned this technique from Columbia University. We had one required course called “20th-Century Techniques and Practice,” in which musicians from Speculum Musicae came into the classroom to teach everybody to notate all kinds of special sounds to enable you to understand what each instrument could do, not the traditional techniques but the advanced ones. I think that was a good guide for us.

FJO: Of course, you have to be even more precise when you are writing music for an orchestra since there’s little opportunity for personal contact and limited rehearsal time.

ZL: I love the orchestra. Everywhere in Europe and the States, orchestra rehearsal time is reduced. Sometimes it’s just two times or a one-time run-through. But their abilities are very quick. You don’t have direct communication with orchestra members, maybe just back-and-forth questions with a conductor. But, during my recent work in Kansas City, some musicians contacted me directly with technique questions. If you notate precisely, they will do it. I just heard the Juilliard Symphony play the same piece. They were very good and didn’t ask me any questions since the work had been performed before: the parts have all been fixed.

CY: JoAnn Falletta used to tell her orchestra members: “Make the Chen Yi sound.” They knew how to do it because the first time I was brought in and sang in front of the orchestra. I wanted that sound, and they imitated it and got used to it. That was in the late ’80s. And later on as this style spread out and was brought to many orchestras. Now you don’t have to mention my sound; everybody knows how to do it. That comes back to the notation being as precise as possible. If you don’t have this in hand, you are not going to work effectively and save time. So that is the first thing I tell my students to do.

FJO: To my ears your new orchestral piece Si Ji, the Four Seasons, sounded less Chinese than any of your previous music. Chinese ideas were there, but it was much subtler, maybe even more mainstream and, dare I say, safer than a piece like your second cello concerto. It was still very effective, but I wonder if perhaps you were tailoring it more to the particular strengths of the Cleveland Orchestra, which would not be used to conjuring up Chinese sounds.

CY: I can divide my orchestral works into two kinds of styles or categories, although some are in between. Some pieces for orchestra are more abstract because they are more Western sounding. The Chinese sounds may be hidden because it is already melded into the language and you may not hear it as clearly. Some other pieces are more folk-sounding like the third symphony or that cello concerto for Yo-Yo which was commissioned by the Pacific Symphony. When I rehearsed with Yo-Yo, he didn’t ask me to listen to his playing for a whole afternoon. Instead, we sat together, opened up the score, and he asked me to sing all the folk songs that inspired me to write that concerto. He asked me what province and what dialect for all of the songs and to write it down, not in English, but in Chinese. And he learned not only to sing, he felt it. And then he created new fingering for me. He asked if he could use a wide vibrato used on a Korean fiddle instead of a microtonal trill I had written, and I said that was precisely what I imagined. And it sounded out like a voice singing.

FJO: But perhaps anything either of you write for an orchestra, especially without a soloist, will sound less Chinese than a piece of chamber music simply because Chinese music is traditionally solo or small-ensemble music aside from these Western-style Chinese instrument orchestras we’ve been talking about.

ZL: In ancient times, in the court music there were large ensembles. They even had 100 musicians playing together. But it is not like a Western symphony orchestra. There might be 100 people playing the same tone. They also had large stone chime ensembles. But not strings, winds, brass, and percussion together. This form, though, is also new for Western music. The orchestra only started a few centuries ago.

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