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[Community Reports]

A column about past, present and future ongoings in international electroacoustic and related communities [index].

Electronic Music in China

An earlier version of this article was published by The EMF Institute, Electronic Music Foundation, Ltd., in 2006.


Although the beginnings of electronic and computer music in China date back only to the mid-1980s, early initiatives by a small number of individual enterprising composers have spawned a wealth of diverse activity. Several key composers studied abroad and returned to China grounded in various European æsthetics and compositional and technical disciplines, while at the same time traditional Chinese instruments and æsthetics have often emerged as integral elements in a new, complex and fascinating musical synthesis.

The most significant developments in electronic music have taken place at the Central Conservatory in Beijing, but creative work has grown at other universities and, more recently, outside academia. As composer Ping Jin observes, the number of institutions with studios is likely to grow as resources become available: “Many conservatories have been trying to build a program but lack both faculty and funding.” Speaking for the non-academic musicians, composer Dajuin Yao cites a Chinese proverb: “The wrapping can no longer contain the fire inside.”

Historical Context

As in many parts of the world, the development of electronic music in China required more than artistic interest. Rather, a cluster of social, political and economic conditions had to be achieved to prepare the way for the start of studios and academic programs. The growth of the necessary technological infrastructure required industrialization and urbanization, political stability, and foreign investment, all achievements of the 1980s. As a consequence, by 1986, approximately 35,000 students were sent abroad to gain technical expertise and China’s higher educational institutions began a period of rebuilding, following the challenges they faced during the Cultural Revolution.

It was within this context that China’s first generation of composers-to-be of electronic music traveled abroad to study and gained the training that allowed them to develop institutions such as the studios at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. The first electronic music studio at the Central Conservatory was in operation during the late 1980s, a period of student protests and frustration at the slow pace of reform. The decade ended with the disbanding of the studio when its founder immigrated to the United States.

The early 1990s were a time of economic restructuring and rapid development. It was at this point that Zhang Xiaofu returned from graduate studies in Europe with a vision of establishing a budding program of electronic music built upon the French model. The time was ripe for the introduction of new technology and Western æsthetic ideas in a new studio at this major Chinese musical institution. In time, the studio would expand its conceptions in new directions, including integrating traditional Chinese musical concepts into these new musical approaches.

Electronic Music at the Central Conservatory in Beijing

In 1984, Yuanlin Chen and a group of fellow graduate students at the Beijing Conservatory, among them Tan Dun, Zhu Shi-rui, Chen Yi, and Zhou Long, presented the first electronic music concert composed and performed by Chinese composers. According to Ping Jin, the program consisted largely of works performed live with synthesizers, using some pre-recorded material. Zhang Xiaofu describes this event as significant in large part because none of the students knew what an electroacoustic performance should be like and so they followed their imagination.

Regardless of how it may be assessed now, this was indeed the first electronic music concert composed and performed by composers in China. It is significant in part simply because it came first, but also because it represents an example of an important historical phenomenon: the participants had no previous experience of what an electronic music concert might be and had to use their own imaginations to conceive of the most basic ideas. Few people ever invent new things from scratch and this was one of those occasions. Other parallel events that come to mind include the moment when Halim El-Dabh imagined that technology could imitate the types of timbral changes made by the voices of traditional Egyptian singers or the visions of John Cage and Edgard Varèse who imagined sounds previously unheard of before technology existed to realize their dreams. These are rare moments to celebrate.

In 1986, Yuanlin Chen founded the first studio at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, which he called the Computer and Electronic Music Studio. Fitted with synthesizers, it became the first studio in China to be devoted to composition. Chen had traveled abroad to study at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and returned to China to teach electronic music and composition. His music has included works for Chinese and Western instruments and electronics. During his time as director, he maintained contacts abroad, participating in the Culture Exchange Program in Electronic and Computer Music in Austria. He remained director of the Computer and Electronic Music Studio for five years, eventually immigrating to the United States in 1991. He has periodically returned to the Central Conservatory as a visiting professor.

The fact that a studio does not succeed beyond its early years does not render it insignificant. While it may reflect neither the depth and complexity nor the longevity of the subsequent Center for Electronic Music in China , this was a first step. A number of the first attempts at creating studios internationally ultimately failed. For instance, Bulent Arel, a composer who worked at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, in New York City, during its first years, returned to Turkey in 1963 to attempt to open a studio. Administrative problems made this impossible and the next studio did not open for several decades. The earliest informal studios in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the 1950s also did not directly lead anywhere except to spark the interest of composers who would later do important work. None of these efforts directly resulted in significant musical production or sustained institutions, but they reflect an arc of historical achievement that is indirectly part of what makes us who we are today, whether we are aware of it or not.

In 1993, Zhang Xiaofu became director of a newly created Center of Electroacoustic Music of China at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, following the demise of Yuanlin Chen’s Computer and Electronic Music Studio. Zhang graduated from the Central Conservatory and then joined the faculty in 1983. He composed his first electronic work, Chanting, for bamboo flute and tape, in 1987. Like Chen, he traveled abroad to further his education in electronic music. In 1988, Zhang was sent by the Chinese government to study composition at the École Normale de Musique de Paris and at the Conservatoire Edgar Varèse, attending master classes given by Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Edison Vasalievich Denisov. Zhang extended his studies for a second year to explore electronic music, which led to invitations to spend time at La Muse en Circuit, IRCAM, and GRM, the first in a series of composer exchanges between Chinese and European studios. He returned to China in 1992, and initiated development of the Center of Electroacoustic Music of China. Its æsthetic direction followed the French tradition of musique concrète, which Zhang had studied in Paris. His music is highly spatialized and draws upon sounds of nature, the human voice, and Chinese instruments.

Under Zhang’s leadership, the Center’s activities have included courses and lectures, expanding in 1997 to include a master’s degree program and, in 2005, doctoral studies. Zhang’s vision is to operate an educational institution that stretches from high school studies through the doctorate. While his focus remains on composing using recorded sounds, Zhang is also interested in bringing to China greater expertise in computer-generated sound and in creating a broader context where new works can be heard. To that end, he founded Musicacoustica-Beijing, a biennial electronic music festival, in 1994.

The Central Conservatory also contains a Multimedia Music Center, directed by Wang Ning, who also directs the Composition Department at the Central Conservatory and serves as vice-chairman of the Electroacoustic Music Association of China. Wang’s live electronic works include Wu Ji, a computer concerto scored for computer music, voice and Chinese instruments, commissioned by GRAME (Centre National de Crèation Musicale), a music research group in Lyons, France.

Other Academic Studios

In 1984, a MIDI facility devoted to the study of music theory, ear training, the transcription and notation of traditional Chinese melodies and timbral analysis opened at the Shanghai Jaio Tong University, whose Music Conservatory, founded in 1927, was the first in China. The University’s computer department also started a master’s degree in electronic music, in coordination with the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. The focus of these efforts was research relating to music within existing non-electronic traditions.

An electronic music studio is also hosted by the Wuhan Conservatory of Music’s Department of Music Composition & Engineering. Among its faculty members are Censong Leng, a graduate of the University who teaches computer music and multimedia and Zhongliang Tong, a music theorist who teaches computer music education. Yet another studio, the Electronic Music Laboratory, was established in 2002 by the Chinese University of Hong Kong. It is outfitted with a wide array of instruments, from analog synthesizers, a theremin, digital synthesizers, Kyma system, recorders and 15 computer workstations. Courses are offered in the history and æsthetics of electronic music, composition and recording.

Electronic Music Beyond Academia

Beginning in the 1990s, homegrown forms of electronic music and sound art began to appear across China. These have included Sound Units that engage in field recording in Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere, described by founder Dajuin Yao as “continuously documenting, observing, re-thinking, analyzing, re-contextualizing the raw sound objects.” This is a fascinating phenomenon, combining forms of environmental sound documentation pioneered in Canada with oral history and contemporary editing techniques. A growing number of young Chinese musicians are also involved in noise improvisation, electronica, and other forms that meld popular and experimental traditions. These are areas of musical expression that are unfolding in the present. In time, later writers will be able to reflect upon them in meaningful ways.

One question to be considered is whether connections can be built between the academic and the more experimental worlds. Electronic music is a very broad field internationally, without any one genre or æsthetic predominating. Is it possible to appreciate the variety of creative expression in this field while maintaining a concern for æsthetic values and excellence?

Among the most active and enterprising young Chinese composers is Dajuin Yao. Born in Taiwan, Yao was first exposed to the use of electronic sounds during the 1970s in the jazz-fusion music by Miles Davis, Weather Report and John McLaughlin and in the the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio and Steve Reich. In an August 30, 2003 correspondence, Yao notes that at the time, “working with electronic music was something totally beyond our means.” Inspired by workshops presented by visiting French composer Jean-Claude Eloy, Yao continued his studies in the United States, at the University of California at Berkeley. While abroad, his connection to electronic music in China deepened, and in 1999 he co-founded the Chinese Computer Music Association which sponsored the 1999 International Computer Music Conference in Beijing. In 2004, he curated the first survey of Chinese sound art and experimental music for an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In 2005, he began teaching the first sound art and computer music course at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, in the People’s Republic of China and on Taiwan, at Taipei University of the Arts. Yao’s commitment to both China’s is reflected in his weekly FM radio broadcasts, “ / sub.borg,” starting in 2000, which can be aired in both Taiwan and the People’s Republic.

Technology and Tradition

While electronic music in China has been influenced by the history of the field in the West, Chinese composers have begun integrating European traditions with various aspects of traditional Chinese music. This synthesis has become a distinctive feature of electronic and computer music in the country. Works composed for Chinese instruments and electronics include Yuanlin Chen’s Primary Voice, for Chinese traditional instruments and electronics, Zhang Xiafu’s Yaluzangbu, for Tibetan singers, electronic music, and orchestra, Dajuin Yao’s Dream Reverberations, which draws upon the tonal qualities of spoken Mandarin Chinese language, and Wang Ning’s Wu Ji, for computer music, voice, and Chinese instruments.

Numerous Chinese computer music researchers also presented work at the 1999 International Computer Music Conference in Beijing that addresses issues regarding traditional Chinese music. The integration of traditional instruments with computers and electronics has at times met with resistance from master performers of traditional Chinese music who fear diminishing the integrity of those traditions. As Dajuin Yao observes, “the use of traditional instruments in an electroacoustic setting must be done very carefully. Yes, it is indeed hard to integrate the two.”

The synthesis of various aspects of traditional Chinese music and technology is an area that is fascinating and worthy of discussion. This type of integration is in fact an international trend beginning in early 1970s, but strongest in 1980s and 90s, including creative work from South Korea, Guatamala, Peru, Bolivia, Turkey, Israel, the United States and elsewhere. It will be most interesting to follow where this trend leads as electronic music grows and develops in China, during the third decade of development and beyond.


Many thanks to Ralph Samuelson, Yuanlin Chen, Dajuin Yao, Ping Jin, Wang Ning, Kenneth Fields, Zhang Xiaofu, Anne Cseste, Catherine Gould Martin, Larry Polansky and Joel Chadabe for their kind assistance.

Other Resources

Post Concrete, Sound Art in China.

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