Chinese Luogu: East Meets West
in the Band Room
by Terese M. Volk
Multicultural materials for band are aplenty on the market.
Authentic music arrangements, however, are very rare. To offer a more authentic
musical experience of Chinese music through band performance, I took my own
arrangement of a Chinese luogu piece called "Song of Festival" to the
Edsel Ford HS Band in Dearborn, MI. I felt that if my role is that of
"translator" or "liaison" from the culture-bearer or ethno-researcher
to the music educator, I had better start supplying that translation in the
form of useable materials for the band.
In my session in the school, I was both teacher and
arranger. When writing my arrangement for "Song of Festival," I was
perhaps more blessed than others. I had learned the piece while playing in a
Chinese ensemble under Lu Guang, master musician and professor from Bejing. He
transcribed all our music. We played from Chinese notation (Chevé system), and
"Song of Festival" was one of our concert pieces.
I spoke with Lu Guang at length about the music we were
learning in the ensemble and its appropriateness for use in school. He thought
making band arrangements of luogu would be a good idea. To make this
arrangement, I first rewrote the Chevé notation as Western notation. Then I
designed the arrangement for a middle school or early high school band. How
authentic sounding was the final product? Lu Guang had never heard the
arrangement "in process," but when I played a tape of the piece,
without telling him it was my arrangement, he exclaimed "That's
The issue of authenticity looms large for instrumental
directors. There are so many selections available that are only Western
compositions with an ethnic melody incorporated as thematic material. Or worse,
some compositions have their only connection to a culture in the title. Usually
there is no indication in the "Notes to the Conductor" to help the
music educator place the piece in perspective.
On the plus side, some culture-bearers have written
compositions for band. A few composers and arrangers have availed themselves of
the expertise of ethno-educators for contextual information and suggestions for
instrumentation. For my own arrangements, I often go to the folk tradition of
music cultures. These often have more limited ranges and are a little more
accessible for children. If there is a classical or children's repertoire, I
find these also a source of materials.
Perhaps it is not so odd that a Chinese piece works for
band. The Chinese themselves have been adopting musical sounds and forms from
other cultures for centuries. I have heard jazz erhu, and "Santa
Lucia" played on 2,000-year-old stone chimes accompanied by synthesizer.
This is at least no odder than listening to luogu played by a concert band. And
what is luogu if not a percussion ensemble, sometimes with an added melodic
line? The percussion parts are easily reproduced with substitute instruments,
but it is not too difficult today to purchase Chinese gongs and drums. For my
session, I compromised: I brought in Chinese cymbals, but used the band's bass
drum and tom-toms.
When assessing a new composition, I ask two questions.
First, "What will my students learn about music from performing this
piece?" This is the usual educational overview conductors' employ to
survey a score, encompassing ranges, rhythms, orchestration, harmonies, and
form. Secondly, I ask, "Is this piece representative of the culture, how
authentic is it, and what can my students learn about that culture, and the
music in that culture, from experiencing this piece?" The answers lie with
culture-bearers or entho-researchers knowledgeable in that culture. I need to
know the context of the music in that culture, as well as some basic knowledge
of how it's music system works: theory, instruments, structures, and expressive
elements. If "Notes to the Conductor" are to be of any value, they
must include at least some of this kind of information. And I see that as our
job as ethno-educators: to help provide that information, and to provide, or
encourage, performance materials that will satisfy this need.
My lesson plan included contextual information about Chinese
music. I showed the students Chinese notation, spoke about indoor and outdoor
music, and played a song on my dizi (Chinese flute) to demonstrate an indoor
instrument. I described heterophony in Chinese music, and they listened to a
tape of the original luogu. I drew parallels between parade marching in the US
and Chinese New Year's celebrations with Lion and Dragon Dances in the streets.
The rest of the period was given over to rehearsal of my arrangement.
So what was the end result of my day at Edsel Ford HS? Did
the students enjoy performing "Song of Festival?" The answer is a
resounding "yes!" Playing all those 'cool' sounds of the Chinese
gongs made the percussion section the envy of the band. The students begged to
perform it in their next concert. Before I left, the band director and I made arrangements
for them to so do.