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Chinese composers' great leap forward

An Orange County festival draws upon musical figures who thrived artistically after Cultural Revolution turmoil.

October 04, 2009|Diane Haithman

They are the first Chinese men and women allowed to study Western classical music after Mao's decade-long Cultural Revolution, composers and musicians who have come to be known as Beijing Central Conservatory's "Class of 1978," named for the year they entered the school.

Their memories of the preceding period in which their families were shattered and their educations truncated include breaking into Red Guard storehouses of forbidden records, books and musical scores, and listening to Western pop music smuggled in by children of diplomats. When they were finally allowed to apply for admission and study, the experience was hardly open and free.

Composer Chen Qigang, 58, who made headlines last year as music director of the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, recalls that "Suddenly, the government told you, 'Yes, now you can go for entrance exams; the schools have reopened. . . .' It was very fierce competition, only the best people got in. . . .

"The schools had to recover from the old teaching system, which is the Russian system -- even classical Western music was considered anti-Revolution; it was forbidden," says Liu Sola, 54, a composer, performer and writer who created a popular book on her conservatory experiences and whose compositions include elements of American rock, pop and jazz. "So after 10 years, the teachers could teach classical techniques, but they were afraid to go too far. . . . We couldn't hear 20th century music. We couldn't find the scores of Bartok and Stravinsky and Schubert."

Three of the class of '78 -- Qigang, Liu and Tan Dun, prominent composers with international reputations -- will have work featured in "Ancient Paths, Modern Voices: A Festival Celebrating Chinese Culture," a West Coast offshoot of Carnegie Hall's New York festival. It will be presented next Sunday through Nov. 24 by Segerstrom Center for the Arts and Philharmonic Society of Orange County.

Qigang and Liu spoke to The Times from Beijing about their musical life during and after the Cultural Revolution. Tan, whose composition "Out of Peking Opera (Violin Concerto No. 1)" will be performed during the festival by violinist Cho-Liang Lin, accompanied by the Colburn Orchestra, was unavailable for comment. Los Angeles audiences may remember Tan for his "Water Passion After St. Matthew." Performed at Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2005, the work called for 17 translucent, illuminated, amplified water bowls used as percussion instruments.

Many of their peers were the children of China's creative, urban and intellectual families. They were banned from higher education because the pursuits and values of their parents were seen as a threat to the proletarian ideals of Mao Tse-tung, chairman of the Communist Party of China.

"It's a very simple story -- for 10 years, young people who wanted to go to school, who wanted to study, didn't have the chance," Qigang said.

On top of being barred from study, these children of the elite were often forcibly separated from their parents and relocated to the countryside for reeducation.

Liu and Qigang were separated from their families during the Cultural Revolution; Liu was raised in Beijing by a former nanny while her father was sent to a prison for high officials and her mother, a political writer, was sent to a labor camp in the mountains. Because her parents had already been sent away, she rebelled by listening to Western pop music (brought in by friends from the families of diplomats) and dressed in "hippie" clothes. "I wasn't afraid of anything because my parents were already in jail, there was nothing they could do to me," she says. Banned reading materials and music could be found via underground bookshops. "You could always find a way," Liu says.

Qigang's family was split up and sent to various locations in the countryside; as a middle school student, he was able to continue playing clarinet in a youth ensemble, but only a limited range of government-sanctioned compositions were allowed to be played.

"I was 17; I was not old enough to take care of myself, but I had to," Qigang says. "Looking back, this was a very valuable experience."

He recalled the origins of the music kept under lock and key as unsuitable for hearing. "The Red Guard raided the homes of music teachers and took all the scores and books and records and locked them up in rooms," he said.

Being denied entry to the music conservatory for a decade only whetted the composers' appetite for knowledge when the institution's doors finally opened, Qigang says.

It was perhaps that insatiable hunger that propelled them to international prominence: Tan Dun, 52, is perhaps best known to U.S. audiences for his Academy Award-winning score for Ang Lee's film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

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