A World Tour of Music 3 – The Far East

In the musical traditions of China, Korea, Japan and Thailand the silence between the notes is as crucial as the notes themselves, making the music strange to western ears. Ken Hunt urges the unenlightened to marvel at what lies beyond the Great Wall.

While the culture of the Indian subcontinent has coloured the western psyche long enough to produce a receptivity to its two classical music systems, to a greater extent the music of the Far East remains, for western ears, as much a source of perplexity as an untapped source of joy for anyone willing to invest time in its myriad musical traditions. Much of it undoubtedly occupies a spatial and cultural realm of unfamiliar dimensions – ones often demanding westerners can easily dislocate their attention span from. Despite the best efforts of, say, Messiaen and his ballad-expansive rather than haiku-economical Sept Haïkaï, the temporal dynamics and musical organisation of the Orient may fox or nettle western conditioning attuned to that most human of rhythms, the heartbeat, or western bar lengths rather than extended cycles.

China, Korea, Japan and Thailand all have traditions placing great store in the judicious management of the silences between notes. Conceptually, silence can be as intrinsic to the piece’s appreciation as the notes sounded, as in ma (literally space), the note suspended in time and tempo and the surrounding silence, the picture and the frame, in Japanese court music.

In lumping Asian cultures together, westerners telescope Asia, doing it in a way that would rankle Europeans if someone were to do the same with, say, Germany, Greece, Finland and France. The Far East is the birthplace, cradle and nursery of notable art and ritual music traditions beside which, historically speaking, western classical music is still in its infancy. Even Japan’s relatively young classical traditions – sprung from the loins of China, so to speak – is some thousand years old.

China’s cultural complexity is of a magnitude to render a few scattered examples nigh meaningless. Taiwan’s outstanding Wind label alone contains Jie-Bing Chen’s er’hu (two-stringed fiddle) virtuosity, celebratory percussion music, music for ‘efficient sleep’ and healing, Taoist music from Formosa, the compositions of Dah-Wei Chen and Chi-Ming Leu (inspired by the lives of Buddhist masters) and the music of the Amis, Bunun and Yami aboriginal tribes.

China’s art music was a model for several Asian cultures. It could also exert an opposite influence. Gagaku, meaning ‘elegant music’, for example, was a manifestation of the cultural imperative to assert Nipponese cultural identity. It still took centuries for the Japanese to shake off the shackles of Chinese cultural ascendancy but gagaku was an expression of artistic self-determination.

Just as eating habits have transformed our palates and appreciation of food, the prospect of new musical flavours has likewise piqued many people’s curiosity. A desire to experience Far Eastern musical diversity is burgeoning. But Asian art music is no more stereotypical than Asian cuisine. It may be Confucian ruminative, Zen bright, agitatedly martial or it could be Thai jungle curry strength. To single out Chinese musicians, Jade Bridge, Jiang Jian Hua, Jie-Bing Chen, Tang Liangxing and Wu Man are all winning converts. On a parallel track the work of composer Tan Dun, whether his On Taoism or recent works for Kronos, has been attracting new audiences.

Because it is so diverse, some listeners will not click with Asian art music, so it is important to remember that in these days of politically correct lip service it is utterly in order not to like everything. The world is too big to absorb everything in one lifetime. That is why we make choices. But doors are swinging wide open and there has never been a better time to wander through and marvel at what lies behind those Great Walls.

Classic CD magazine, 1998


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