QUOTATION OF QUERIES: CHORAL ENCOUNTERS OF HONG KONG, CHINA, AND THE DISTANT WEST explores selective cultures, eras, and texts of human civilization through the international choral medium that grew out of Western art music. This album, however, adopts the perspective of a Hong Kong music ensemble looking outward in space and time: through choral encounters with traditions near, far, and into the distant past. Following the spirit of the album’s title track, which explores the nature of life via the ancient writings of one of China’s most celebrated poets, the Cantoría poses its own set of choral queries in six languages from the cultural crossroads of Hong Kong:
- How do texts of the ancient world find meaning through choral music in our contemporary life of the 21st century?
- How do traditions of classical poetry, Greek theater, Hungarian-inspired German Romanticism, French chansons, and Brazilian folk forms merge onto a contemporary choral platform?
- How are tonal Chinese languages of Mandarin and Cantonese enunciated chorally alongside non-tonal Western languages of English, German, French, and Brazilian-Portuguese?
- How do advancing media technologies transform Asian university ensemble practices when cross-cultural choral works are premiered in Hong Kong, recorded in Bangkok, and released on a U.S.-global digital platform?
- How does the view from Hong Kong both include us in and distinguish us from traditions of different continents?
The album also captures the spirit of Hong Kong multiculturalism, which has a distinctive face of diversity from that celebrated among the world’s Anglophone countries. Hong Kong might be regarded as a “double multicultural” territory: As a Special Administrative Region of China, it is officially trilingual (Cantonese, Mandarin, and English), bringing together local, national, and post-colonial identities as an outgrowth of its Chinese-Western history; as an international, ethnically diverse urban center, it also has a growing interest in learning about “world music” and cultures.
The selection of traditions being represented chorally in this project, while not carrying an obvious immediate interconnection, nonetheless has its own underlying logic: Hong Kong’s unparalleled historical development has made it necessary for university student ensembles of the early 21st Century to bridge Chinese, Asian, Western, and global cultures like nowhere else. Student members of the Cantoría are trained in Western music as a central part of their “own” tradition from an early age, and yet they contribute to Hong Kong-Chinese choral development with new works performed in Mandarin and Cantonese that are distinctive from those composed elsewhere in China.
At the same time, Hong Kong’s status as an international travel and financial center provides the group with unique collaborative opportunities like that in The Suppliant Women, while the inclusion of international university faculty at Hong Kong institutions – in this case an American faculty-conductor long trained in modern Asian languages and international musical forms – brings the need for contemporary world choral music. This is to say that, although the specific combination of traditions captured in this album may not have been inevitable, they embody a fundamental interaction of Chinese-Western-global that is inherent to the Hong Kong locale and is continuously cultivated in ensemble programming.
The album’s subtitle Choral Encounters of Hong Kong, China, and the Distant West, then, from the standpoint of the Cantoría, describes a musical condition that is simultaneously aligned with yet distanced from all the traditions it experiences, including Cantonese choral expression that is relatively new to the members. Put another way, in the Hong Kong soundscape, all forms of choral repertoire are embraced with limitations, and the most familiar Western form is at least partly experienced from the outside, never fully internalized.
This collection features recent works, including three choral recording premieres, by prominent composers from Hong Kong, Brazil, and the United Kingdom. Not only does it intersect cultures and historical eras, it also presents a rare combination of styles and genres in a single choral setting. The two sets of Chinese texts on this album are set to classical poetry, which is a testament to the high status that literature holds in Chinese culture. Chan Hing-Yan’s work is scored for a choral-piano duo mixing Chinese folk and dissonant modern sonorities, but where the extended piano techniques themselves play multiple musical roles. The two accompanied Cantonese works by Chan Kai-Young are in an accessible, contemporary choral language that also typifies popular Hong Kong music, but where piano gestures reflect aspects of traditional Chinese instrumental music. John Browne’s Suppliant Women score combines elements of ancient Greek drama with contemporary choral theatre, as the chorus assumes the role of group protagonist in a novel partnership with percussion and the ancient aulos – the successful reproduction of the obscure reed instrument by Callum Armstrong facilitated the rediscovery of the Greek choral form in a 21st-century format. The unaccompanied Suíte Nordestina captures folk idioms of Brazil that are themselves amalgams of South American, African, and Portuguese forms, in which the voices sing intertwining melodies and imitate percussion instruments.
Older German and French works of the Western choral canon also figure into this collection, as they serve core pedagogical functions to Hong Kong university music majors yet emanate from cultural contexts that are perceived as “foreign” to most Cantoría members. The Brahms Zigeunerlieder were conceived as an accompanied part-song cycle for solo quartet and, in 19th-century Viennese society, were prized for their symbolic blending of uninhibited exotic culture and Western art music. If Hungarian Gypsy music was once seen as “oriental” in the eyes of Western Europe, it is surely just as much exotic “other” to the Hong Kong choral ensemble. Poulenc’s chansons cycle for unaccompanied choir, in its clever bucolic setting, is equally esoteric to Hong Kong tertiary students as a social commentary of French folk life, even if it serves as a familiar musical vehicle for learning lyric diction. The album presented here thus offers a two-directional glimpse at the eclectic musical texts: from Hong Kong, we peer back toward the Chinese and non-Chinese origins of our composite worldview; from elsewhere, we observe the cosmopolitan “fragrant harbor” through a new choral-cultural lens.
— John Winzenburg