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Conversation with Xiaofu Zhang, Chinese Composer

The “Oriental element” in Chinese electroacoustic works

This text is based upon a conversation between Ping Jin and Zhang Xiaofu in Beijing in July 2005. Bob Gluck provided the questions and crafted the narrative. Originally published at the EMF Institute in 2006.

Zhang Xiaofu (*1954) is director of The Center for Electroacoustic Music of China (CEMC) at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. His musical æsthetic is based upon French musique concrète traditions and sounds of nature, the human voice and Chinese instruments.

As we approached graduation in 1983–1984, my fellow students — Yuanlin Chen, Tan Dun, Zhu Shi-rui, Chen Yi, Zhou Long, Tan Yung In — and I began to explore electronic music and media. In 1984, we did a student concert, using one or two synthesizers, a keyboard and some pre-recorded material. It was a live performance, but I don’t think of what we did to be “electronic music” in a real sense. None of us had any idea about how to produce or do an electronic music concert. We had never seen any nor heard anything like it. We imagined what it might be and so we just did it as best we could. None of those pieces have remained. One of us, Yuanlin Chen, also composed an electronic work for his graduation, a section of a small opera, largely using MIDI gear.

It is hard to say who was the first person to compose electronic music in China. The first music that I personally composed using exclusively electronic means is still not anything that I consider to be real electronic music. It was created with Chen Lui-Lin for a three-episode Chinese television drama. In that piece, we used found sounds instead of a traditional sense of melody or harmony. My first work that I think of as true electronic music was Chanting, composed in 1987 for Chinese bamboo flute and tape. I used ten synthesizers and a 24-track tape recorder.

Electronic music really started in China when some of the composers (including me) went to study abroad. Going to Europe gave us a real sense of what electronic music is. In 1989, the Chinese Ministry of Culture sent me to France for a year to study contemporary, but not electronic composition. After that year, I decided to extend my stay using my own money and a scholarship. After that, I returned to China, although I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Since no one was working in electronic music in China, I decided to make that my emphasis. Things picked up rapidly when composer Xu Shuya and I won prizes in electronic music back in Europe, in 1992–1994. We began to believe that our understanding of electronic music was on the right track. 1[1. For more on the Chinese electronic music history see Bob Gluck’s Community Report on “Electronic Music in China” published in in eContact! 11.3 — Logiciels audio « open source » / Open Source for Audio Application (September 2009).]

The electronic music educational program at the Central Conservatory in Beijing began with a master’s program in 1997. We began an undergraduate program in 2001, a course of studies that is unique in its intensity. Now, I am recruiting doctoral students. I am the first and only faculty member in China designated to work with students on this level. At the Central Conservatory, composition students take four courses, including harmony, counterpoint, form and analysis, and orchestration. Electronic music composition students take these same core courses, but four others in addition. These include recording technique, electronic music production, computer music and acoustics theory.

Our focus on composition, rather than on recording technique, computer-generated sound or other areas, is partially due to our limited knowledge of these other disciplines. We will expand into other areas when we gain more knowledge. Right now, we are taking steps towards a greater use of computer programming, for example, Csound. My vision of electronic music education starts not just with undergraduates, but also with high school students. We have a high school program affiliated with the Central Conservatory. In fact, one of my students teaches there. I envision a program that runs from high school through the doctorate.

I have worked hard at building electronic music in China for more than ten years, and feel confident but not satisfied about the current stage. Things are moving in the right direction and are getting much better. The pace of developments sped up in 2001 and 2002. Hopefully in the future there will be a better balance between technological expertise and composition; we lack that expertise right now. I hope to see future music by Chinese musicians to be musically solid, but also accessible to more people, and to see it expand technologically beyond musique concrète.

I describe the creation of electronic music as consisting of three stages — sound generation, modifying and manipulating the sounds, and projecting and spatializing the sound for an audience in a concert setting. Different Chinese composers each have their own understanding of these three stages. Personally, I care most about the first stage. I do understand the importance of techniques to manipulate and digitally process sounds in stage two, but in China, we have limitations in knowledge. Regarding the third stage, like the French, we think of each speaker as if it were a member of an orchestra. In the 2004 Musicacoustica Festival, we used twenty-four speakers. The speakers each had their own character, being of different sizes and emphasizing different frequency ranges.

One of the features of our approach reflects what we have found to be Oriental elements in sound. For instance, most of my sound sources are drawn from nature, the human voice and Chinese instruments. These sounds give my music life and that is what I am looking for. I believe that these kinds of natural sounds have an inner beauty and represent Eastern æsthetics. It is very natural to follow this approach because the kinds of sounds that interest me are all around us in China. An example is the chanting Tibetan lamas that I found in Tibet. I use recorded sounds in my compositions, and only rarely, electronically generated sounds. Because of this strongly held preference, also influenced by the French school, most of my students follow the same approach.

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