16 June 2008
Tour to China
International Congress on Women in Music
In contrast to the tragic incidents that occured in the Sichuan province recently, my short time in China was an inspiring, colourful, culturally rich, educational experience. Since the earthquake struck I have been trying to get in touch with all the kind hosts, the teachers and the students in Chengdu whose friends and family I can only hope are safe and well.
At the end of 2007 I received an invitation to attend the International Congress on Women in Music hosted in Beijing. A piece of mine had been selected for performance during the festival. The chance to visit China was very tempting as, being a former student of Larry Sitsky, who often speaks of his early musical upbringing there, China features prominently in my musical imagination. I am particularly fascinated by Chinese traditional music and musical instruments.
I was put in contact with the pianist Ross Carey, who was selected to play my piece Melodrama, and we applied to the Australia China Council for financial support. Our application was successful and we proceeded to plan the trip.
Carey had a number of contacts in Chengdu and suggested we should propose to give some workshops and performances at the Sichuan Conservatorium before going on to Beijing. The Sichuan Conservatorium, situated in China's fourth largest city is no small campus. The cylindrical building is little short of a skyscraper, housing thousands of music students of traditional and western performance practice. Around the building are scores of shops selling musical instruments such as er-hu, pipa and zheng and accessories – silk strings, stands and nails. We gave our workshops along with Pania Witoko, an Australian-born Maori, who spoke about the traditional instruments of New Zealand. Ross spoke extensively about his repertoire for the piano, including works by May Howlett and Gillian Whitehead.
I presented three pieces and spoke about my musical world and influences. One of these pieces was Eclipsed Vision, which involved audience participation. The translator at hand, I got all the students to stand up and walk around the hall, humming notes. I also presented In That Gate They Shall Enter, In That House They Shall Dwell, a work for the Dutch ensemble Orkest De Ereprijs, and Uisce, which was performed by the Song Company in 2007. The students were particularly interested in the score of Uisce. Scored vertically rather than horizontally, the work has resonances with Chinese script, which the students immediately picked up on.
We had many more intriguing and brilliant experiences: Sichuan Cuisine with various composition professors, buying musical instruments without a translator, some sightseeing, and an exceptional concert given by Ross and Pania.
There was one more important experience: an invitation to a private musical instrument collection – the largest outside of a museum in the whole of Asia. A two-storey modern suburban mansion was stacked from floor to ceiling with every kind of traditional eastern instrument from Vietnamese monochords to instruments from the Ming dynasty. It was a musician's Aladdin's cave. The group of instruments that particularly caught my eye were a hybrid set, built during the cultural revolution. They were Chinese but took on qualities of western instruments – such as the bass er-hu which was essentially a cello disguised as a traditional instrument.
Beijing and the ICWM were a completely different experience. Hundreds of miles away from Chengdu, I hardly knew what to expect. The city was big and modern, bustling with life and activity. From my hotel window, I had a view of the ‘Bird's Nest’ Olympic stadium.
The China Conservatorium, the most prestigious in the country for the most talented students, was a huge self-contained mini-city with its own hotel and supermarket, sports centre and gardens. On arrival, we were greeted warmly and led up a red carpet. Above the entrance to the lobby of the building hung a giant red banner welcoming us to the 2008 International Congress On Women In Music. The congress took place over five days of intense concert going, with two concerts in the recital hall, lectures in between, followed by an evening concert outside of the conservatorium in venues including the National Centre for the Performing Arts and the Forbidden City Concert Hall, both of which were astonishing buildings.
The National Centre, recently opened, is a giant glass bubble that appears to float on a lake. To get inside, you must walk under the water that you can see through the glass roof. The walls, made of marble, are dazzling. To be admitted into the concert hall you must first be searched and then walk through an x-ray machine as though boarding a flight. This was slightly overwhelming and bewildering to a few of us more relaxed easy-going types.
More than anything else, the congress was a tremendous meeting place featuring performances of works of female composers, performers and conductors from all over the world. Bringing people together was the most valuable aspect of the event. For me the connection with Australian composers May Howlett and Rhonda Berry and her husband Ron, who live in remote areas of the countryside in NSW and Queensland, was particularly special. What colourful, warm and fun personalities they were! Both May and Rhonda, in their seventies, came out to China and participated in all the events, including sightseeing events such as climbing the Great Wall. I have a photo now of a group of at least one hundred and fifty female composers from around the world on the top of the Great Wall of China together.
There were a number of works by Australian composers performed during the congress. I was very impressed with a solo cello piece by Katia Tiutiunnik called Al Hisar, performed brilliantly by the Australian-Chinese cellist Linda Lin. Other pieces in the program included works by Betty Beath, Katy Abbott and Melita White. Ross Carey, a strong advocate for Australian female composers, performed my solo piano piece Melodrama in a recital along with the work Moon Mirror by May Howlett.
There were also a number of composers from New Zealand. Meeting people like Judith Exley, Susan Fryberg and little Salina Fisher, who is only fourteen, and of course Ross Carey and Pania Witoko, I had to question why I did not know more about music in New Zealand. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to their work and their perspective on new music. In their music, I could hear the contemplative qualities of Asian music and nature. As Pania mentioned in her talk about Maori instruments, music is about the surrounding sounds in the environment, the sound of a moth hatching from her cocoon, the rattling of reeds in the wind - a quality that Salina captured in her works Moths in the Light and Raindrops on a Misty Pond.
Throughout the entire congress, gender was never an issue. It was not about feminism. There was not a single word spoken of the plight of female composers in the history books. It was entirely optimistic and forward looking, bringing together a bunch of people fascinated by each other's work – music that, perhaps because of historical tradition, still may be harder to find in mainstream musical circles. The quality of the work was extremely high. I am convinced that there is no difference in the standard of masculine or feminine music. Perhaps some different sentiments to express, but in terms of quality? Nope, definitely not.
The only time when gender crossed my mind was when some of the concerts showcased one or two works by token male composers. It struck me then that having one or two composers from one gender in a concert of predominantly works by the opposite is definitely not an equal experience and actually seems a little farcical. I am all for equality and balance between the sexes. After all, it is not possible to have the ying without the yang.
© Australian Music Centre (2008) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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