China’s relationship with classical music has been a troubled one, and rests on shallow foundations. Mao’s anti-western, anti-classical music campaigns are not much more than three decades old. But a sea change has been manifest, whether in the recent mass turn to the piano by 30 million Chinese children or the runaway success of the pianist Lang Lang, now celebrated in endorsement contracts from Adidas to Montblanc. The roots of this turn lie in the shaken generation of classical musicians and composers who returned to the conservatoires, after the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Music students swiftly acquainted themselves with aleatoric procedures and serialism, and combined these with jarring reminders of older Chinese folk forms, to reach an unsteady compromise. Chen Qigang, who blends modernist techniques and traditional Chinese textures, left to study under Olivier Messiaen in Paris, while Tan Dun, Chen Yi and Zhou Long moved to New York. Tan Dun, attracted by the Cageian soundworlds of his new city, began crafting avant-garde blockbusters, filled with ritualistic statements and lush romanticism. But the future of classical music in China remains unstable, as the demands of cultural consumption increasingly rub up against state censorship.
Iris dévoilée: Ingenue, Qigang Chen (2001)
Orchestral Theatre, Tan Dun (1990)
Heng, Zhou Long (1987)
Ba yin (i), Chen Yi (2001)
Image: China’s piano-mania (STR/AFP/Getty Images)