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MA Sicong (1912-1987)
Music for Violin and Piano
Dragon Lantern Dance (1953) [3.34]
Mountain Song (1953) [4:16]
Madrigal (1944) [3:37]
Inner Mongolia Suite (1937) [15:47]
Lullaby (1935) [4:59]
Lantern Dance Festival (1952) [4:58]
Amei Suite (1981) [7:27]
Rondo No. 1 (1937) [5:37]
Tone Poem of Tibet (1941) [22:54]
Ku Hsiao-mei, (violin); Lu Ning (piano)
rec. Salt Lake City, Utah, November 2006

With this series of releases of East Asian classical music, Naxos is performing an extremely valuable service to society. The British Museum exhibition (until 6 April 2008) displays treasures from the tomb of the First Emperor of China some of which have never been seen outside the town in which they were found. Yet, far from inspiring wonder, the collection was met with boorish antagonism in some quarters. If people can react like that to 2000 year old artefacts, even in supposedly “cultural” circles, it shows how prevalent racism really is, however hidden. There's no cure for stupid bigotry. But for most people, knowledge does make a huge difference.
It's completely understandable that most people can't assess Chinese music, because the background simply isn't known. The music is heard in a kind of vacuum because so little is known about it. The Naxos series on East Asian music isn't a big money-spinner because it's such a niche market. But the potential is huge. East Asia is the biggest growth area in classical music, with millions of listeners and practising players. Yet even there, there is relatively little awareness. Western listeners, don't have a chance. That also includes the huge overseas Asian communities. If Naxos wants the full potential of this market, they should perhaps rethink their marketing strategy. With more basic information on the cultural context, listeners will be in a better position to appreciate what they are listening to. They'll be encouraged to listen further and gradually build up wider knowledge. In the long term everyone benefits.
In the early part of the 20th century, the bigger cities in China supported communities of Chinese intellectuals, who were progressive and forward-thinking. Indeed, part of the reason they embraced progress was because hidebound conservatism had led to the decline of the nation. So, modernism wasn't mere artistic fashion, but an expression of something much more fundamental. Thus, literature, theatre, social thinking and music blossomed in China, despite the backdrop of war and chaos. These were exciting times in European culture, too, so Chinese intellectuals were cosmopolitan, and many spent long periods in Europe.
Ma was a child prodigy, who went to Paris at the age of only 11 to develop his violin skills. Apart from a short break, he remained in France for eight years. His grounding was, therefore, primarily in western form. That's why the works on this recording are so interesting. Music for piano and violin can be performed even in private, with no audience other than the players themselves. In China, there's no orchestral tradition as such. Bands of musicians might be heard at celebrations and communal events like the opera, but public music served a social purpose. Music as art was a more intimate, private affair. It wasn't dependent on big audiences, but focused on the performers themselves. Such contexts favoured values like intimacy, individuality and refinement. They also made for a great degree of flexibility and improvisation, as music wasn't bound into any rigid notational system.
Thus, although Ma is writing in western terms for western instruments, his inspiration comes from traditional Chinese themes. The early Lullaby, for example, is based on a folk-tune called Bai Zi Diao from Guangdong province, where Ma was born. Most western composers who used folk music were middle class, quite disconnected from the rural origins of the music. In England, especially, the industrial revolution and urbanisation happened so early that by the time Cecil Sharp and others started listening what they heard bore less resemblance to what “the peasants”, such as they were, would have recognised. (Read Georgina Boyes: The Imagined Village, 1994 for more details). Ma, too, came from a middle class, educated family, but in China folk music was still created by ordinary people. What he heard was probably quite authentic, but much more importantly, it was very different indeed from western music. He had to absorb two quite alien musical cultures at once, and integrate them into something of his own. Vaughan Williams adopted pentatonic and mixolydian but for Ma, alternative tonal scales and values were something absorbed from infancy.
Many of the pieces here, such as the Inner Mongolia Suite and the Tone Poem of Tibet were not necessarily taken from experience, but are nonetheless valid pieces of creative imagination. The wild, outer provinces and the steppes of Central Asia play a highly symbolic role in Chinese art, recurring frequently in art and poetry, so this music needs to be appreciated for what it is, not simply as colourful pastiche. Indeed, the folkloric aspects are quite restrained in favour of music that captures a sense of alien wonder, of unbounded horizons and the magic of the unfamiliar. As such, it's like the music of, say, Bartˇk or JanÓček, where the music outside the western European mainstream inspires entirely original work, rather than being folksy for its own sake.
Later, when China became communist, there was a deliberate policy for “re-educating” middle class intellectuals. Ma was sent to work on a construction site, building a river dam. It was bad for his hands as a violinist, but it further immersed him in non-western genres. Ma was one of the best violinists of his time and a much loved teacher, so was accordingly targeted by the Red Guards who believed in purging anything they didn't understand. The mindless mob descended on him, beating and humiliating him in a show trial where reality meant nothing. No doubt they thought they'd won, given their short term, limited vision. Ma was exiled, never to return. Yet he wasn't silenced. From his sojourn in Taiwan comes the Amei Suite, inspired by mountain tribes distinct from the Chinese.
Both performers here, Ku Hsiao-mei, and Lu Ning, are players brought up in the Chinese conservatoire tradition, which goes back nearly a hundred years, in which Ma was a prominent figure. Ku played the violin before Ma himself, when she was nine. She's pictured in a 1961 photo standing a few feet from the master, holding her half-size violin. This experience gives this recording an authenticity which will probably not be equalled even if the music is taken up by mainstream international players.
Because Chinese conservatoire circles emphasised awareness of Chinese as well as of western music, both players understand why it's important to play with techniques drawn from Chinese instrumentation. Much of Ma's writing is western, but as he himself must have taught, it's enhanced by distinctive Chinese sensibility. Hence the unique quality of Ku and Lu's playing. As Ku says, to capture the essence of “Ma's musical soul, etched onto the pages of his music, I have often incorporated an 'erhu-style' sound to mimic Chinese folk music”. By adapting the fingering and bowing of the erhu, and its distinctive slides, Ku enhances what the music expresses while remaining true to bald notation. This is what musicianship is about. This isn't easy, and there's a passage in part of the Amei Suite which jars, but overall, it adds depth and nuance to the playing, far more subtle and artistic than mechanical note spinning. Lu's piano, too is played with a lightness of touch that reflects an acute awareness of how piano and violin interact.
Ma may not be a composer on the level of, say, Webern, but that doesn't matter. What we hear on this recording is something quite unique. It's a highly subtle creation based on western form but completely in keeping with the fundamental spirit of Chinese chamber music, where fluidity and individuality matter more than rigid emphasis on external form. It's shows how shallow some “crossover” pastiche can be. Like the great masters of traditional Chinese music, Ku and Lu appreciate that musicianship makes music come alive. In many ways, western music is losing touch with such values, so it's even more important now, perhaps, that western listeners connect with this spirit of Chinese art music. Also, in these times when music is “delivered” impersonally, it's all too easy to forget that it's not a commodity but an expression of something deep in human spirit. Ma was destroyed by the mob, Ku and Lu spent their youth forbidden to play, forced to clear out pigsties and so on, as part of a political purge to replace creativity with mob values, yet they survived. So we should be grateful for what we take so much for granted.
East Asian music does matter, if only because it represents an under-appreciated musical culture. Modern communications erode old nationalistic boundaries: we will “need” to know each other as part of one world. The potential is enormous. Naxos is perhaps better placed than any other label in the world to present this kind of music. Let's hope they market it so it reaches a wider audience.
Anne Ozorio


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