Classically trained pianist and violinist Quinta spent six weeks in China as part of the Musicians in Residence programme. We asked her about her visit.
How did you adjust to life in China?
It was hard at the beginning, but my hosts and new friends helped me with practical things like ordering in restaurants and booking taxis. They were also generous with their time and knowledge. One gave me a speaking Chinese language wall chart, which actually told me the different sounds. He also labelled everything in my flat with little stickers so I’d understand unfamiliar words.
What did you learn about Chinese musical education?
I didn’t go into any Chinese schools, but I heard that subjects like art and music don’t count towards a student’s final grade, and are often not taught at school. When you meet someone in China who has taken a creative path, it is extra-inspiring, as you know what they must have confronted to get there.
The dancers I worked with said that bringing contemporary dance to Guiyang had been hard at first, as audiences were not receptive. Local people had only understood traditional Chinese dance and could not relate to modern dance. But gradually, the dancers won them over.
I think the ability to be creative is so close to the surface for most human beings, that if you generate the right atmosphere, people will naturally connect with their ideas. Tradition in art-making is certainly valued in China, but there is space for the new, too.
In your experience, what kinds of music are popular to listen to in China?
I met a number of composers influenced by the music of the local minority ethnic groups for which the province is famous. Guizhou has many ethnic groups, each with distinct traditions. The Dong people have a style of singing awarded intangible heritage status by UNESCO. I visited a Dong village during my residency and was sung to by a group of local singers. It was very moving to sit at such close range and feel the power of those voices.
Though there's certainly a sugary pop scene in China, I noticed that the musicians and audiences I met seemed more literate in or comfortable with traditional styles, or the music inspired by them. An ancient melody might be set to more contemporary beats or sounds, or a singer from a local village would be paired with a pop singer to re-imagine a traditional melody.
One person I met referred to the rupture of the Cultural Revolution, and how this traumatic moment in Chinese history undermined art-making for years. Consequently, in her opinion, much of new art and music in China was, in a way, still growing up. Others explained to me that there was no pop music before economic reform in the 1980s. Music that didn’t serve as in some way nation-building was banned. Some people described turning down their shutters and closing their doors to listen to music that was censored.
How do people listen to music in Guiyang? Was music often on in the background?
On a very basic level, music is everywhere in Guiyang, via advertising. Whether in lifts, taxis, or coming through a loud-speaker buried amongst the vegetables in a market stall, you hear jingles, chants and sales pitches set to little repetitive tunes. I used some of these in the soundscape I made for my final show.
One lovely example of this was the Ding Ding Candy seller, attracting buyers for his sugar by tapping two bits of metal together in a ‘ding ding dong’ pattern. Everyone was familiar with this sound and what it meant. Somehow, this very simple musical jingle evoked the sound of the city, and everyone who came to my show recognised it.
What about other kinds of music?
Another very popular musical phenomenon was the televised talent show. All sorts of shows like this were on Chinese television: Voice of China, I’m A Singer, Sing My Song, and Crossover Singer. Everyone I met loved these shows, and ratings showed that audiences were immense.
A big gala TV show happens over Chinese New Year, and performers often spend six months preparing for it. Millions of Chinese people watch the show, and it is an incredible platform for anyone appearing. They can become superstars overnight.
In fact, the scale of musical performance in China is often intimidatingly enormous. I went to a show celebrating local minority ethnic music during my residency and it was no different – an ear-splittingly loud sound system, loads of formation dancing, and a huge cast, all presented in glorious technicolor. I remember wondering whether China maybe didn’t really 'do' intimate.
But there are audiences who seek out different experiences, like those who came along to an improvised show I took part in during my residency. The venue was a quiet, shady pavilion, and the other performers lulled the rapt concert-goers with the quiet and subtle sounds of the guqin (a type of seven-string zither), Chinese flutes, and a Buddhist prayer bowl.
In the countryside, music in a traditional sense was present and obvious. Local villagers gathered in community spaces to sing and play. As the sound of their music carried on the wind, other villagers would begin to appear, smiling, listening or joining in. Music-making seemed to be such a central part of life: a way of remembering the past, telling stories, accompanying meals and toasting with drinks, and a way of having fun. Often groups of friends would meet just to sing together because they loved it so much.
Another way that Guiyangers enjoy music is by dancing. At sundown, all over the city, on most days of the week, groups of older people bring their sound systems into the squares and dance. Sometimes, they ballroom-dance in pairs to sweet Chinese love songs. Other times, they dance in formation, to the kind of pulp pop that sells out 30,000-seat stadiums, dressed in trainers, towelling sweatpants, hot-pink visors, and T-shirts with English slogans like 'Best smile again'.
Apparently, there have been conflicts between these groups and surrounding residents who object to the multiple sound systems pumping out deafening pop into the night. The dancers are often of the Cultural Revolution generation, and are regarded as preferring group activities like this, and responding to formation and control.
What was interesting about the musicians you worked with?
For my final show, I worked with a violinist, a clarinettist, a pianist and a cellist. The former three had been schooled in a Western classical tradition, whereas the cellist played in bands. The classical players were unused to improvising, which was something I wanted to incorporate into my final show. When I first met them, they performed classical pieces they’d prepared, a bit like an audition, and seemed nervous. It was a relief when we started to play an improvisation game, where they could have fun, engage with each other and take risks.
Classical music training can have a similar effect on players anywhere in the world. Technique and a certain notion of ‘perfection’ are foregrounded, but improvising and creativity are usually not. Chinese culture may sometimes seem to value things that feed into this: impressing others, prestige, virtuosity, doing what your parents tell you, certificates. This kind of climate might cause sensitive music-makers to turn into anxious robots, beset with fears they’ll never measure up. The young players in my show took a leap, and the rewards were beautiful.
The Musicians in Residence programme is a joint partnership between the British Council and PRS For Music Foundation.
Read Quinta's blog for more on her experience in China.