Blurring Resonances of Compositional Creativity: The Keyboard in the 21st Century at HKBU
After devouring subtly delicious Wonton noodles (suddenly tasty after hours of walking around Causeway Bay), at Hong Kong airport, I am left waiting amidst wood-panelling divisions for my flight home to Sydney after the blur of creative thought and friendships that characterised my last week in the harbour city. It was the aftermath of a whirl of Dim Sum feasts, not least those with my favourite zheng player Tanching Chiu, and the blurring resonances of the group of composers from around the globe assembled by festival artistic director, Matthew Schreibeis, at Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) for The Keyboard in the 21st Century, 4-5 April 2019. From this ninth-floor wood-panelled concert hall, sitting under mountain precipices—almost like those etched into scholarly retreats of the Chinese literati in landscape painting, two distinguished visiting American composers—one of Greek heritage, the other of Mexican—led the two days, with twelve participating composers from abroad selected from the strong interest expressed in the event with 140 entries, and diverse and rich creatives (composers and pianists) on the faculty of HKBU. Schreibeis’s hope was that the deep ‘intellectual inquiry’ of the blurring resonances of the potentially rich creativity of the upcoming two days would lead to ‘renewed creative fire’ in the musicians; it seemed to me, that the ninth-floor panelled walls became a type of literati pine grove for practice-led composers assembled in China to have cross-firing ideas to stimulate further creativity around the globe. Thinking to myself, as a composer participant, it appeared that the musical creative streams fell into both braided rivers of genuine personal expressions and deep cultural questions of identity drawn from several continents with their reverberating traditions reinvented in largely keyboard music.
The conference journey began, for me, in the cool relief of the practice rooms from the Hong Kong heat, with lingering gong-like prepared piano resonances in the embodied, breath-like gestural playing of pianist Kawai Chan in my own work, Qi Colours from Hidden Resonances. Kawai’s playing, both in rehearsal and in Concert II: The Global Keyboard II, was like a large modulation of quivering energies within a single resonance of sound like an uttered breath. Her sudden and gentle body movement carved the motion visually as the sound emerged with sudden-energy moments and delicate lingering, as if intuitively following the literati notion of qiyun—where sound or calligraphy or breath has a type of creative life that connects. Scholar Edward Ho sees this approach to art, which is multidisciplinary in nature, as ‘Qi is air in motion or energy with the power to transmit force, to sustain motion and to communicate between realms…it essentially involves breathing[i]’ (Ho 1997, p.37). Interestingly, the pianist’s interpretation was visual and sonic—an embodied gesture which shaped the breath of sound. In a sense, it follows in the romantic tradition of Chopin interpretation, that creative process researchers Eric Clarke and Jane Davidson note, where bodily movements of the pianist increase as the phrase climaxes[ii] (Clarke and Davidson 1998, pp.82-86). However, the Hong Kong pianist’s interpretation was more like the structural whole as a single breath, rather than a Chopinesque disruptive moment. Interestingly, HKBU faculty member Austin Yip’s music City Beats (harpsichord, electronics and video) in the culminating event, Concert 5: Music of HKBU Faculty Composers, was also like a gigantic breath, but with a difference. The work went like a rollicking train of breathlessness, at first jitteringly minimalistic in the manner of Steve Reich—played with steely precision by his friend Kawai Chan—but then suddenly gaining in raucous layers of recorded sound as MTR subway sounds of Hong Kong and transfigured gamelan gong samples cut across things; it was as if the multi-layers of raucous sound mirrored the rich nine sounds of six-toned based Cantonese language, but in type of spicy Mong Kok food collaboration that we had enjoyed together the night before. The Taiwanese landscape and city imagery in filmic images shimmered over the Hong Kong subway soundscape underpinned by the metallic joy of harpsichord franticness; perhaps a genuinely intuitively life statement, symbolic of a new Taiwanese romantic connection for this Hong Kong based composer. Kawai’s interpretation in both pieces was but a breath; yet it pointed to the roots of East Asian culture in both composers, the distilled mediative breathing of hidden literati scholars in an upper room on the mountain of a Pacific located identity, and the frantic rhythms of strong qi-life, almost symbolic of composers negotiating the density of East Asian life in Mong Kok.
Mexican-born, American resident composer Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez and American composer of Greek heritage, George Tsontakis led the festival as the distinguished guest composers. Here, two differing approaches to composition were apparent: one, was an abstract Western art music pitch-based approach to composition focussed on large forms and textures with a subconscious Greek edge to it; whilst the other, was more intimate, finding its expression in piano and percussion propulsion within micro forms that were deeply rooted in a Mexican warmth and drive. The erudite Tsontakis opened the conference with his engaging informality, strutting large ideas from small card indexes, with a message of ‘flying under the radar’ as a composer and developing sound worlds that were not self-focussed nor stretched to the whole world, but rather were hewn personal sound-worlds written for like-minded aestheticians, both performers and listeners. In short, the engagingly casual orator communicated the energy and value of developing one’s own sound world, not one influenced by trying to be fashionable. In the large-scale piano architecture of Ghost Variations, Tsontakis’s wildly crazy identity driven from Greek rhythmic propulsion of traditional stringed bouzouki-like dance mania was matched by a raw new-world American energy of a mountain residing man but within careful early twentieth century European harmonic language. Here, the Herculean proportions of the Hammerklavier-like Beethoven proportions needed three brilliant Hong Kong based pianists to bring it off—Yoonie Han’s rhythmic energy, Christiane San’s subtly, and the bristling virtuosity of Kiu Tung Poon in Concert III: Music of George Tsontakis.
In stark contrast to the pure music approach of Tsontakis, was the carefully considered manifesto-approach of Mexican-born composer, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez. In his illuminating, creative process exposition, Sanchez-Gutierrez carefully identified the multiple sources of his inspiration from visual art abstraction of bulls in Picasso, playful actions of Mexican children losing their marbles kinetically, and sonic perpetual movement in West African-influenced Mexican Folk music from the bones of a Mexican “Son Jarocho[iii].” A telling moment in his considered practice-led scholarly talk, was where he revealed how his graduate school teacher, American composer Lucas Foss, had pointed out that he was not a melancholic Crumb-like figure of his imitative student scores, but one of almost verbose, warmth of humanness in language that needed to find this type of verbal sonic gesture as a musical expression. What was evident in the music that followed was the exciting and considered Latin warmth in Sanchez-Gutierrez’s Mexican percussive energy, working from fire-ball blazing to distilled, elongating of the Mexican “Son Jarocho” materials, to the stretched and considered voice leading ending, almost a bone-like memory to end the captivating solo piano work Mano a mano, “Ariles y más ariles,” in the lecture-concert, Taking a line for a walk: Composing in the 21st Century—Music of Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez. Indeed, Picasso’s 1945 eleven lithograph series based on abstractions a of meaty bull figures to bone-like line drawing, was evident in the abstraction of Mexican “Son Jarocho” materials and echoes of Mexican church bells; however, more important than visual abstraction was the sense of nostalgic loss at the end of the work. As Sanchez-Gutierrez promised, Hong Kong pianist Cherry Tsang ‘played the heck out of the piece’ with a frightening bull-like velocity of the Pamplona running of the bulls, but then suddenly centred to an almost mediative East Asian reflective quality at the end, as in Kawai Chan’s handling of the subtle undertones of Chinese yun qualities out of qi breathing energy in the earlier mentioned Qi Colour in my own work. In a sense, the work was like an imagined Mexico that has perhaps disappeared—a type of ‘Mythical Mexico’ of warmth that the composer longs for in the cold regions near the Canadian border of America’s Rochester where he teaches music. This yearning for identity, gives birth to a Mexican propelled warmth—even stretching into the bones of Latin culture in Spain via Picasso—a type of sonically imagined space resplendent with Mexican identity subconsciously. Or, as Carlos put it earlier, a nostalgia for a place not yet visited or really known. In a sense, my own Asia-Pacific background as a composer from Australasia searching for the warmth of a place dreamed about—a blurring, drifting Asian-Pacific identity of meditative sound—in the cold regions of York in the North of England where I studied as a graduate student, allowed me to identify with Sanchez-Gutierrez’s cultural identity approach. In short, it is a sound of an identity deeply felt-inside, yet not known fully, but emergent and longed for within wood-panelled rooms, below a mountainous drifting scene in Kowloon Tong.
In the aftermath of the global gathering of a type of literati—the scholarly musicians from under the mountain at Kowloon Tong who moved into the densely populated Mong Kok—my friend Tanching and I quietly caught the elevator to the twenty-first floor of the Lyndhurst Tower in Central Hong Kong to the Alisan Fine Arts gallery. We stepped out of the elevator into an intimate space of meditatively energetic ink paintings by Lui Shou-kwan[iv]—the pioneer of the new ink tradition in Hong Kong. Here, deep roots in Chinese landscape painting merged in fluid ink gestures of considered space in a new hybrid grounded with American abstract expressionist-like techniques, perhaps in ways that were mirrored by the sonic energies of contemporary music merging with various world traditions in the earlier conference. Amidst the noisy Parisians in the gallery looking to buy ink paintings held by Alisan Fines Arts from their recent Art Basel showing, Tanching and I quietly agreed that Lui Shou-kwan’s Sunlight[v] (1972), constructed of Chinese ink and colour on rice paper, was our favourite painting. This densely rich painting of dark, thick qi-like ink gestures gently bleeding into opaque sketchiness of suspended subtle yun places sat in a duality of heaven and earth, amidst a slip of lop-sided central space. Hints of subtle green hues—like the colour of love in Chinese opera, which I saw in the intimate Tea House of the new Xiqu Centre in West Kowloon—glowed through the earthly picture plane. Above this, striking sunset-like red colours floated and calligraphically etched the sky, spreading through the heavenly portion of the picture to sit as type of delicate balancing of the subtly lop-sided central space. We stood as if spirit had shimmered through the surface from the Zen-inspired painter to the two Christians enjoying the heavenly breath gestures of the Chinese ink and colour. It seemed to me, as a composer, that here was a visual model of how the new hybridity of contemporary life can reverberate with the mystery of tradition and gestural rhythms of current life towards identity in artistic expression, both visually and sonically.
Later, the perfect end to these blurring resonances of identity in Hong Kong came; Tanching took me to her studio high above Causeway Bay, and gently and precisely with undulating beauty of quivering zheng single tones magically unfolded the resonances of her new Taiwanese guzheng in both an improvisation and in her teacher, Jiao Jinhai’s new composition. In a sense, she was a living embodiment of venerable Chinese-American composer Chou Wen-chung’s descriptions of qin tones and Confucianist concepts of the single moment of sound—I think for a moment I was in a type of sonic heaven of spirit gestures. For Chou, the East Asian root of sound is found in philosophical ideas, such as ‘Yueh Chi, states that “one must investigate sound to know tones, investigate tones to know music[vi].”’ High above the harbour side city in Hong Kong on the tenth floor, Tanching’s gently worked yun tone emergences from sharply struck, harpsichord-like metallic timbres of a type of qi energy made me want to both wait and create. I think that conference organiser Schreibeis’s aim had come to fruition—I just wanted to get back to my East coast Australian bush in Sydney at the foot of the Blue Mountains, with bell-birds, waiting kangaroos and lush green vistas amid tall gum trees with hints of eucalyptus scents, to start imaging sounds again.
[i] Ho, Edward (1997). ‘Aesthetic Considerations in Understanding Chinese Literati Musical Behaviour,’ British Journal of Ethnomusicology, Vol. 6, pp. 35-49.
[ii] Clarke, Eric and Jane Davidson. ‘The Body in Performance,’ pp. 74-92 in Thomas, Wyndham (1998), Composition—Performance—Reception: Studies in the Creative Process in Music. Aldershot (UK): Ashgate.
[iii] Schreibeis, Matthew (Conference Organizer). An International Conference for Composers: The Keyboard in the 21st Century. Kowloon Tong: Hong Kong Baptist University Department of Music, 2019, pp.14-15.
[iv] ‘Lui Shou-kwan Pioneer of New Ink: A Centenary Celebration,’ 25 March to 16 May 2019, Alisan Fine Arts, 21/F Lyndhurst Tower, 1 Lyndhurst Terrace, Central, Hong Kong.
[v] King Yao, Daphne (Director). Lui Shou-kwan Pioneer of New Ink: A Centenary Celebration. Hong Kong: Alisan Fine Arts, 2019, pp.21, 91.
[vi] Chou, Wen-chung (1970). ‘Single Tones as Musical Entities: An Approach to Structured Deviations in Tonal Characteristics,’ Journal of the Society of American Composers, Vol 3. See: https://chouwenchung.org/writing/excerpts-from-single-tones-as-musical-entities-an-approach-to-structured-deviations-in-tonal-characteristics/ Accessed 9 April 2019.