Defying the Western-centric Bias in Classical Music ‒ An Interview with Dai Bo
Is classical music condemned to be forever associated with the West? Is music from the rest of the world valuable only when it incorporates some folk or traditional elements?
We discuss contemporary classical music with an outstanding artist – Dai Bo, a Chinese composer who knows everything about Slavic culture and who uncompromisingly defies the Eurocentric perception of contemporary classical music, as well as the popular belief that Western Europe’s music is a universal benchmark for composers around the world.
Dai Bo is one of the most celebrated Chinese composers of the young generation. He is currently doing a PhD on composition under the extraordinarily acclaimed professor Xiaogang Ye. Moreover, he remains an active professional pianist whilst simultaneously continuing his academic research on the history of Middle European music. Approaching his thirties, he has already been showered with international awards and had his compositions performed by renowned ensembles and orchestras across Europe and China.
The young composer told us first of the process that made him start broadening his knowledge about classical music further than his fellow other students:
When I was 9, I started to take composition lessons in my hometown in north-eastern China. My teacher was the best-known composer in the whole province and by agreeing to teach me he made a huge exception, because he didn’t like to teach and had had no students before me. Besides regular lessons on harmony, instrumentation and orchestration he made me listen to a wide variety of music, from Baroque to contemporary times. Not only did he acquaint me with the ‘Bachs and Mozarts’ but also with music from outside of Western Europe – with the Polish Witold Lutosławski, Krzysztof Penderecki, the Hungarian György Ligeti or the Japanese Toru Takemitsu… This made me think of classical, especially 20th century classical music, from a different, borderless perspective. By the time I started studying in the conservatory I was already in love with music and composers that no one else around knew.
This unusual background has made him think outside of the box on many levels. One of his most solid convictions is that he does not have to bow to the common expectation that Chinese composers should include elements of folk or traditional Chinese music in their compositions.
A very broad field of music inspires me, I listen to a lot of genres and composers, not only to those well-known and acknowledged but also to those who have not yet been discovered or have already been forgotten. The latter inspires me the most, actually, and provides me with real food for thought. Because I started to listen to music from around the world very early in life, until I was 20 years old I never wondered if my music was Chinese or if it had any Chinese features. Nowadays people always ask me about that and I must say I don’t like it, just as much as I don’t like labelling music as belonging to ‘the national style’. I am Chinese and I love Chinese culture but there are Slavic composers and writers (such as Dostoevsky, Mickiewicz or my beloved Turgenev) who inspire me more than my fellow countrymen.
His dislike for pigeonholing present or historical composers other than Western Europeans or Northern Americans as ‘composers of the national schools/styles’ and placing them somewhere on the boundaries of the classical music mainstream has deeper roots.
Throughout the process of my formal education the curriculum has been very much focused on Austrian and German music, which were almost exclusively used as way-points and references for everything else. There is an automatic tendency to regard everybody else as far from the mainstream and I find it very inadequate.
Let’s take Polish composers as an example… There are at least several absolutely outstanding Polish composers but I don’t consider them great just because they are Polish. On the contrary, I’d call them master representatives of worldwide classical music because their output and creativity is incredibly interesting on its own, without comparing it to anything else. I’m not denying their music to be rooted in Polish tradition or that the political situation might have influenced their works, I’m just saying it’s not the point. The relationship between someone’s musical language and nationality is very interesting and worth investigating, but I’d suggest we reverse that process and instead of discovering composers’ music through the prism of their nationality, let’s learn something about their culture through the prism of their music.
He partially blames composers from outside of the Western cultural circle for consolidating the idea that only folk or traditional elements might be interesting in their music.
Some composers in China think they can’t write better Western classical music than people brought up in Western culture so in order to stand out they add a few elements of our traditional music just because it sounds exotic to Western listeners. But these traditional elements have little to do with these composers’ own identity and creativity. I don’t think it is in the spirit of the contemporary music, of the real avant-garde.
We should all be aware of the fact that folk music is usually based on improvisation and this is something that you simply can’t put in the score. I think composers should reach for folklore only when they are really taken by a single melody or harmony, only when they really feel it. Other than this, we shouldn’t do it just because people expect it.
Dai Bo’s passion for Slavic music goes as far as him writing the first ever monograph about Polish composers in Chinese. The goal of this pioneering undertaking is to popularise artists without international recognition among the Chinese musical society. He mentions Tadeusz Baird, Mieczysław Karłowicz, and Grażyna Bacewicz as a few of those who deserve more attention and who should finally start being listened to outside of the ‘national music’ context.
As much as a Chinese composers’ love for Polish music may be surprising at first, it seems to have a strong justification in Dai Bo’s case.
I fell in love with Polish music for three reasons: the omnipresence of the romanticist spirit, the strong and valuable influence of sacral music and, in some works, its folkloric vitality. I very much appreciate Polish sonorism and 20th-century composers’ ability to blend the influences of French impressionism and German expressionism and by this means create their own, original language.
He believes some Polish composers had absolutely unique qualities:
For example, there is an unusual, marvellous, magical structure in Witold Lutosławski’s music. I’d call it ‘the structure of intelligence’. He often uses chromatics to bring a lot of dramatic gravity, but these tensions are always controlled by a firm structure, they never get chaotic.
During the first half of the 20th century many composers were inspired by oriental culture. Puccini used to quote actual melodies from Japanese songs, and he used Japanese stories as material for the libretto of his operas. However, most composers just incorporated foreign elements into their works. Meanwhile, Karol Szymanowski, who was inspired by Persian culture for quite a long period of time, was able to transform such elements, to pass them through the filter of his own personality and spirituality, to interpret and morph them into something absolutely new. And that, in my opinion, is representative of a higher quality.
Above all, remember that the first and the only reason I got so deeply interested in Polish music is that I just love it. Believe it or not, but Lutosławski was a bigger inspiration to me than Tchaikovsky or Sibelius!
Interviewed by Wojciech Oleksiak. December 8th 2015.
With thanks to Agnieszka Walulik for interpreting.