Modern Music in Tibet

October 31, 1999

Contemporary classical music as we know it in the West is being composed and performed in present-day Tibet, although not in large quantity and primarily in the capital city of Lhasa, where there is also a small symphony orchestra and a conservatory, the Art Music School of Tibet. Jo Ker, also transliterated Cho Kar, is Tibet's leading contemporary composer. His music is a fascinating blend of Western compositional techniques with Tibetan style features influenced by traditional Tibetan chant. Written in standard Western notation, it has a unique and exotic sound quite unlike anything I have heard elsewhere.

Direct contact with the leading concert musicians of Tibet had been arranged for me by the Sichuan Conservatory of Music in Chengdu, China. (Special permission is needed to enter Tibet, and one must travel there as a member of a group. Since I was alone, my permission papers designated me as "a group of one.") When I arrived in Lhasa, composer Jo Ker and the conductor, concertmaster, and principal cellist of the local symphony orchestra were waiting at the hotel. They had all received their musical education outside Tibet—the violinist, cellist, and conductor in Shanghai, and Jo Ker at the Sichuan Conservatory in Chengdu. All spoke some English, with the cellist serving as translator when needed. They seemed eager for contact with Western music and musicians, but it was also clear that Jo Ker does not wish to abandon Tibetan sources of inspiration in his composing.

The more unusual of the two works by Jo Ker for which I received scores and cassette recordings is called "Unentitled." It was composed in 1994 for oboe, two trombones (the second is bass trombone), timpani, bass drum, suspended and crash cymbals, and male vocal quartet of one tenor, two baritones and a bass. The language in which the quartet performs is Tibetan. Notation is very precise, and the performance on the cassette seems quite good. The piece lasts just over seven minutes.

Since the only treble instrument is oboe, "Unentitled" has a very dark sound. The oboe is also the only member of the ensemble which performs melodically. Its figures function, however, as a filigree over the sustained tones of the rest of the ensemble, rather than as a melodic basis for the piece. Tempo, which remains unchanged throughout the work, is quarter note=70. The 4/4 meter also remains unchanged throughout the piece, but no particular sense of metrical regularity results from the use of barlines in a regular meter.

The vocal quartet stays within a narrow compass, usually within an octave and never exceeding a major tenth; the four-voiced, basically tonal chords are always in close position. There is neither melody nor counterpoint in the quartet's part. Sonorities are established each time the vocalists enter and then are simply repeated for the duration of each short passage. There is always a measure or two of rest between the vocal passages. The quartet part is essentially homophonic chant, and imparts a very strong feeling of Tibetan chant as one still hears it today in the country's monasteries.

In this piece, harmonic motion is not an element of the music. There is sometimes simple imitation between material sung by the quartet and that played by the instruments, particularly the first trombone, but it does not constitute genuine polyphony. The pace of the music is slow, and most of the time there is a sustained background in the suspended cymbal and timpani. The music seems other-worldly and mystical.

The second piece I received from the composer is a symphonic overture entitled, "Debating on True Essence." Despite its metaphysical title, the work is much more Western in sound, movement and texture than "Unentitled." It is scored for a medium-sized orchestra of woodwinds in pairs, four horns, two trumpets, two trombones and tuba, strings, and a percussion section including cymbal, snare drum, tam-tam, bass drum and what the composer calls "Key Drums," which are actually timpani.

This work has much more internal motion than the previous one, and the scoring is in a more or less conventional twentieth-century style. The cassette I received contains a Midi realization of the piece, which is not of very good quality. Such Midi realizations are very common in China since there are few symphony orchestras, and these play almost no new music.

In this same context, I recall being taking to the ballet in Xian by a leading composer from the Conservatory. The recently built and well-equipped theater was enormous and beautiful, and the corps de ballet excellent. The latter danced very much in the Russian styleunderstandably, since their teachers would almost certainly have been trained in the former Soviet Union. The musical background was by the composer who had invited me to the ballet, and was a Midi realization of his work. The sound was good, however, and he said he does have good equipment on which to realize the music. However, he has no real access to a symphony orchestra, even for as important a presentation as a major ballet.

"Debating on True Essence" is not as coloristic a work as "Unentitled," and it does not display as many noticeably Tibetan musical characteristics, perhaps because the standard symphony orchestra does not lend itself as readily to them as the unusual ensemble for which the other work was composed. The work's non-Western origin seems to me, however, to be especially reflected in its unconventional ending. The concluding harmony, which lasts for 16 measures, and is reiterated as climactically as if it were at the end of a Beethoven symphony, is a root position major-minor seventh chord (C-E-G-Bb)! This quintessentially Western chord is successfully used in a way which perhaps no Western composer could manage. Although it does not sound like a dominant seventh chord that should resolve to an F tonality, it does to my Western ears sound very foreign as the final chord of a fairly large work.

Stylistically, I hear elements of Soviet Socialist Realism in Debating on True Essence, again not altogether surprising; before the Cultural Revolution those Chinese composers who studied abroad went primarily to Moscow. The piece is very expertly and carefully notated, with string bowings, wind articulations, and percussion malleting instructions all carefully in place. I would like very much to hear it performed by an orchestra.

In my experience, virtually all Asian composers are concerned with the problem of composing for Western ensembles, in Western forms, and with a Western musical grammar, while at the same time trying to retain their own national character. There is some particularly interesting new music now being composed in China which successfully achieves this fusion. The works of Zhou Xiangping, one of China's most talented younger composers, are especially beautiful. He is a Professor at the Sichuan Conservatory and was Jo Ker's composition teacher during his years studying in Chengdu.

4279 Last modified on November 15, 2013


  • Comment Link posted by Nancy Van de Vate November 18, 2013

    Originally published in May 2000

    James Amend's response to my article about contemporary music in Tibet seems to say that his views of world political and social conditions are the only possible ones and that the rest of us must not only share them but must also use any and every occasion to indulge in political and religious fulminating in support of those views. I find such strident moralism arrogant and more than a little absurd.

    Mr. Amend chose to use the CMS Newsletter as a venue to attack me for what he himself says that I did not say. To respond, I must unfortunately also use this same venue for issues other than musical ones. The principal question that concerns me in response to his article is what are human rights, anyway?

    I am not an expert on Tibetan affairs on the one hand and am not defending the Chinese government on the other. I know, however, that in many places in China I met intelligent, ambitious, self-possessed young Chinese women who were active in various professions: physicians doing AIDS research, translators who spoke flawless English, musicians, administrators, etc. They were not only well-educated, but were doing equal pay for equal work. Their mothers, many younger than I, had bound feet, one of the most painful forms of mutilation ever inflicted on young girls and women, and one that crippled them for life. To many younger women, modern Chinese society is not the simple denial of human rights which people like Mr. Amend like to talk about, it is a huge advance on human rights as they understand them after more than 5,000 years of abuse and oppression.

    By human rights, my fellow Americans usually mean total freedom of expression—the ability to say or do virtually anything they want anywhere, anytime, as long as it appears to be legal. I do not happen to share this definition of human rights, and find it a profoundly male chauvinist one. To indulge in my own brand of feminist fulminating, I believe that human rights also include my right as a woman to go out safely in a city at night, something not possible in many or even most US cities but entirely possible in almost all European cities. I include the right of children of all ages to be able to go to school without fear of being shot by some fellow student whose macho father has to have a gun.

    During the height of American homelessness, Gorbachev commented that the Soviet Union considered it a human right for everyone to have shelter and enough to eat. Whether or not free speech and the right to keep a gun is more important than having food and a roof over one's head may depend to a large extent on one's gender. When American men can guarantee that American women can leave their homes alone at night in safety, that their children can attend public school in safety, that a critically ill but poor elderly widow will receive adequate medical care, etc., then I will be happy to hear them talk about human rights in Tibet or anywhere else. But until their definition of human rights includes women's rights as well, I am not interested in their empty lectures or their arrogant evaluations of my moral character.

  • Comment Link posted by James M. Amend November 18, 2013

    Originally published in March 2000

    I found Nancy van de Vate's recent article on music in Tibet profoundly disturbing, not so much for what was in the article, but for what was left out. While I have deep respect for her as a scholar, it seems apparent that she has not understood the implications of what she has written. I will spell them out.

    Millions of Buddhists around the world (myself included) say a prayer for Tibet in the context of their daily devotions. Tibet is an illegally occupied nation. Professor Van de Vate's article tends to put a veneer of legitimacy on the ongoing physical and cultural rape of the country. The implication is that Tibet is an open field of study for scholars and that it is OK for scholars to do research there. IT ISN”T! Don't go there! In one stroke, her article insults the thousands of Tibetan refugees around the world, those who wish them well, and the Tibetan people remaining within the country.

    Did she really not have any question why “...special permission is needed to enter Tibet...”? Is she aware of the recent case of Ngawang Choephel, a Tibetan expatriate who was summarily jailed by the Chinese when he returned to Tibet to do music research? Would she have felt the same simple curiosity doing musical research at Theresienstadt/Tarrazin (the “city” the Nazis “built” for the Jews) in 1943.

    If Tibet were free, Jo Ker would have received his education in Lhasa, rather than in Chengdu. Some of the article's statements could come from a Chinese guidebook:”...the quartet part...imparts a very strong feeling of Tibetan chant as one still hears it today in the country's monasteries...” Really? There are damned few of them left. Which ones did she visit? Is she really unaware that the bulk of Tibetan tradition is being preserved in places like Dharamsala in India and in monasteries in Nepal, Bhutan, and Sikkim, rather than in Tibet itself where the Chinese government has ruled with a brutal hand since 1959? I'm a composer too, but there are certain places I won't go in the name of research, and that includes Tibet! So, incidentally, are Burma (there is no such country as Myanmar; that is the name ascribed by an illegal junta), the Moluccas, and a number of Native American reservations here in the United States.

    If Professor Van de Vate thinks that present cultural developments in Tibet are acceptable, she should take a long, hard look at Hawai'ian culture today: it is the legacy of a situation very similar to that of Tibet, i.e., a peaceful nation occupied by force and then forced to abandon or conceal its own heritage. Tibetan chant, by the way, is not just a “tradition”; it is part of the form of Buddhism practiced in Tibet for over a thousand years.

    For me and for millions of others, Tibet is the Holy Land, held in the grip of a cruel oppression. I must conclude that Professor Van de Vate has never met any Tibetan refugees. I invite her to read any of the Dalai Lama's writings concerning his country, and, if curious, to contact the Tibetan Aid Project sponsored by Dharma Publishing of Berkeley, California.

    I cannot believe a scholar as excellent as Professor Van de Vate would knowingly present harmful material. I wish her well, and desire only that she not repeat such erroneous perspectives.

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