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.