Thursday, June 23, 2011

Hearing Wang Jianmin 王建民 again

It was great hearing Wang talk again, after more than 2 years. His shared richly on his compositional mindset, illustrating in some detail how he draws on the various Chinese folk traditions to create his own--one that he consciously aims to be different from the West.

His whole presentation brought home a number of key points:

i. importance of knowing the traditions -- both the Chinese and Western in terms of their systems and mode of musical thinking (体系,思维方式); this for him is one pre-requisite (大前提) for composers. His ensuing presentation amply illustrates his own deep understanding.

ii. the integrity of his compositional approach -- deep understanding of and faithfulness to his folk sources without being rigidly bound. He analyzed folksongs extensively to identify characteristic features upon which he then creates his musical materials (原材料). His manipulation (加工) of these materials (e.g. generating into artificial scales for his first two Erhu Rhapsodies; intervallic expansion of the characteristic min 2nd into either dim or aug 8ve in the 2nd Rhapsody) would retain these identified folk characteristics (e.g. modal characteristics 特性调性). At the same time, he also draws on Chinese structuring principles (特性进行), e.g. 合头 from 戏曲音乐, as opposed to using Western ones (e.g. ABA, fast-slow-fast). He distinguishes Chinese variation techniques (e.g. 长短伸缩,改头换面) from Western ones (essentially, ornamenting within a given structure).

iii. importance of idiomatic writing, which (for me) also implies his respect for performers and ultimately his art. Not surprisingly, for him 雅俗共赏does not just mean balancing between sophistication and popular appeal, but he added that he also was mindful of writing in a way that appeals to or is rewarding for professional performers. He also revealed without embarrassment that, as a non erhu playing, he spent 3 months studying erhu scores before writing his first erhu rhapsody.

iv. drawing from past models 模式化 does not mean being formulaic 公式化. He encouraged composers to re-discover from traditions to create what is modern. A key term he used quite a few times was 分析 ('analyze').


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Creative work and production line (创与作)

A student recently drew my attention to Jeffrey Gershman's MBM Times article, "Skimming the Top", in which Gershman critiques the generic and formulaic nature of many recent band works. In a nutshell, his complaints following his six criteria are:
i. unimaginative texture (e.g. block scoring, little instrumental independence, unchanging textures)
ii. formulaic melodic writing (e.g. predictable melodic styles and phrase structures, chromatically-conservative melodies)
iii. overly-simple harmonies
iv. uninspired orchestration, lacking in creativity
v. unsophisticated formal structures (e.g. endless and straightforward use of ABA forms)
vi. lack of and even flawed compositional craftsmanship
In short, he characterizes such music as "ear candy", having "all style, no substance".

Whilst he understands the pressures from publishing companies on composers, he is concerned about the kinds of musical diet given to band students. I can't share this concern more: how much shortchanged our students will be if they are not shown the richness and depth of great music!

The plight of composers raised here brings to mind Adrian Pang's reason for leaving Mediacorp back in May (,4139,239057,00.html): he was basically dissatisfied with the "factory production line" approach, purportedly adopted by Mediacorp. I also recall reading Guo Jian Hong's (Guo Pao Kun's daughter) recent lament in the souvenir programme booklet for "Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral" about there being more 'zuo' (作) than 'chuang' (创) in the local theatre scene.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Rojak, Salad or ...

A journalist in My Paper today revisits the issue of what constitutes "Singapore culture". On the common criticism that Singapore culture is like rojak, she quotes 蔡光明's remark that we should aim for a salad mix instead, where the unique colours and tastes of the salad ingredients are retained, the clash of which sometimes exploited (色彩斑斓,偶有冲突的salad 精彩).

I like his ensuing advice: to successfully present intercultural interactions (文化间的互动), one first needs to assimilate each culture's uniqueness before synthesizing them; simply adding Chinese drums to Indian Dance will not do. Singapore composers, pay heed!
But then again, should it be salad instead of rojak? Or, perhaps, Nonya-style synthesis?


Sunday, May 30, 2010

Jazz lesson

Chris Bakriges was kind enough to give Xiao Li and I an informl Jazz improv lesson on the last day of IPWMT. Very interesting insights into the mind of a Jazz improviser/teacher:
i. start by experimenting with modes to colour the dominant (or, thinking conversely, what mode is implied by a certain colour note)
ii. jazz improv basically involves moving from mode to another (much like modulation and modal inflections in tonal practice, I suppose)
iii. in harmonizing a melody Jazz-style, the particular chord structure relates to the indicated chord without necessarily sounding the root at all! e.g. Bb7 rendered as Ab-Bb-D (perhaps, think of the indicated Jazz chords as signifying the underlying harmonic movement in the Rameau sense of a fundamental root movement, i.e. surface bass line can be quite different from what the chord indications literally stipulate).
iv. he prefers to think linearly rather than simply move from one Jazz chord to another, and he sees the linear rendering as the musical fingerprint of a Jazz improviser
v. in spacing his chords, seems that he is equally conscious of both the effects of the harmonic verticalities as well as linear connections

Points (i) and (ii) remind me of Bach's alternative harmonizations of his chorales whereby different tonal interpretations--both in terms of keys and tonicizations--are explored for the same chorale tune.


IPWMT - Day 5

Wow! The last day is still opening up new dimensions to look at world music theories pedagogies! Pedagogies (plural) indeed!

John Hadja proposed using the psycho-physical notion of 'roughness' (as opposed to the western art-music idea of consonance/dissonance) to look at music across different traditions comparatively.

Brenda continues to problematize common western musical terms such as "cyclic(al)" and "developmental".

The afternoon Khatak workshop was by far the most challenging (and I thought learning to play in a Balinese gamelan the oral-tradition way was challenging enough). The integration of melodic/rhythmic syllable recitation coordinated with hand gestures and dance steps proved most challenging for me as a musician--my ability to maneuvre my four limbs as an organist wasn't sufficient. But, hey, what a great way to teach kids in this very bodily manner: imagine the fun learning rhythms and rhythmic concepts this way! (Maths teachers should be interested too!)

This wraps up a week-long series of very interesting perspectives on how to approach WMTP--from a compositional standpoint; with the aim of initiating students into academic research processes; through the lens of the American General Musicianship movement; recognizing the psycho-physical dimension; and incorporating bodily movements.


Saturday, May 29, 2010

IPWMT - Day 4

Today is even "hotter", but only weather-wise: had a cool session (with Humphreys) improvising with blues and using home-made panpipes. The Americans do it so naturally, it's in their blood!

John Hajda's presentation on the history of the Comprehensive Musicianship movement in US adds a new dimension to the issue of developing WMT. I like the way he clearly keeps the distinction between teaching music majors and non-majors: what should be taught depends on your goals.
His second presentation which involves an intro to music perception was also great! The distinction he draws between different frames of reference--physical, psychological, and musical--is very helpful indeed. His example of theoretical octave vs perceived "stretched" octave certainly stretched my understanding of music perception. Looking forward to his concluding session tomorrow. Systematic musicology (which is John's background) does have something interesting to offer to WMT.
Brenda's presentation basically reiterated her central concern for cultural meanings; she spoke of cultural embodijment in musical concepts. Her problematizing of various terms--what is theory? timbre? form? meter? (different fr cycles)--is helpful, but curiously, she does not problematize the keyword "music".


Friday, May 28, 2010

IPWMT - Day 3

Today was hot - weather-wise (relative to the first few days) and at the round table discussion!

So many fundamental questions thrown up in the course of the day:
i. what is the canon? whose canon? why defend the canon?
ii. how to keep the music theory 'houseboat' (Münir's analogy) afloat -- adding something will mean something else must go
iii. what are the essential topics in world music theory? (Jonathon Grasse)
iv. what are the universals in WMT? should we speak of universals? Are they the same as bio-psychological universals and neuro-cognitive constraints?
v. WMT for who--classical music majors? music ed majors? K1-12?
vi. Can/Should WMT focus only on the sound structure at the expense of understanding the cultural context of the music?

Münir's story (he is of Turkish origins) of how Sushi became his favourite food after his initial dislike was great!


Thursday, May 27, 2010

IPWMT - Day 2

V. Levine's session on teaching transcription was an eye-opener in terms of the range of learning benefits possible - besides developing aural analysis and dictation skills, students are also challenged to think of fundamental issues of musical representation (aural vs visual), cultural values embodied in notation systems, transcription decisions as well as attendant scholarly processes (finding concordances, writing critical transcription/editorial notes, etc). Most of all, her idea of transcription as part of the process of music analysis (the students really get to know the music intimately) appeals to me.

Münir Becken (UCLA) has drawn very interesting inspirations from David Cope's work. He designed a course that uses a compositional approach to world music theory. Nice idea of getting the students to do various forms of aural analysis to identify relevant stylistic elements. His idea of getting students to then write a compositional manifesto (without writing the piece) is worth trying out. His afternoon session, getting everyone to sing Turkish traditional songs, opened up a new whole of pitch concepts and subtleties for me.

Paul Humphreys shared his teaching ideas based on getting students to make a panpipe. Quite cool! Had my first experience blowing a panpipe--wow, not easy at all! Very clever of him to design it such that pitch tunings can be easily adjusted, the simple instrument is thus capable of rendering different tuning systems.