Cloud River Moun­tain

Cloud River Moun­tain, a col­lab­o­ra­tive work by four Western com­posers, is based on Chi­nese myths and leg­ends and fea­tures the ex­pres­sive voice of Chi­nese folk singer Gong Linna. re­ports.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at chen­nan@chi­ Chen Nan

Folk singer Gong Linna sings tale of Chi­nese lore to the West

One day in 2011, while on a tour of China with four other in­ter­na­tional com­posers, the Amer­i­can com­poser Michael Gor­don walked into a small mu­sic store filled with tele­vi­sions, all play­ing dif­fer­ent mu­sic videos. One in par­tic­u­lar caught his at­ten­tion. It was Gong Linna, a Chi­nese folk singer known for her ex­pres­sive voice.

“I had never seen or heard any­thing like Gong Linna and I was deeply im­pressed by her per­for­mance artistry,” re­calls Gor­don, who, through hand sig­nals, asked the store owner to write down the name of the artist.

A few days later, Gor­don at­tended a sym­po­sium on con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese mu­sic, and one of the speak­ers was the Ger­man com­poser Robert Zol­litsch, Gong’s hus­band.

Gor­don and Zol­litsch kept in touch and de­cided to ex­plore the pos­si­bil­i­ties of co­op­er­a­tion.

Along with fel­low com­posers, Ju­lia Wolfe — his wife— and David Lang, Gor­don is the co-founder of Bang on a Can, a New York-based mu­si­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion, which is known for projects such as the an­nual mu­sic fes­ti­val, Bang on a Can Marathon, and the en­sem­ble Bang on a Can All-Stars.

Gor­don and Zol­litsch col­lab­o­rated on a 30-minute set of songs that pre­miered at the 2015 Bang on a Can Marathon.

This was later ex­panded into a 70-minute con­cert, ti­tled Cloud River Moun­tain, which was per­formed at the Ger­ald W. Lynch The­ater at John Jay Col­lege on July 14 and 15 this year, as part of the an­nual Lin­coln Cen­ter Fes­ti­val, which has been held since 1966.

At the con­cert, Gong per­formed 11 songs, with lyrics in both Man­darin and English, com­posed by Zol­litsch, Gor­don, Wolfe and Lang.

The four com­posers also col­lab­o­rated on an in­stru­men­tal piece. The mu­sic and lyrics were in­spired by an­cient Chi­nese po­etry and myths, which was an idea ini­ti­ated by Zol­litsch.

“We did re­hearsals from 10 am to 5 pm for about a week. With the di­verse back­grounds of each com­poser, we had an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of cross-cul­tural mu­si­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” says Gong.

Born in Guiyang, the cap­i­tal of South­west China’s Guizhou prov­ince, Gong started learn­ing Chi­nese folk singing at a very young age and en­rolled at the Chi­nese Con­ser­va­tory of Mu­sic in Bei­jing at age 16.

“I per­formed not as a singer but also as a sto­ry­teller in the con­cert. Some­times I sang like one of the myth­i­cal fig­ures with sounds of cry­ing and yelling,” says the 42-year-old singer.

Since each of the com­posers has a unique style, Zol­litsch gave the com­posers dif­fer­ent ma­te­ri­als based on their own styles, Gong says.

For ex­am­ple, Amer­i­can com­poser Lang, who won the 2010 Grammy Award for best small en­sem­ble per­for­mance, com­posed Moon God­dess, which was in­spired by Tang Dy­nasty (618-907) poet Li Shangyin’s work about the god­dess who lives on the moon.

Gor­don com­posed the piece, When Yi Shot Down the Sun, which was based on Tian Wen (Ask­ing Ques­tions to Heaven) by Qu Yuan, a poet dur­ing the War­ring States Pe­riod (475-221 BC). The piece tells the Chi­nese myth of a young archer named Hou Yi, who shot down nine suns to cool the earth.

“It was fas­ci­nat­ing to ex­plore Chi­nese cul­ture and the tra­di­tional Chi­nese vo­cal per­for­mance prac­tices that Gong Linna brings to her singing,” says Gor­don, adding that Gong is the first Chi­nese singer they have worked with.

Zol­litsch gave each com­poser the lyrics and a trans­la­tion of the Chi­nese myths. “Then they de­vel­oped their own ideas. It worked much bet­ter than I ex­pected,” says Zol­litsch.

He also brought Chi­nese sheng (a tra­di­tional Chi­nese wind in­stru­ment) player Nie Yun­lei to the project for the first time.

“When the sound of the sheng was mixed with Western in­stru­ments, such as an elec­tric gui­tar and clar­inet, it func­tioned as a se­cret in­gre­di­ent, pow­er­ful and very Chi­nese,” says Zol­litsch.

The Ger­man com­poser grew up in Mu­nich, Ger­many, and came to China on a schol­ar­ship to study guqin (the Chi­nese seven-stringed zither) in Shang­hai in 1993.

Be­fore set­tling down in Bei­jing, he re­searched tra­di­tional mu­sic in the In­ner Mon­go­lia and Ti­bet au­ton­o­mous re­gions, while col­lab­o­rat­ing with a num­ber of Chi­nese mu­si­cians. He met Gong in 2002 and they mar­ried in 2004.

In 2009, Gong re­ceived rave re­views af­ter she re­leased the song Tan Te (Dis­turbed) on­line. Com­posed by Zol­litsch, the song uses sounds rather than words to con­vey dif­fer­ent emo­tions and moods.

Dur­ing the past few years, Zol­litsch has been work­ing on pieces in­spired by po­etry of the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dy­nas­ties, hop­ing to both en­liven Chi­nese mu­sic and bring back clas­si­cal po­ems to a mod­ern so­ci­ety.

“For years, we have been talk­ing about re­viv­ing tra­di­tional Chi­nese mu­sic and bring­ing it to the world. The most im­por­tant thing is to main­tain the unique iden­tity of Chi­nese mu­sic,” says Gong.

We had an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of cross-cul­tural mu­si­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion.” Gong Linna, folk singer


Chi­nese folk singer Gong Linna (top and above left) per­forms in the con­cert CloudRiverMoun­tain in New York in mid-July. The con­cert was a col­lab­o­ra­tion of mu­si­cians from the West and East.

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