Mittwoch, 4. März 2015

Recipe For Pleasure

Thank you for keeping an open mind and investing your time to understand my composition:
I appreciate that you want to appreciate, that’s awesome!

First I'd like to tell you about my motivation for the piece, then I explain some interesting aspects to hear for in the music and finally I'd like to introduce you to some ideas, that guided the making of the film. I included the time frames so that you have a reference. This text is a little lenghty, but I hope it increases your enjoyment of my piece.

A good Chinese friend of mine is a soprano. We studied music together and she asked me whether I could write her a modern piece for her concert diploma. I immediately said yes, because I always had the idea in my mind of finding a way musically to make the Chinese national anthem a little more tender. And that is already the main idea. The anthem is a quite fast march and has a pretty bloodthirsty text, a little like the French Marsaillaise. The Chinese anthem is not my favourite melody either, frankly: I don’t really like it, it sounds too strange to me, almost more like a “broken march”. So I really was motivated to find a personal approach to this important melody. I decided to slow it down radically and reharmonise it in a smooth and jazzy way. Now I had a jazz standard that I liked. But I felt that something was missing, especially for a concert piece that should give the singer an opportunity to show off her singing skills. So I thought adding a fast middle part, would add a classical logic to the form. Since the slow jazz-style music was already contradictory to the text, I used the same procedure for the fast part, just the other way round: a peaceful text to a bloodthirsty music. Three further aspects were important to me as I composed the piece: I wanted to make extensive use of the characteristic trumpet motif (8:19, 8:29), I wanted to incorporate the unofficial Taiwanese anthem and I wanted to write a great solo for contrabass trombone (6:03). The whole topic of two countries, sung and unsung anthems different texts and versions is very familiar to me because the country I was born in does not exist anymore and its anthem, which I really liked, vanished into oblivion. I wrote about it here.

The piece starts – like the original anthem – with the characteristic trumpet motif, but the final note is omitted, instead the triplet motif is formed into a broken build-up that leads to the core version of the anthem. I made some subtle changes in the melody to illustrate some of the text. For example the great wall has now an extralength (9:49), and the thousands, that sacrifice themselves do that through a quadruplet (1:23). In the second chorus the accompanying instruments are free to elaborate their parts like playing a leadsheet, the others get additional parts like an extra melody (accordion) or a deep note (trombone) to illustrate the last breath (2:41). Harmonically many typical jazzy and unexpected things happen. I’m proud of that they fit in so smoothly, but I don’t want to bore you explaining all of them, only one: we are in A-major – bright and heroic in case you like the characteristics of keysignatures – and c-sharp is it’s major third, a very harmonic sound, yet to the lyrics “against”(gegen) this note turns into a “double third” because b-flat-MAJOR is the basis of the sound, so what you actually hear is major AND minor at the same time “against” each other (10:45).
After two “choruses” of the anthem, the music takes a diabolic step from A-major to E-flat-minor, a so called tritone, downwards into the fast part (3:30). Listen how the repetitive motif from the beginning is used in different ways throughout the entirety of the fast part, the musicians playing it referred to it as gunfire (accordion 4:28) (trumpet 3:54) (trombone 5:19).
Now to the singing. Well, I wanted a stark contrast to the (now smoothened out) anthem. Instead of only five notes, I took twelve, instead of long notes and small steps, I took short attacks and giant leaps, instead of very plain (except my improvements of course:) rhythms, I wrote syncopated and sophisticated rhythms, instead of notes that fit well to rather complicated harmonies, I chose unusual notes to a background that consists of almost only one harmony and instead of an almost simplistic folksong attitude, I created an arrangement more close to a modern version of a typical wrath-aria from an Italian opera. All this is condensed in the beginning (4:47) and boy did she sing! 

I could hear it over and over again. It’s abstract, it’s modern, it’s sophisticated, pushes forward and has punch, qualities I listen for in music and I want my music to have. Maybe not easy to appreciate but well worth the effort! Still, what I like most about this part is the contradiction to the text and its paradox nature! Let’s read it closely:

The softest thing in the world
Overcomes the hardest thing in the world.
Nothingness can enter where there is no room.
Therefore we know the value of non-action.
Teaching without words
Act without action
Few in the world understand this.

Beautiful! And even better in the Chinese original (chapter 43). As a fanboy of Laozi, I still think it is impossible to put his words to music; to me this contradictory way, is the only way. So please enjoy with me the amazement of the virtuous soprano, the joys of abstraction and gunfire in music and the pleasures of coming all together in one movement!

After a third repetition of the anthem-“chorus”, which after all this war has now a really soothing effect (although it’s about using body parts to build walls) we reach the final part. The accordion plays the melody of the National Flag anthem and the singer is it’s only accompaniment. After simple chanting, virtuous performing and almost instrument like deployment, she now sings plain “doo doo”. The moment Taiwan and China meet is the ending when the contrabass trombone (you’ll like it) plays the same fragment the trumpet played at the very beginning of the whole piece.

Too much? We could stop here, because the film illustrates a lot and develops following mostly the text, that is its main idea. Still want to read on? Ok:

The first part is taken from the movie “Children of Troubled Times” the origin of the Chinese anthem. Then we see the military parade in honour  of Chinas 60th birthday, more or less an illustration of the text and its motivation for today. I like how the cymbal and the red flag coincide and how Andreas arranged it so interestingly.
The most important element in Daoism, the Chinese philosophy/religion coined by Laozi, is water. It goes where no one wants to be, it’s soft (3:24, 11:03), yet extremely powerful (9:27) and so on. In the “Art of War” Chinese military master Sun-tzu uses different metaphors to describe the force of an army, one of them is “like a waterfall rushing down the hill”.
In Chinese painting, which is often black and white, serene landscapes with clouds is a huge theme (6:50), yet the clouds are not painted. They are created by leaving the paper blank. It’s an important concept in Asian painting and to me it connects directly to the nothingness that can be were nothing is :) The music is so fast and nervous that I wanted the pictures to show the serene beauty of Chinas nature as – again – a contrast. 
At (8:38) all these different ideas are synchronised with a very old kind of Western polyphony: a so called “canon”, made of the abstract head-motif of the aria I described above. Every instrument except bass and drums play this melody separated by one bar and develop their parts like branches of a tree (8:58). I don’t understand much of being a soldier and even less of war, but I wonder what those soldiers think (9:17) and the difference to what they thought a thousand years ago (10:08).

An important sight in the military history of today is the little island of Kinmen, which belongs to Taiwan (11:13) but is in swimming distance to the Chinese mainland. Both have different politics and concepts, especially with regard to an unification, on Taiwan the “Three Principles” (11:50) and on the mainland the “One Country, Two Systems” (12:17).
Whether this unification comes or not, at least I brought them together peacefully in music. 


This blog’s subtitle is “In China steckt Ich” which means “China Contains I” and to me that’s my major insight into China. Everything I’m subjected to here, I observe here, I indulge in here, I detest here, I like and learn here, helps me to reflect my own self. One such reflection of China is the difference between the people’s republic of China (PRC) and the republic of China (ROC or Taiwan). The Chinese refer to it as the question of the two coasts. It is a long and complicated story and I want to dwell only on one aspect, I particularly connect strongly to: their national anthems, especially in relation to the German anthem.
The country I was born in, does not exist anymore: the German Democratic Republic (fun fact: a “socialist” country). For the UN the ROC does not exist too and for the PRC Taiwan is undoubtedly a provence of China and no sovereign country. Yet the ROC has “embassies” all over the world and takes part as Chinese Taipeh in the Olympics, where it needs a national anthem. Since it’s not allowed to use the ROC’s official anthem the “Three Principles” a different anthem is used the so called “National Flag Anthem”. Together with the “March of theVolunteers”, which is the national anthem of the PRC, we have a total of three national anthems in current use. If you count in a certain way, you could say Germany had three anthems as well. One, the Austrian “Emperor’s Hymn
its melody is used in the “Song of Germany” (two) of which the third verse is the current national anthem of Germany
and three the “Risen From Ruins” the national anthem of the reintegrated soviet occupation zone short GDR.
When I realized China had this multiple-hymn-thing going on too, I was happy that I wasn’t the only one with a split national anthem syndrome and discovered some interesting facts about these hymns.
Would you have thought that the PRC’s anthem is a film music? It is, “Children of Troubled Times” by director Tian Han, who gave it quite bloodthirsty lyrics in modern Chinese, that express well the struggles of the Chinese. He died during the cultural revolution. Nie Er, the composer died young too, but is now an icon. The fierce music reminds me a bit of the Marseillaise. Imagine enjoying your gold medal on the podium to a John Williams soundtrack!
The ROC’s anthem is the hymn of the Kuomintang Party pledging devotion to it’s founder Sun Yatsen’s policy of the three principles, so I guess that is the reason why it cannot be played officially, because it’s to big a challenge of the singularity of the Chinese communist party. It is written in a style of traditional Chinese poetry and unlike most anthems very gentle, shy and restrained, very Taiwanese one could argue.
The ROC’s “National Flag Anthem” is a winning entry in a composing competition and to my ears the one with the catchiest melody and the more beautiful lyrics making comparisons between the ROC’s flag it’s colours and symbols to the Chinese people and landscapes. Although it is clearly an anthem it still retains an innocent touch.
After the unification in Germany during the heated debate about the question af an national anthem, some futilely suggested the “Children’s Hymn” by Bertold Brecht. The “National Flag Anthem” is not at all the same, but it reminds me of that discussion. Especially with all the nationalism in Asia and currently in Europe, it is a nice reminder. Maybe when the ROC and PRC unite they wisely choose this one.
Although...I did like the East-German one much better than the West-German one. After twentyfive years I got used to it, but everytime I hear or sing the beginning of “Unity and Justice and Freedom” it still sounds super-dull to me. (No offence to Haydn, whom I adore). Don’t get me wrong, no nostalgia here, but as a kid I felt pretty betrayed, when it was decided that “my” anthem was dropped in favour of that rip off song for an AUSTRIAN :) emperor, no way!! Can you imagine?  No wonder fuel was added to the debate when a composer put out a version - the so called “Hymnen-Mix”- that included both anthems in one song.
I also do understand why people did not want the “Risen From Ruins” as their national anthem, because the copyright infringement to Ludwig van Beethoven is not solved yet. Scholars say Hanns Eisler took the first four notes from one of Beethoven’s “Bagatellen”, which I think is ridiculous, every rhesus macaque can compose these notes and if I had to, I’d rather follow those, who think it’s stolen from the song “Goodbye Johnny”.
In the end, all I want to share is the strange sentiment for a piece of music of my childhood. As well as the idea that China as a mirror brings these things up in me. I find it interesting that it is China where I found a Bavarian Swab, that actually feels, like me, that the East-German anthem is the smoother one.
But in order not to revive this senseless discussion I decided to create a “Hymnen-Mix” of my own with the Chinese anthems. Enjoy!