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    ‘Folk’ Voice as Contemporary Music

    Foreword: To many contemporary composers, one of their problems is to search  new, fresh sound for their new creations. Where can they get new sound? What is contemporary sound? Sometimes, the answer is quite contradictory. The remote, past, even dimishing traditional sound in our native folk, surprisingly, becomes one of these “contemporary” voice, which greatly cries out from our present compositions.



    From time to time, composers have tried different ways to write their music with new and modern sound.  Some composers write the music by employing total serialism, while others try to use ‘chance’ elements in their works.  No matter which compositional techniques they used, their efforts are only for one purpose; that is, to make their music sounded ‘contemporary’ and ‘new’, which is distinctive from the tonal idiom of the common practice period.  Minimal music, textural music, serial music, chance music, pointillistic music, free tonal music and many different kinds of music flourished our music garden.


    In the course of seeking ‘contemporary’ sound for the music, interestingly, there are two main controversial issues arouse.  Some composers prefer writing their ‘new’ sounded music by using the traditional Western musical language, which is regarded as a kind of international musical language though it is rooted from European musical tradition.  They believe that this kind of musical language has been generally and widely accepted by the listeners for a long time and could be enough to express their music in a ‘contemporary’ way.  They do not depend on the national elements to produce a newly and originally sounded composition.  Another composers, by contrary, would intend to develop a unique kind of musical language and a new tonal system of their own by adopting musical elements from the musical tradition of their nations.  Therefore, the music would reflect a non-Western style and the musical sound, of course, is ‘contemporary’ or ‘new’ to the common music audiences. 


    To Hong Kong local composers, the same issue is raised.  Some Hong Kong composers, returning from the overseas after studied abroad, started to write the contemporary music in Western-based musical language.  They believed that their music could still sound new and contemporary through this way.  They did not feel a necessity to focus on the Chinese musical elements to create the ‘contemporary’ sounded music.  However others did not agree to this belief.  They claimed that a real ‘new’ and ‘contemporary’ Chinese music is a kind of music that is rooted only from Chinese traditional music.  Only through composing in a national style, or at least putting some national characters in their music that the music can sound “contemporary,” which is distinctive from the West.  Focusing on the national elements, therefore, becomes a tool to produce a ‘new’ or ‘fresh’ musical sound, which is non-Western style to the audenices.


    Therefore, if we really concern the development of the Hong Kong contemporary music, we will want to find out the answer.   After watching the JVC Video of The World Music ad Dance – East Asia, this tape perhaps, provides us some illuminations.


    The content of this video can separate into two main parts discussing about the folk music of Xinjiang Ugur and Mongolia.  Both places are belonged to autonomous regions of People’s Republic of China.  Their music belongs to the minority nations’ music.  To me, as an audience without too much knowledge on their folk music, it is interesting to find that the music is rather ‘contemporary’ sounded.  I think there may be four factors that affecting the music sounded ‘modern’, that is, the traditional instrumental color, rhythm, melodic linear motion and vocal gestures. 


    Firstly, the most notable feature that made the music of Xinjiang and Mongolian sounded ‘contemporary’ to me is the traditional instrumental timbre.  Penderecki, an important avant-garde music composer in our day, has once stated that the problem of nowadays’ contemporary music is that its sound is not ‘contemporary’ because the instruments we commonly used are too old.  We have great developments in musical style, musical techniques and musical system, but there is no change in instruments that we used in our music.  We are still writing pieces for violin, flute, or trumpet but these western musical instruments already have a few hundred years’ history.  In fact, today’s listeners are familiar with the timbre of these western instruments.  In the video, we can hear some special sound produced by xushtar (bowed instrument), dutar (plucked lute), daf (tambourine-like percussion) and many different kinds of conventional instruments but sound unconventional to the general audience.  The timbre of the plucked instruments, dutar and yangqin in the music Mashrap – circle dance and Panjgah – mukam – classical music give me a fresh impression.  These two instruments can be used for playing accompaniment to the singers or dancers and also for playing main theme in an ensemble.  The Mongolian Morin xuur (string instruments) is another wonderful instrument for producing emotional (new) musical sound.  In the song Urtiin duu, the morin xuur player plays a highly ornamented line that matches the complexity of the sung part and the effective playing skills such as trills and other fine melodic ornaments produce a sound of lonely mood and strengthen the vocal part of the singer. 


    Secondly, the rhythm is another essential factor that contributes the ‘contemporary’ feeling to the music.  In the Western classical music, metric division or pulse is a significant feature (except the music in middle ages).  Music usually progresses in pulse.  There is no obvious sense of free rhythm.  In the Mongolian song Urtiin duu, it is sung in free rhythm.  If we listen closely, you will hear that the leisurely melody is structurally divided into three repeating section and it is improvised by the singer freely to express the mood of the music.  In addition, the Xinjiang Threshing song and lullaby are also in free rhythm.  Perhaps, the lullaby is truly a universal form for all ethnic groups in the world and thus, improvisation is one of the most natural ways to express the mood of the song. 


    We often agree that Western music tradition emphases the vertical relationship, that is, the harmonic relationship.  Therefore, it will be a new experience for the listeners to hear the music that focus on melodic linear motion, but not harmonic progression.  The ensemble music of Xinjiang and Mongolian always possess melodic patterns in different parts forming a somewhat heterophonic texture.  Sometimes, a vocal line is accompanied by another instrumental line with ornamental decorations.  In the Mongolian song Urtiin Duu (The beautiful sun of the universe), the morin xuur gives pitch to the singer.  The two performers then create their melody together, with each sometimes anticipating, sometimes lagging slightly behind the other.  Also, the melodic lines are constructed from some non-western scales, for example, the modal scale.  In the Xinjiang song, Doppasorman, the initial melodic line contains many augmented seconds. These melodic patterns sound ‘contemporary’ or ‘strange’ to the audience.


    Finally, the Xoomij, a kind of throat singing, is also an important feature to make the folk music sounded ‘contemporary’.  In the Western musical tradition, the Italian bel-canto is nearly an orthodox singing style for all kinds of vocal music.  But xoomij, is another kind of vocal style and it can produce multiphonic musical sound.  There are several varieties of xoomij, focusing on different parts of the singer’s body: the nose, throat, or diaphragm.  Each has a slightly different timbre, but the basic voice production technique is the same.  When we listen to the Mongolian song, the chestnut horse with round hooves, and the dzoroo horse that walks with small steps like a sheep, a contemporary musical sound is easily heard.  This is not the sound produced by familiar bel-canto singing style.  Of course, the judging of this ‘contemporary’ sound is based on different aesthetic. You may like it or dislike it but, unavoidably, it sounds new and uncommon. 


    Although some of the music performed in this volume still contains many common western musical elements, for example, in the Xinjiang Group dance, Dance solo and Mashrap, we can find the obvious rhythmic pulse and meter or other western melodic characters, still, there are many non-western elements inside, which are the sources of the ‘contemporary; and ‘new’ sound.  Perhaps, it is undeniable to assert that the traditional musical elements can assist in producing contemporary sounded music.  For all Hong Kong contemporary music composers, of course, the musical tradition is not meant Mongolian or Xinjiang folk music.  Determining what is ‘Hong Kong tradition’ will be a different issue.  However, inheriting from our tradition for composing can be regarded as one of the effective and useful ways to write a ‘new’ or ‘contemporary’ composition.

    David Leung (theorydavid)

    2013-01-02 Published

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