Where is the Chinese Shostakovich?

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Op-Ed Commentary: Chris Devonshire-Ellis

May 9 – On May 2nd, St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky opened its plush new concert hall, bringing the total number of venues in this esteemed international cultural center for the musical arts to three. Valery Gergiev, the Mariinsky’s artistic director and principal conductor (he also conducts the London Symphony Orchestra and the World Peace Orchestra under the United Nations), has laid on a three-day extravaganza, including the commissioning of a new piece by the highly regarded contemporary Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin. All of this in Russia, just a few months after the reopening of Moscow’s Bolshoi. The arts, in what many regard in the West as a de facto totalitarian regime, remain buoyant. While much has been said to condemn President Putin as an autocrat, in Russia, artistic innovation – and indeed new music – is encouraged. Russia’s president presided over the opening ceremony and the State funded much of the cost.

China meanwhile, has itself built opera houses and theaters for the arts, yet the reception has been mixed. The Beijing “Egg,” which is impressive from the outside and possesses some amazing concert halls in terms of acoustics, is depressingly devoid of any character in its most important area – the public space within. Guangzhou’s state-of-the-art opera house cannot attract anyone to visit, while Shanghai’s appears content to stage “Cats.” When the architecture rather than any performances becomes the most important feature of an opera house, something is wrong.

Beijing’s “Egg.” Jiang Zemin had it built as a legacy of his premiership, but didn’t commission any actual music to be played there.

While each of these do showcase traditional Chinese operas and musical events – as they should – they all lack one crucial point. Where is the Chinese Shostakovich? Where are the Chinese composers who can describe the rebirth of China as a serious, global player, and the manner in which it has arrived there? Indeed, where is the future for Chinese musicians? I happen to know one of China’s best sanxian players (the sanxian is a type of lute, similar to a pipa), a young lady whose teacher professes he can teach her no more. This is a musician that has played in concerts overseas, and now she is earning a living not as an artist, but as a receptionist for a large MNC in Beijing. This is a waste, and the implications are that even China’s traditional musical talent is leeching away.

While it remains true that China has a huge number of young students taking piano lessons, the country appears content to see the likes of Lang Lang and Yujia Wang take their place on the international stage and do little else in terms of the promotion of Chinese culture. What is lacking is not the ability of China to produce outstanding musicians – it has proven it can do so, and Lang Lang and Yujia Wang are exceptional role models for young Chinese and inspirational to many beyond China’s own boundaries (Lang Lang even recorded “Dragon Songs” and released it internationally in as good an introduction to Chinese melodies that is globally available than any in recent memory) – but what is utterly lacking is the narrative. And this now becomes a censorship issue, and likewise one concerning the development and encouragement of original compositions.

Back in the old Soviet Union days, artists such as Shostakovich fell in between two stools – the desire of the State to show off its achievements, musically, and the desire of the musician to describe their own thoughts, musically. Shostakovich was a wily old master, and managed to get some interesting statements into his compositions that slipped past the censors which today demonstrate perhaps a subtly lost by many at the time. China’s Ministry of Culture also censors its artists. But it has such a dead hand that creativity of any kind is snuffed out, without even a piece to glorify the achievements of the Communist Party over the past 20 years. Even Tchaikovsky was not above composing elegies for the Tsar.

Concerning the Chinese Ministry of Culture, on occasion I have had to deal with them in my professional capacity on behalf of clients. I recall many years ago having to submit the entire set list plus lyrics (including Chinese translations) of all the songs the in-house band intended to play at the Hard Rock Café when it opened in China in order for them to obtain a performing license (it’s now closed, but BB King opened the Hard Rock Café in Beijing. Quite how we translated “Got My Mojo Working” I cannot recall). This whole business got out of hand and was eventually ditched by the Ministry when DJs started turning up. I recall one erstwhile (and famous) British DJ having his 12” records and CDs impounded by Chinese Customs until we could provide certified translations of all of the lyrics on every single track, lest he play something potentially naughty (as he was a dance DJ, the lyrics tended to be repetitive and bland: “I’ll take you higher.” Nonetheless, it was six months before he was able to perform).

While excessive to a point that appears amusing today, the weight of censorship still hangs heavy on Chinese composers. As a result, the best have had to seek careers elsewhere. Shanghai’s Bright Sheng has lived in the United States since 1982; Hunan-born Tan Dun is known mainly for his film scores (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), yet his classical works only receive world premieres and meaningful awards outside of China; and Shanghainese Wang Ying composes and lives in Germany. The list of contemporary Chinese composers goes on and on in the same vein (there are actually less than 40 of them) and it’s a depressingly familiar picture – the Chinese talent is there, but they all eventually leave and end up in the West.

China’s lack of interest in promoting its own musical talent has meant that no composers have been able to musically chronicle contemporary China’s rise and development. Perhaps the authorities are afraid that the composers may insert secret messages that could be interpreted as subversive, or perhaps they are not qualified to be doing the job they are doing; many of China’s Ministries are run by engineers. The current Chinese Minister of Culture is not a musician, nor is he an artist. He began his career working in the coal mines of Gansu before taking on editorial roles at the Gansu Daily, and then progressing up through the Communist Youth League and eventually majoring in politics from Peking University. It is not a background that specifically encourages creativity. It is a background that examines detail, and discourages innovation in favor of the tried, tested and proven. Therefore, we get endless performances of Aida, Swan Lake, the Yellow River and the Butterfly Lovers, mixed in with Chinese traditional opera and the occasional outing of the Red Detachment of Women. There is nothing new. China’s Ministry of Culture is not creating culture, it is merely repeating historical pieces from yesteryear over and over and over again.

In contrast, the Soviet Union, despite its debates with the likes of Shostakovich, Prokofiev and so on, was still capable of turning out quality composers whose music fit the censors’ agenda at the time. While many critics may decry such works by the likes of Khrennikov, Khachaturian and Dzerzhinsky (whose opera “Quiet Flows the Don” was a favorite of Stalin) as being Communist formulaic, these same artists also turned out works that have proved outstanding on the international stage. The ballet “Spartacus” is just one example of a much-admired and much-loved production born of the Soviet era now recognized internationally as a masterpiece. Shostakovich himself wrote for the glorification of the Soviet state on occasion, yet from China in comparison there is a complete creative silence.

In dampening the ability of Chinese composers to express themselves, three things are occurring in China:

  • The atrophy of musical development, via a constant rehashing of proven, well known standards;
  • The diminishment of creativity and innovation in Chinese society overall; and
  • A lack of any musical record or description whatsoever of the times we live in and that China is going through.

It is a shame, and a missed opportunity, both for the Communist Party and for the development of indigenous contemporary Chinese culture. Where is the Chinese Shostakovich, when such a role is needed to musically archive these extraordinary times?

Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the founding partner of Dezan Shira & Associates, which he established in China in 1992. Last year, he commissioned “The Four Corners Quartet,” an original classical music piece celebrating the 20th anniversary of the firm and including Chinese musical themes. The story of this production, together with the music, can be downloaded at www.fourcornersquartet.com.

Dezan Shira & Associates may be contacted via china@dezshira.com or through our website at www.dezshira.com.