Foreword: I haven’t written something new in the recent months. Of course, this is not really good. But, as having mentioned in previous essays, I have explored different topics in artmusic during my Post Graduate years. I am delighted to publish these articles in my personal blog, hoping to share my findings with all friends. This time, I would like to discuss a topic about Hong Kong Contemporary live composers’ music.
Unofficial Histories: Musical Quotation and
Collective Memory in Hong Kong
What people within a society reorganize as their shared common legacy can be termed collective memory. According to the sociologist who coined this term, Maurice Halbwachs, “there exists a collective memory and social frameworks for memory; it is to the degree that our individual thought places itself in these frameworks and participates in this memory that it is capable of the act of recollection.” Despite its alleged autonomous status, music can serve as a powerful platform for the operations of memory within the temporal dimension of our experience, both in our everyday life and, albeit in a different form, in the ritualized context of the concert hall experience. In the following discussion, I wish to look at how musical borrowing in a self-contained instrumental piece can be interpreted in terms of the relationship between individual and collective memories.
While musicologists such as Larry Starr or Peter Burkholder merely regard musical borrowing as an intertextual element to convey various meanings or compositional device to create stylistic diversity, I wish to argue that a musical quotation can function as a representation of one’s act of recall. Thus viewed, musical quotation is no longer an isolated abstract realm which is a merely thematic, harmonic or rhythmic deviation from the overall texture of a piece, it rather evokes the totality of the sonic world of a specific time, place and event, operating in every dimension of personal and collective memory. Be it a tune, a rhythmic pattern or a specific sonority, a reference to a style or genre, a quotation is a tangible link between the sonic and cultural reality of the past and those of the present, as well as a metaphor for identity formation. In the following, then, I shall examine the function of musical borrowing in two contemporary Chinese compositions to illustrate my argument. These are Symphony 1997: Heaven, Earth, Mankind by Tan Dun in 1997 and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Tung Lai Shing in 2000.
Tan Dun, a Chinese-American composer with hardly any connection, personal or otherwise, to Hong Kong, was commissioned to write a piece by the Association for Celebration of Reunification of Hong Kong with Chinato celebrate the reunification on July 1, 1997. Attempting to borrow a sonic image to represent Hong Kong’s indigenous culture, Tan’s compositional choice was to incorporate a pre-recorded musical performance of Cantonese operatic singing at
into the sixth movement of his symphony.
The street performance heard in the recording is a duet named Xiao Yao[The Death of the Princess] (香夭), which is sung in the last scene of the well-known Cantonese opera, Di Nu Hua [Princess Cheung Ping] (帝女花). Both the duet and the opera have been popular with Hong Kong locals for years. Tan’s intention to insert the original recording into this symphony without any editing or manipulation is obvious. Most audiences, in fact, are capable of linking this recorded sonic material with an image of “Chineseness,” or “Hong Kongeseness.” The insertion of such a collected sound on Tan’s part may be a function of his desire to represent spatial and temporal distance and the reshaping and cementing of one’s identity as one recalls that experience.
This kind of folk borrowing has been a patriotic and political cliché in the music of Mainland Chinain the early 20th century. Like them, Tan makes use of a collective sonic image to emphasize the celebratory tone of a work which was, after all, composed at the request of rulers. A political reading applies to the other striking quotation in this piece. As you may recall, at the end of movement 5, the choir sings the textless parodic fragment of “Ode to Joy,” appearing to speak to the audience about the emancipation of Hong Kongfrom its British colonial sovereignty. Then, a strikingly primordial sound of Bianzhong (編鐘) is heard, enticing listeners to anticipate a journey back to the unknown distant past. Unexpectedly, however, it is the recording
sound of Temple Street
, acting as a mirror, as it were, that allows one to experience one’s “self” within the local cultural context. While the bass plays a drone in the background at the opening of the movement, familiar traditional percussive sounds lead the entry of the street singer’s reciting voice. This intrusion into the texture of piece of sounds and music from a real life setting is meant to open up a new aesthetical dimension so that all audiences, irrespective of background, may feel, perceive and recall the ordinary experiences of daily life.
In fact, Tan is an old hand at playing chicanery of collective memory by using quotations to “popularize” his music for both the Chinese and non-Chinese audiences. Tan only affords a souvenir-like memory as manufactured by the tourist industry, however, functioning as much a tourist attraction as a symbol of ordinary life of Hong Kong. The recorded excerpt works on one’s memory rather like a postcard or a souvenir. Just as souvenirs can induce pleasure and allow collectors to relive a certain experience by associating the surviving object to a particular place, period or event, a sound recording too can be used in a similar fashion. With a similar trick, Tan borrows Mo LiHua[Jasmine Flower] (茉莉花), a popular Chinese folk tune in the second movement. His intention of using Chinese folk material as expressive shorthand of “Chineseness” is clear.
While Tan’s shorthand form of borrowing seems to constitute a confirmation of a shared identity, Tung’s use of collage quotations appears to evoke a sense of “forgetting” of such a shared, indigenous identity. I now turn to his piece, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.
Tung is a local composer steeped in a distinctly local cultural background. His choice of quotation are from a less popular Cantonese opera Hai Jiao Hong Lou [Red Chamber at the Corner of the Sea] (海角紅樓) and opening of the prelude of Verdi’s La Traviata. The title of the piece, as well as the title of its second movement, does suggest a possible connection with Milan Kundera’s novel of the same name. Tung also made a special reference to one of the book’s chapters, “The Angel.” This movement and the previous one, “When Life Turns Fate,” allude to the tragic life and inescapable fate of the characters in the stories of the operas and the relevant Chinese classical literature The Dream of the Red Chamber (紅樓夢), opening up a larger and wider contemplative space for our perception and imaginative participation.
Unlike Tan’s shorthand form of borrowing, Tung’s several fragmented quotations and stylistic allusions work like a catalyst to affect the listeners’ mood and mode of perception, mediating between one’s own “self” and one’s imagined other “self” through a highly individualized web of sonic images. In fact, Tung’s scattered quotations become more captivating when they interact with the listener’s disjunct memories. Fragmentation makes symbols out of ordinary things and allows quotidian objects and perceptions to acquire new significance. Hence memories are more evocative precisely only when they are fragmentary. Like relics of past cultures, the shards of memory reveal to listener’s imagined world that is at once partial and plural, functioning as an ironic metaphor of one’s life.
The opening muted divided strings from La Traviata in the beginning of movement 2 seems to proclaim that from the past to present, life is ironic and is only a circle game of inescapable tragic occurrences. Several percussive sounds from different parts of the world, again in the form of fragments, continue to agree with the proclamation and confirm it twice. The third time, however, after the deep reverberated sound of the scratched strings of the piano is played, whose role normally is to introduce the percussion, a traditional Cantonese operatic female voice appears instead. The singer utters two disjointed words, “思凡,” [thinking the secular world]. The listeners, who were drawn to a tragic reality a moment ago, are now asked to shift to a more distant and illusive story world, that of Red Chamber or Hai Jiao Hong Lou (海角紅樓). This is like a dream inside a dream. By incorporating a genre that does not traditionally belong to the concert hall into a Western orchestral work, Tung rebuffs the accustomed complacency that is in fact the product of a cultural hypocrisy. The collision of eastern and western idioms, as well as the low-brow (Cantonese opera) and the high-brow (Western opera), results in a sense of tragic foreboding, evoking all the inconsistencies and contradictions that is part of the everyday ironic life of Hong Kong.
This irony is emphasized by multifarious collage of sonorities in both movements. Tung’s diverse tapestry of sounds produces a crisscross of imagined sonic maps. The shakuhachi-like flutes, Tibetan singing bowls, African bongos, South America marimba, Chinese bass drums, and many other Western orchestral brass, strings and percussions are entangled in an ironic kaleidoscopic chaos, appearing to reflect a sonic image of multicultural styles of postmodern Hong Kong. Buried in this chaos, the indigenous, local culture seems to have disappeared or to have been forgotten. Not only does this multicultural irony mock at the intangibility and inconceivability of daily life, but it also reflects the ambivalence of accepting any permanent identity on the part of the Hong Kong locals.
In conclusion, the presence of quotations in a self-contained piece not only expands the scope of musical materials used but also expands the scope of what composers can do with these materials as well as the scope of how listeners enter a new level of appreciation of the same materials. While Tan borrows materials in the form of expressive shorthand to let it function as a metaphor of an identity already formed, Tung uses collage quotations and allusions in an ironic and diverse ways to refute the idea that such an identity is there in the first place.
David Leung (theorydavid)