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East Meets West: Ye Xiaogang: What Should Chinese Musicians Talk to the World With?
Wang Ziwei and Gu Yetao
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East Meets West: Ye Xiaogang: What Should Chinese Musicians Talk to the World With?

(East Meets West) Ye Xiaogang: What Should Chinese Musicians Talk to the World With?

Beijing, 1 January (China News Service) -- Ye Xiaogang: What Should Chinese Musicians Talk to the World With?


There is a saying that in the classical music circle, no one that likes classical music will be unfamiliar with Mahler, and no one that likes Mahler will be unfamiliar with Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), a symphonic suite composed by the Austrian composer Mahler in 1908, inspired by seven German translations of Tang poems from Hans Bethge's Die Chinesische Flöte (The Chinese Flute). The lyrics are based on famous Tang poems such as The Song of Sorrow of Li Bai and A Night Mooring by the Maple Bridge of Zhang Ji, which is unique in the history of Western music.

In 2004, at the suggestion of Yu Long, Artistic Director of the China Philharmonic Orchestra, renowned Chinese composer Ye Xiaogang created a new orchestral work under the name The Song of the Earth, using the same original poems as the lyrics, and performed it in several countries, renewing this "bond between music and Tang poetry" across time and space.

Ye Xiaogang, Professor of the Composition Department of the Central Conservatory of Music and Chairman of the Chinese Musicians' Association, was recently interviewed exclusively by the China News Service's "East Meets West", discussing the creation of the Chinese version of The Song of the Earth and how the two versions of this song brought East and West together in the charm of ancient Tang poetry.

China News Service: The Chinese version of The Song of the Earth is a brand new work that tells the story of China. What was the opportunity and motivation for you to complete this work?

Ye Xiaogang: This is a challenging task for anyone, as Mahler's work is already well established in the history of music as a "European predecessor". To write another version of The Song of the Earth is like writing another version of the masterpiece The Red and the Black, which requires much courage.

However, at the same time, I am confident. On the one hand, as a Chinese, I have a better understanding of Chinese culture and can think from the perspective of my mother tongue, which gives me courage; on the other hand, as a Chinese composer, I have been well educated and nurtured in various genres of Chinese and foreign music, which gives me confidence that I can tell the Chinese story with an internationally recognised technical and academic support and a universal expression.

China News Service: What are the similarities and differences between Mahler's The Song of the Earth and the "Chinese version" you composed?

Ye Xiaogang: The Song of the Earth that I composed has almost nothing in common with Mahler's version except for the name. Mahler's The Song of the Earth was completed 100 years ago, and the German lyrics were translated from the French version of Chinese Tang poems, the meaning of which is not quite clear. He had some inspiration for Chinese poetry, but the context (from the original Tang poems) is entirely different and is understood from his own point of view. I composed The Song of the Earth using the original Tang poems and absorbed the enterprising spirit of Chinese poetry, for Li Bai's works are mostly not decadent and disappointing. So my music is also positive.

When Mahler wrote this work, he was in the late stages of his creation, a bit disillusioned with the world, so he expressed a sense of despair and loss with indescribable disillusionment and sadness after seeing the world clearly. I was in middle age when I wrote The Song of the Earth in 2004, ambitious about life, which is very different from Mahler's state.

I also used elements of opera performance in it, and the choice of instruments and melodies is very Chinese, which also makes the two works very different.

Ye Xiaogang: During the tour in Europe and the United States, I think Western audiences also appreciate the Chinese version of The Song of the Earth with the feeling of embracing a new work.

European audiences were receptive to the 'mash-up' of Chinese elements with Western orchestral music, but not initially. Historically, the European continent, with its 'Eurocentric' approach, was suspicious of British music, but eventually, it was recognised through the persistent efforts of British musicians.

Both Russian and Nordic music has gone through the same process in Europe. Russian music, for example, has a logic of its own, but because of its cultural strength, it has also become popular in Europe, where Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, for instance, are well received.

A unique Chinese-style concert was performed at Lincoln Center in New York City on 28 November 28 2021, with artists performing works by Ye Xiaogang.

Photo by Liao Pan, China News Service


China News Service: Are there any barriers for foreign musicians in interpreting Chinese works?

Ye Xiaogang: Musicians from overseas will not fail to understand my work because music is the only language without barriers.

But their attitudes change. Back then, when your music had not reached a certain level, people would have looked down on you. It is like technology. In the past, when China sought cooperation from the US for the space station, they looked down on us. Now that our technology for the space station has reached a good level, foreigners want to use our space station too.

Even though symphony is a foreign art, as long as the technical theory of your musical expression, the composition and the way you compose the music are not inferior to theirs, and you are using a common approach for both China and foreign countries, you can express your own content and label it as Chinese, which is undoubtedly recognised.

China News Service: Having toured overseas for more than ten years, you are a contemporary representative of Chinese music "going global". What experience from this process would you like to share with creators, disseminators and listeners?

Ye Xiaogang: "Going global" is an accumulative process, and the influence of art has to be gradually expanded, requiring a long period of tireless effort. When the Chinese version of The Song of the Earth was premiered in 2005 and performed abroad, foreign audiences were a bit confused after hearing it and thought it was a good attempt with only applause, which was all. It took 16 years before a recording of this work actually circulated in the international market, and people knew that your work was not bad. This also requires time. This year, I have released four records in one year, and they have all been very well received, which I did not dare to imagine when I wrote The Song of the Earth.

In the past, when it came to China Going Global, it was just acrobatics and Peking Opera, and people would look at it as a novelty, just like we used to treat Indian music - we took a look but would not want to learn it, because people would not feel that Indian music could express our own things.

However, the art of symphony is what musicians worldwide have to master, so when works such as The Song of the Earth come out, the international community has to pay attention to Chinese music as well. This is also thanks to the dedication of Chinese musicians over the years, and because I am standing on everyone's shoulders, I can go up.

I believe that with the country's strength, the tireless efforts of Chinese musicians, and the influence Chinese culture is exerting gradually and globally, outstanding Chinese musical works will be given their rightful places in the world.

The Symphony Orchestra of the Central Conservatory of Music performed works by Ye Xiaogang and other contemporary Chinese composers at Carnegie Hall in New York, the United States, on 13 December 13 2019.

Photo by Liao Pan, China News Service


China News Service: In your opinion, what should contemporary musicians pay attention to in the process of "building a bridge between China and the West with the stave"? What are your experiences and suggestions?

Ye Xiaogang: My advice to young musicians is to be diligent, enterprising, humble, and cautious, of which enterprising is especially important, because no one can say that they have reached the top. Every age has its zenith, and people who come after us look at our current music as classical, which is the same as the exploration of Beethoven and Chopin at the time - not everyone recognised them.

Young people have a lot more information now than we did then, but they need to keep a clear head and remain humble, understated and enterprising so that they can never stop. This is my personal and unforgettable experience.

In addition, young people nowadays accept more Western and modern things and have less exposure to traditional Chinese culture, especially traditional folk music, so their music is too international and lacks Chinese characteristics.

China News Service: You have repeatedly stressed "Chinese characteristics", what is the significance of "Chinese characteristics" for future exchanges between Chinese and Western music?

Ye Xiaogang: I think there is no problem with the exchange between China and the West, but it is difficult to say what influence China will have on the world. Chinese composers have had some influence on the international scene, but not very much. We have not developed the same kind of influence on the world as the Russian school had in the 19th century, because everyone is too modernist and too in sync with the world. But the fact is that China has characteristics, which make us confident, not modernism. Therefore, it is vital that young musicians need to be localised and down-to-earth in the creation process.

In my opinion, the strength of Chinese musicians and the main reason for Chinese music to gain a foothold in the world are its "Chinese characteristics". Chinese culture is unique and will become increasingly influential.

For our generation, we need only to seize the day to increase our influence internationally; for Chinese music, we need a little more time. (End)

Profile of the Interviewee:

Ye Xiaogang

Photo from the Interviewee


Ye Xiaogang, Professor of Composition and Doctoral Supervisor at the Central Conservatory of Music and Director of the School of Music at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (Shenzhen), is currently a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Vice-Chairman of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, Chairman of the Chinese Musicians' Association and Vice-Chairman of the International Music Council of the United Nations. He was selected as one of the first "Four Batches" of talents by the Publicity Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and an expert receiving the special allowance from the State Council. He is a music educator and a representative figure in contemporary Chinese music composition. His major works include symphonies, chamber music, operas, dance dramas, film and television music, etc. His representative works include symphonies such as Horizon and Great Wall Symphony, chamber music such as Eight Horses and Namtso, dance dramas such as Shenzhen Story and Bride of Macau, and operas such as Sing, Farewell and Yongle.


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