north east scotland's festival of new music

press reviews

Harmony Ensemble

Written by Alan Cooper

reproduced with permission

Music in the University: The Harmony Ensemble with the Elphinstone Fiddlers
Zeste at Crombie Hall

In the past, University Music has occasionally dared to dip a toe into the vast ocean of World Music. Last year for instance we enjoyed the Taiko Drummers and when he was in charge of the Department, Raymond Dodd brought groups of Indian musicians to the Mitchell Hall. This year, in association with sound, The Harmony Ensemble with Eddie McGuire allowed us no more than a momentary glimpse into the boundless musical cultures of China. I am not going to try to fool anyone into thinking that I know anything at all about Chinese music, in fact until tonight, my only experience of the culture has been the ersatz "chinoiserie" in works like Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. Surprisingly though, Mahler's use of a mandolin in his score seemed a reasonable approximation to the sounds of the liuqin played by Cheng-Ying Chuang in Saturday's concert.

The first thing to say about a performance in which most things were new to me was how strangely beautiful much of the music was, full of sounds both unfamiliar yet strangely familiar as well. There were fascinating parallels between Chinese and Western instruments. I have already mentioned the liuquin and the mandolin. There was also the zheng which Hooi Ling Eng often caused to sound like a harp. The yangqin or hammered dulcimer recalled Irish folk music or the cimbalom used by Kodály in his Háry János Suite. Cheng-Ying Chuang's countertenor or falsetto singing was beautifully done, in fact it sounded far more natural than some of our Western exponents but there is nothing in our culture anything like some of the singing styles used by Fong Liu. From fairly familiar Western styles she was able to switch effortlessly to Beijing Grand Opera or to Inner Mongolian, Tibetan or Han styles with stunning catch-like ornamentations of amazing complexity. I found these styles particularly attractive especially in the opening and closing songs where the complex female vocalisations were contrasted with the simpler male countertenor.

What did I learn from Saturday's performance? Firstly, that China is a vast country with many different musical cultures marked out by different tribes in different regions. Secondly, that Chinese civilisation is very old and that different styles of music have developed and changed over the years. Lastly, I discovered that purely by chance, our own Scottish Musical Culture has developed many interesting parallels with Chinese music. This of course brings me back to Eddie McGuire and some of the other musicians who have turned to exploiting and developing these parallels to create new music.

We heard several new pieces that followed this route in different directions at Saturday's concert. Eddie McGuire's song entitled Harmony with Chinese words by Fong Liu was very attractive with thrilling rhythmic patterns. Alexander Davidson, leader of the Elphinstone Fiddlers had written a beautiful piece entitled Glen View fusing Scottish and Chinese flavours with astonishing expertise while Kimho Ip's composition featuring Yangqin, percussion and feedback echoes must surely have appealed to the electroacoustic experts in the audience. For those with more conservative classical tastes there was even a movement of a concerto, Fishing Song, complete with full blown cadenza expertly played by Cheng-Ying Chuang.

This small "taster menu" of Chinese music has certainly whetted my appetite and I hope we will have the chance to hear and learn more.

  • Published on 31 October 2008
  • Written by Alan Cooper

Reproduced with kind permission of the author.

events mentioned
  Date Day Time Location Event Details

Click on the short event titles above to see details of the events themselves.

31Sat10.00 amAberdeenChinese Music: traditional and new, from The Harmony Ensemble & Elphinstone Fiddlers