Why Limit Yourself to East or West When You Can Have Both?

The Chinese pipa and, of course, the Western violin

The Chinese pipa and, of course, the Western violin

By Kiki Yang

Over the years, composers have often attempted to combine Chinese and Western music, with varying degrees of success.

One of the more famous, and more successful, attempts was the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto based on a well-known Chinese legend. The concerto was written for a western style orchestra but used the pentatonic, or five-note, scale to give it more of a “Chinese” flavor. It also featured a solo violin using various Chinese techniques.

Later on, some of the more notable "East-West" pieces have been done by the Silk Road Project led by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Many pieces played by the ensemble sound Chinese but also incorporate Indian and Middle Eastern elements because those were all stops along the historical trade routes that stretched all the way from the Mediterranean to the Korean Peninsula and Japan.

The musical compositions in the Silk Road Project are musically innovative, but it seems they are primarily interesting for their ethnic and regional tonality rather than having any aspirations to being “classical.” To me, they sound a little experimental, and that’s part of their appeal.

At times I simply forgot that it was “Chinese” or “ethnic” music (which I had never had much appreciation for in the past) and just thought of it as “music” the way it should be.

One place I’ve heard Chinese music done really well in a more classical, symphonic context is at a performance by Shen Yun Performing Arts. What’s special about Shen Yun’s orchestrations is that their musicologists and composers have done their research and are attempting to create compositions in a truly ancient style.

As far as I can gather, this ancient style means even though today’s Chinese music is primarily pentatonic, that wasn't the way Chinese music started out. Shen Yun incorporates Western instrumentation to add the major scales (diatonic and heptatonic), so it’s more like a 12-note scale. It’s on top of this rich orchestral foundation that Shen Yun layers the distinctive melodies of Chinese instruments like the pipa and two-stringed erhu.

The first time I heard this particular brand of classical Chinese music, I felt like I was hearing music that could have been played in the Chinese imperial court of some ancient dynasty—it was that sophisticated. The Western orchestra provided depth and nutrition while the Chinese instruments added just enough flavor and texture without being overwhelming.

Another thing that struck me was how the score was so much a part of the storytelling. The music was designed to accompany the dancers acting out various stories on stage, so it was never dull. At one point when a character was making fun of a goofy little monk, the Chinese suona (sort of a Chinese clarinet/kazoo) depicted his disparaging giggle, and I just had to laugh out loud. It was so unexpected and yet it captured the character’s sentiment so perfectly.

I had never heard anything like the Shen Yun music before, and yet it all seemed so familiar and so “right.” At times I simply forgot that it was “Chinese” or “ethnic” music (which I had never had much appreciation for in the past) and just thought of it as "music" the way it should be.

I always come out of these concerts feeling like I’ve just bathed in waves of positive energy for two hours. I can only describe it as feeling refreshed and somehow exhilarated in a calm sort of way.

Since that first Shen Yun performance, I have also attended performances of the Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, which is when the orchestra finally gets to come out of the pit and play on center stage. It’s a chance for the audience to focus on the music without being distracted by dancers and costumes. 

In the concerts, they always include some nicely chosen Western classical pieces as well, such as one of my favorites, the bright Procession of the Nobles by Rimsky-Korsakov or the crowd-pleasing Bugler's Holiday. I find these kinds of pieces refreshing, almost like cleansing my palate before the next round of richly layered, exotic dishes like the rousing Capturing Arrows with Boats of Straw, by Jing Xian. 

Of course, I am neither a musical purist nor an expert in the field, so I cannot speak to the level of finesse of this orchestra. And without more research, I wouldn't feel comfortable doing an actual review of the music of Shen Yun. From the audience's reaction these past few years, though, I think I can safely say the SY Symphony Orchestra concerts are generally considered to be highly enjoyable, perhaps more so than many other offerings out there on the classical scene.

Part of it may simply be because the program is so varied and includes pieces that simply can't be heard anywhere else. Successful examples of this kind of combining of Eastern and Western music and instrumentation are much rarer than one may think. Many have tried, and failed.

But there's more to this Shen Yun Orchestra's "enjoyability." I can't quite put my finger on it, but all I know is I always come out of these concerts feeling like I’ve just bathed in waves of positive energy for two hours. I can only describe it as feeling refreshed and somehow exhilarated in a calm sort of way.

All I know is each time I leave after the concert is over, I've already resolved to return the next year.