QUOTATION OF QUERIES: CHORAL ENCOUNTERS OF HONG KONG, CHINA, AND THE DISTANT WEST
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
Quotation of Queries 蘇問
Quotation of Queries was written for six-part chorus and amplified piano by Hong Kong composer Chan Hing-Yan on commission from the Hong Kong Learners’ Chorus in 1999 and rearranged in 2000 for The Song Company (Australia). It consists of five short movements, sung in Mandarin, on text fragments excerpted from the poems by Su Dongpo (also known as Su Shi, 1037-1101) from China’s Song Dynasty (960-1279). In this choral setting, the composer intentionally departs from the original meanings of the poems. Instead, they are distorted and recast musically as antireality. The connecting force of the work is that each section poses a query. The five queries are: “What do you think human life is like here or there?” “Who sees a hermit pacing up and down alone?” “Who is performing Huanyi’s three farewell tunes?” “Who says Dongpo is old?” and “When can I just ignore the encumbrance?”
For historical reasons, Hong Kong’s Chinese-texted secular choral works of the 20th Century had usually been sung in Mandarin, and even as recently as 2010, many local practitioners had believed that Cantonese choral music was untenable. The scoring of Quotation of Queries in counterpoint to the Chan Kai-Young works further reveals contrasting approaches to Mandarin and Cantonese choral performance practices. Chinese is written with one syllable per character. While Mandarin is regarded as the national language linking Chinese communities in numerous countries, it also relates to Cantonese via a common Chinese pictographic script (written in a simplified form in Mainland China and in the traditional “complex” form in Hong Kong and Taiwan) and tonal spoken delivery systematically based on different pitch levels and rising/falling tones. But the two differ significantly in pronunciation: whereas Mandarin is based on four main tones, Cantonese is regarded to have nine tones in various registers. The presence of spoken tones has the potential to create a closer relationship between recitation and singing than exists in Western languages. However, composers of Mandarin choral music do not generally link sung melodic lines with spoken tonal inflections as closely as composers of Cantonese choral works do. In Quotation of Queries, sung lines tend to follow Western bel canto vocal practices, while declaimed text closely adheres to the tonal inflections of spoken Mandarin.
At the same time, many contemporary choral works written around the world seek to capture a vocal aesthetic that lies outside of or in combination with the conventional Western bel canto approach. Quotation of Queries employs various unconventional vocal effects, such as tongue clicks, whispers, recitation, and overtones, as well as challenging conventional techniques, including long-sustained tones in open fifths to produce the sense of emptiness and uncertainty.
The prepared piano also plays a central role in tandem with the choir. The use of extended “inside-the-piano” effects is prevalent and includes both plucking and muting the strings, touching the nodes to produce harmonics, and strumming glissandi over the strings. The piano is amplified in live performance in order to make the subtle timbral effects audible. The mystical, ethereal quality created by these effects reflects the metaphysical depth of the ancient texts, now recast in modern musical language. Even the piano’s imitation of the plucked Chinese pipa (lute) in “Who Says that Dongpo Is Old” is laced with irony: The player mutes the inside piano strings with one hand as the keys are struck with the other, creating a dampened sound that is the opposite of the bright pipa timbre. The contrasting moods of the first four movements – violent, tranquil, mysterious, and playful – lead to immateriality in “Ignore the Encumbrance” (no mood indication is given in movement 5). The other-world aura is only shattered in the closing moments of the work, when the reciter declares “Gloomily, I awake from my dream!” and the piano is finally unleashed at full volume for a single, short outburst of vibrating sound at extreme low and high registers.
— Chan Hing-Yan and John Winzenburg
The Suppliant Women (excerpts)
The Suppliant Women is the first part of a trilogy written 2,500 years ago by the Greek writer Aeschylus in the 5th century BC. The other two plays were lost, but The Suppliant Women confronts key issues of physical abuse, flight from persecution, asylum, and risk of war that have long confronted human civilization. It tells the story of the 50 daughters of Danaos, who have fled Egypt with their father in order to avoid forced marriage to their cousins, the sons of Aegyptos. The refugees seek asylum in their Greek ancestral home of Argos and force the local King Pelasgos into a life-threatening dilemma: to turn the women away and risk offending Zeus, or to take them in and risk war with Egypt? It is in this plot that the first-recorded use of the word “democracy” appears and anticipates the birth of decisions being made by citizen vote.
This Cantoría recording is an arranged choral suite of selected scenes from a contemporary musical adaptation of The Suppliant Women. The full production by the Actors Touring Company (ATC) and Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh is from the new English text version by David Greig and composer John Browne. Whereas Greek theater is known for its structured use of a chorus for dramatic purposes, The Suppliant Women is noteworthy for featuring the chorus as the collective protagonist. Here the chorus women remain on stage throughout the entire production and are involved in all elements of dialogue, dramatization, singing, and dance. The Cantoría formed the core of the chorus in the March 2018 Hong Kong Arts Festival production of The Suppliant Women with the ATC – the first to be performed outside of the United Kingdom and by a non-native English-speaking chorus. Browne’s musical score is even more significant for employing elements of the original Greek context through the inclusion of percussion and the ancient double-reed, double-pipe aulos, in partnership with a modern SATB choir.
The play begins with a choral ode (song to the Gods) Parados, which is a processional marking the entrance of the suppliant women. They arrive at a temple outside the Greek city of Argos carrying suppliant branches and telling of the trials of their sea voyage from Egypt. The women claim to be descendants of Io, mortal lover of the Greek God Zeus, who came from Argos. They entreat Zeus to grant them protection, shortly before the arrival of their father Danaos and the King of Argos.
Danaos and the King have gone to plead the case of the suppliants to the Argos citizens. Ode 2 begins with the pastoral sound of animals around the temple, and the women again pray to Zeus for hope and inspiration by recounting the story of their ancestor Io.
Danaos returns and informs his daughters that the citizens of Argos have voted unanimously to grant them asylum in the city. The women respond with Ode 3 as a grand song of praise to the people of Argos. As they pray for the city’s peace and protection from Ares, God of war, they break into passionate dancing and shouting, before collecting themselves in a solemn oath to reverence for custom, for women and suppliants as “the three strong pillars that hold up justice!”
The celebration is short-lived, however, as Danaos and the daughters catch sight of Egyptian boats ferrying toward Argos on the horizon. Danaos goes to rally the people of Argos, and the sons of Aegyptos, led by the Herald, are soon heard approaching the temple. In the 3rd Amoibaion (marking lyric dialogue in Greek theater), the Egyptians threaten the defiant daughters, who mock the men and brace for pain as they call to Argos for help.
The Egyptians have, for the time being, been driven away by the King of Argos. The women then prepare to enter the city, assuring their father that they will not marry until they are dead. The Exodus is their song of triumph as the citizens of Argos come to greet them and wish them blessings and marriage. (The same Cantoría members sing both adolescent and adult roles, changing voice types within a single breath.) The young women, ever defiant, reject the tidings of their protectors and instead ask Zeus to grant them eternal equality as they enter their new home.
— John Winzenburg
11 Zigeunerlieder (Gypsy-Songs), Op. 103 (excerpts)
Poetic texts have long served as inspiration for European secular choral music, and Johannes Brahms was especially attentive to setting texts of various poets in German. Like many composers of the 18th and 19th Centuries, Brahms also adapted musical ideas and texts from cultures that lie outside the boundaries of Western art music as inspiration. He was especially interested in music of the Hungarian Roma people, commonly known as Gypsies, who had become popular for their “foreignness,” even though they dwelt within the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the time. Hugo Conrat sent Brahms a set of 25 Hungarian folk melodies, entitled Ungarishe Liebeslieder, in 1887 with accompaniments by Zoltán Nagy. According to Natasha Loges, Conrat had rendered those texts into German poetic verse after receiving paraphrased versions from two Hungarian women (Victoria von Szalay and Marie Witzl) who had served as nannies to his daughters. Brahms then reconceived 11 of the Zigeunerlieder for SATB solo voices because he frequented social Viennese social gatherings, and with the new pieces he could accompany a solo quartet of able singers on piano as they snacked on cakes together. The songs quickly gained popularity with the wider public, and Brahms reset part of the collection for solo voice. Both versions have since become established within the Western canon.
A common thread of this album is how texts and traditions of distant cultures are interpreted across time and space. Brahms loosely adapted the set that he received from Conrat to fit the late German Romantic salon style, which itself is reconstituted as both “foreign” and “familiar” to the 21st-century Hong Kong ensemble. Brahms re-composed the original tunes from Nagy and set his own harmonic scheme to each piece, but he maintained some basic rhythmic features and melodic contours, which were suggestive of the Hungarian style. Most noteworthy, as can be heard in the four movements recorded here, is the heavily weighted duple meter appearing in different contexts. The order of the movements has thus been altered for purposes of overall flow in suite-like fashion.
“He, Zigeuner, greife in die Saiten ein” is unusual for the Allegro agitato manner in which it begins a song cycle: the opening tenor solo enters forte in the upper range and rapidly descends over wide leaps inflected by three consecutive leading tones; while the piano plays driving left hand rhythms in simple meter against right hand triplets – a cross rhythm that is common to Brahms. The two sections of the piece are both sung in a call-and-response manner between the solo and choir, before the SATB voices repeat the entire verse Più presto and sempre forte.
“Kommt dir manchmal in den Sinn” is one of the more subdued movements of the cycle, scored in a graceful Andantino to express the tone of solemn love. The two-part verse also appears in a call-and-response texture between soloist and choir, but here the simplicity of the solo and piano part is countered by greater chromaticism in the four voice parts. The second half of the verse appears even more impassioned, with continuous, urgent motion in the piano, to underscore the solo text, “Leave me not, deceive me not, you know not how much I love you,” before reaching its climactic point in the final choral phrase.
“Horch, der Wind klagt in den Zweigen” exhibits late-Romantic text painting, where the soft, flowing melody is transferred throughout each voice of the choir to suggest the wind wailing through the branches in the night. The mood intensifies as voices are added and the melody is sounded brilliantly in the piano. But the dynamic softens at verse end, as if the wind fades in the distance to signal the time for the two lovers to depart. “Brauner Bursche führt zum Tanze” captures the jocular spirit of young lovers at the dance, as is heard in the ascending triplet figures of the piano. Its melodic rhythm of strong-weak-weak, strong-weak-weak also hearkens to the Gypsy style, while the wide leaps on “whirls her, leads her, shouts and leaps” again augments the folk material with dramatic choral text painting.
The Chansons Françaises by French composer Francis Poulenc are based on (anonymous) French poetry and written in the style of popular folk tunes. Poulenc had remained in occupied Paris during World War II, and he composed this celebratory set in 1945-46 in part to help soothe the wounds of war and restore a sense of national pride and optimism. Poulenc was a prolific writer of French songs, and the combination of both serious and humorous themes here, alongside the clear attention given to pronounced melodies in each piece, show deep intuition of the feisty, secular chanson tradition.
“Margoton va t’a liau” depicts the frivolous yet unsuccessful attempts by three young lads to win the heart of the girl Margoton, who has fallen into a well and tricks them into pulling her to safety without declaring her love for any of them. Shifting textures between male and female voices represent the unfolding interplay. “La belle se siet au pied de la tour” sets a crying maiden in dialogue with her father, again in shifting female-male responses, but with mournfully flowing voice lines. When the daughter discovers that her loved one is to be hanged tomorrow at dawn, she responds, “Father, if he is to be hanged, bury me beneath the spot, then people will say, ‘that was true love’.” The mood turns heartier in “Pilons l’orge” – as the village wives grind the barley, they complain in jest of being married off to nasty husbands, and joke that it is their men who will get the real beating if they don’t show better behavior!
“Clic, clac, dansez sabots” is a swaggering dance sung by tenors and basses in divisi. It pits a group of young hooligans out looking for dance partners against the father of one girl who catches their fancy: at first, he violently mocks them, only to decide that he’d rather join them in their juvenile wandering in order to feel young again! The final verse thus fades away as they all continue together down the lane. “Les tisserands” is a boisterous drinking song, in which the whole village pokes fun at the unrefined lifestyle of the weavers: as each day of the week is recounted, the weavers seems to spend more time at play than at work, but when Sunday comes, they always want their pay!
— John Winzenburg
Two Cantonese Pieces
The Two Cantonese Pieces by Hong Kong composer Chan Kai-Young, like Quotation of Queries above, are also set to poetry by Song Dynasty poet Su Dongpo (Su Shi). In contrast to the Quotation, however, Chan Kai-Young’s works indicate that the Chinese written characters be sung in Cantonese, which is spoken in Hong Kong and parts of the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. Cantonese choral music is a very new form, with composed works only appearing in significant numbers over the past decade. Yet the Cantonese creates a unique choral sound by including upwardly gliding inflections and sustained final u/i vowels and n/ng/m consonants.
“Under the Mid-Autumn Moon” (水調歌頭 Seui Diu Go Tau) is originally about the annual Mid-Autumn Festival, traditionally one of the most important family occasions on the Chinese lunar calendar, in which the full moon is a symbol of reunion and thoughts for family and friends who, though they may be thousands of miles apart, can still share in its resplendent beauty.
Based on the famous poem “When will the moon be bright and clear?” by Su Dongpo, “Seui Diu Go Tau” (literally: Water Melody Prelude) is the Cantonese transliteration of a tune title. Like many ancient writings, the poem was originally intended to be sung to the titular melody. The text extols the vision of the moon during the Mid-Autumn Festival, reminding the poet of his beloved brother Zi You, from whom he has been separated for a long time. The introductory section of the poem (not included in the choral text) reveals that the author was drunk while composing the work: “During the Mid-Autumn Festival in the year Bing Chen, I drank happily until dawn and in a drunken state wrote this poem while thinking of Zi You.” The first two verses express solitude and bitterness at the moon for only showing its fullness at times of separation. But the final verse turns hopeful, expressing the poet’s reunion with his family in spirit, even if not in person, under the full moon of mid-autumn.
This choral setting was inspired by the composer’s similar sense of nostalgia, separation, and hope. It was written around the time of the Mid-Autumn Festival, while Chan was a doctoral student in Philadelphia in 2014. Like many Hong Kong students studying Chinese classics, Chan Kai-Young had learned to recite “Seui Diu Go Tau” in Cantonese during his school years. In this choral setting, written on commission from Edition Peters (UK) for the Chinese choral anthology Half Moon Rising and premiered by the Cantoría in 2015, Chan closely allies the melody of the different poetic phrases with the Cantonese inflections as it might be recited. The piano part is also scored to imitate the style of a plucked Chinese guzheng zither in many passages. This is particularly audible with the descending four-note sequence of grace notes that appear in the left hand throughout and in the open fifths that double the choir during the final bars of the work.
“The Crane Releasing Pavilion” (放鶴亭記 Fong Hok Ting Kei) was commissioned by the Cantoría for this recording project and its summer 2018 premiere as a complementary partner to “Under the Mid-Autumn Moon” by the same poet Su Dongpo. Hong Kong has witnessed a sudden interest in Cantonese-language choral composition over the past decade – in part because of its inexplicable and almost complete absence before 2010 – but also because Cantonese shares many linguistic features that existed during the period in which the classical Chinese poetry was composed. Whereas Mandarin has only been the official Chinese language for several hundred years, Cantonese is recognized as one of the oldest dialects in China. “The Crane Releasing Pavilion” captures linguistic and musical nuances alike. The Cantonese pronunciation highlights the characteristic “stopped” consonants (formed in the mouth but not sounded) k, p, and t at the ends of syllables, creating additional rhythmic verve in the text. The musical setting of the two poetic verses is equally dynamic, with the continuous piano line conveying the magnificent vision of a poet’s flock of birds as they swoop together, soaring among the clouds. But at the end of the day, the poet beckons his cranes, “Come back! Come back! You cannot linger in the western mountains, for it is your master standing here who feeds you!”
— John Winzenburg
Brazilian composer Ronaldo Miranda finished his Suíte Nordestina in 1982. In that same year, the work received an award at the Concurso Nacional de Arranjos Corais de Música Folclórica Brasileira, promoted by the Fundação Nacional de Arte. Suíte Nordestina (Northeastern Suite) is a four-movement choral suite freely based on folk melodies from Northeastern Brazil. Because of its folk content, the arrangements have a certain nationalist flavor with simple harmonies and syncopated, interlocking rhythmic patterns. It also features the presence of the embolada style in the second and fourth movements. Embolada is a poetic-musical process from the coastal areas of Northeastern Brazil characterized by a somewhat declamatory melody, very fast and repetitive passages, and a comical text.
The four movements alternate in mood: “Morena bonita” and “Bumba chora” are lyrical and expressive of love and sadness – a Bumba is a type of low-pitched drum, the sound of which reminds the speaker of crying. “Dendê trapiá” and “Eu vou, eu vou” are, on the other hand, jovial and humorously irreverent, with their ironic references to falling coconuts and macaúba (palm tree) leaves. In the lively second movement, the Coco (literally, coconut) is a type of Brazilian folk song heard mostly in the states around the northeastern tip of Brazil, and both Dendê and trapiá are plants from which cooking oil is extracted. In the final movement, the choral voices depict the percussive sounds of shakers and the careless fall (“xá uai! tum!”) of the baritone soloist after stepping on a slippery mango, even as he himself makes fun of another clown’s wife falling out of bed and breaking her neck!
— Daniel R. Afonso, Jr. and John Winzenburg
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