Music and Cross-Cultural Combined-Arts Creativity
Article for Contemporary Music Review 1994
My first books were unsuitable for young children – Chinese translations of simplified versions of "Hamlet" (what a funny way to commit murder, pouring poison into the ear); "Midsummer Night's Dream" (what a lot of irritating adults); and "She" (what a fascinating idea to bathe in something as beautiful and untouchable as fire without getting hurt). I also liked to put substances into a small glass container, mix them, shake them, heat them, and observe the result (I was often puzzled that I did not show a particular interest in Chemistry at school). Maybe all this helped lay the cross-cultural combined-arts foundation.
Though I showed interest from an early age in books, dance, religion, films, and drawing, it is music that so far has offered me the most opportunities. My sound knowledge of Chinese music dated from the moment I could remember things. I particularly enjoyed watching all the preparations for a Chinese opera from back stage, and singing excerpts from memory with Chinese instrumentalists (it seemed rather odd that they would accompany a small child, who was not a star, singing grown women's roles). But my formal musical training has been Western. I received piano lessons when I was about six or seven, then singing and choral training, harmony lessons, a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London taking both Performer and Graduate courses, composition, and then I studied contemporary and electronic-computer music at Stanford and Cardiff Universities. The professional training in Western music has given me good scientific disciplines and a structure on which to build. I also have had opportunities to work with and get to know traditional Chinese musicians, which have provided me with another perspective. Since my first public performance in 1974, I have worked mainly as a composer in the genre of Western contemporary music.
In the seventies, I travelled extensively. I have had many opportunities to learn about the world, and to work with people, outside the field of music, mostly (including Western and non-Western) in the areas of dance, drama, visual arts and audio-visual technology. I enjoyed gaining knowledge and experience, but was also saddened to find so many unnecessary barriers between people. I have heard too many comments not based on knowledge, on culture and art form, which are outside the speakers' confines. After preparing myself for the task for fourteen years, I founded Inter Artes in 1988, hoping people would come together to create and perform works which combine music, dance, drama and visual arts across different cultures.
Many artists and composers of contemporary music have done work, which to some degree involves an element from another culture or art form. It is natural for them to do so, since "contemporary" implies the spirit of a pioneer and an explorer. It is living, growing and indefinable. Yet more and more I find "contemporary music" implies a very confined area of music, and there is hostility between those who fit in and those who do not. One comforting thing is that people in "contemporary music" usually come from a sound classical music background, whereas those who are hostile towards them usually have no knowledge of contemporary music, or any music at all. So people in contemporary music already have one less barrier, and the potential to erase more. From past experience, I find that unless the composers and musicians are willing to spend a lot of time and effort to learn the ABC of another culture or art form, they can only reach a stage that is close to the creation and performance of an opera of exotic theme, i.e. leaving non-musical and exotic elements in the hands of the designers, the directors, the dancers... and a "confined area of music" remains paramount. Creators and performers do not experience the inward change induced by elements outside. Outside elements also do not become theirs. But if a musician does accept and experience such a change, he or she will have a different ear, and look at things in a new way. The work may become richer and more akin to our living world (the body does have five senses that work simultaneously), or more colourful and "audience friendly" and thus provoke the wrath of the highbrow critics. But the artist can also experience a dangerous stage of feeling lost and confused before the new elements are digested and absorbed in the creativity. The work can also be even more difficult to comprehend than contemporary music.
The fact is, we are confined – some in bigger areas, some really tiny. Some will never enlarge the area yet feel happy and secure. People do not like what they do not understand and can only judge according to their knowledge. The more elements a work or performance combines, the more possibility there is that some parts of it will be outside another person's confines, and thus become offensive. A cross-cultural combined-arts production is no easy work due to its demand on so many different human factors fusing together, and the expense required if it is to fulfil its potentials. After experiencing for years some of the hassles, it seems so much easier to shut the door and just write one's own music. Writing a symphony will be a piece of cake.
Yet shouldn't we who are in contemporary music open up even more and allow more outside influences, and not be afraid of change, uncertainty and hardship, for the evolution of creativity? The world is multi-cultural and multi-media. Without mutual knowledge, we will always have more hostility and illusions. Shouldn't contemporary music also respond to our multi-racial society? Are ethnic divisions really a long-term solution for peace? A person belonging to the majority at one place will become a minority in another place. In a civilised society, majorities are supposed to show consideration for the minorities. But just an "open mind" is not enough; without knowledge, however good the intention, no good will come of it. Contemporary music is the music of our time, and will reflect how much we really care for those who are the "others" in our society. Time will tell.