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Tian Shan Sheng Hui (Festival on Mt. Tian)

by Deborah Koh

This is a lively song, a part of the zu guo chu chu shi chun tian or Spring Suite, by Gu Guanren, but with a strong tribal flavor to it that makes it very unique among Chinese orchestral pieces. It symbolizes the festival held on Mt. Tian (Mt. Sky) where the Chinese minority tribes congregated and danced the night away. Both fast and slow melodies are woven together into a music that does not lose its ability to make the listener dance along with it. 

The pai gu (drums) provide a thunderous introduction, aided by the cymbals, before the whole orchestra enters in C major, two-four time. The orchestra has a whale of a time, and from personal experience, performers get a “high” just from playing this section alone. It is just too infectious to be resisted.

A dazzling solo by the xiaodi (piccolo) is heard, with accompaniment by the plucked-strings, cellos and double basses. The strings then enter in a harmonized repetition of the xiaodi melody. A brief comment about the harmony of the strings. Taken individually, the gaohu, erhu and zhonghu parts sound quite strange. We used to call it the “puke-inducing portion”, in fact. But, when taken as a whole, the harmonized effect is breathtaking. We fell in love with it in the end. The cellos have a great time “singing a duet” with us too. “he wo men dui chang”, as my conductor used to say in Chinese.

The liuqins (high pitched plucked-strings) then come in with a bright, sprightly representation of the melody before the orchestra enters again with a repeat. This is followed by a two bar transition where the beat changes from two-four time to five-four time. The cellos provide marvellous rhythm, with their pizzicato on the first and fourth beats respectively.

The erhus (violins) enter in A major with a lovely dancing melody, quite a big change from the boisterous atmosphere earlier, but no less sprightly for that. The dizis join them, and then the zhongsuo (saxophone) takes over the solo role, with plucked-strings helping it with background melody. The strings enter again, reinforcing the melody. My conductor told us this section was supposed to represent couples dancing. First, the sweet and melodic erhus (tribal maidens) perform, then the deeper and huskier zhongsuo (tribal lads) take over to woo the girls.

The rhythm now changes to three-four time and the key signature changes back to C major. The xiaodi and plucked-strings take over center stage again, with a lively variation of the main melody. Then, it is time for the strings to take over with the same melody, followed by the whole orchestra, with suonas being the most prominent. Note the cellos providing a strong pizzicato in the background.

There is a four-bar bridge, with the same melody repeated at different octaves by different instruments. This leads into a wild percussion solo that has to be seen with one’s own eyes to be believed.

The suonas break into song again, with a two-two beat in an A major variation of the main melody. All the while, the strings are playing a running series of notes. Six notes in one beat, to be exact. Since three notes in one beat are termed as triplets, I guess they should be termed as sextuplets? From personal experience, we had a great deal of fun trying to keep up with the strange beat, since this was the first song we encountered that required sextuplets.

The beat changes to two-four time in A major, then back to two-four in C major again, before the song ends with a note of finality. I really like this song! Most of us had great fun rehearsing and performing it, and I hope that Internet listeners enjoy it too!


The Composer Gu Guanren      

Gu Guanren is a contemporary composer from Shanghai. He's very famous throughout the Chinese orchestra circle for his wonderful pieces and his works are in very great demand. I don't know much about him, but I do know that he was still writing pieces in the 90s. I absolutely love what he composes. So far, I've played Tian Shan Sheng Hui, Jun Ma Ben Chi and Ji Guan Yu, a piece to commemorate Guan Yu, the famous Chinese hero in Romance of the Three Kingdoms. He is the embodiment of bravery and loyalty, according to the Chinese.

Unfortunately, though Ji Guan Yu is a great song, I don't think there are any CDs of it because the piece was commissioned by my orchestra, and we only made taped copies during our concert. No CDs. It's a really great song. Very sad, noble and steadfast at the same time.

Come to think about it, this is the sad thing about Chinese music. We have all this great music, we play it in concert-houses, but we don't record it. Arghh! People who don't get to listen to it are missing out  on A LOT.

As a side note, I visited the temple dedicated to Guan Yu when I was touring in China. It's wonderful. Chinese culture is wonderful.

Gu Guanren has also arranged pieces such as Tibetan March, which was originally a Tibetan folksong, and composed Hua Mulan, a really stirring orchestral piece with solo pipa. I have heard it on CD and I absolutely loved it. 

About Chinese music now, most of the orchestral pieces composed by famous composers have a theme to them, a storyline, if you will. Ji Guan Yu starts off with temple bells, has a fast-paced section showing the heat of battle, and has a segment where the Chinese gong sounds out and the music dies down to signify the moment when Guan Yu died, before returning to the opening bars of temple bells again where the common people are worshipping at his temple, mourning his death.

The music of  Dong Hai is about a trip out to sea, the storms, and the trip back again.
Hua Mu Lan describes a girl who 1 dresses as a male to take the place of her ailing father in the army. There are battle sounds and everything. It's a very long and famous folktale, with lots of plot twists. Maybe one day, if I can find the song, I'll write a long commentary on it.

There are also pieces like Chang Di Sui Xiang, which I also performed before, that tells of the troubles and sorrows that the Yellow River inflicted on the common people during its yearly floods.

In school, we had to watch a video of how the PLA (People's Liberaton Army) risked life and limb to shore up the banks of the raging river, how the soldiers stood steadfast for hours at a stretch in waist-deep water, working desperately to ensure the people's safety. The common people are extremely grateful to the PLA for their yearly efforts, and when rehearsing the piece, I could feel the way that the piece was extolling and celebrating the bravery of the PLA.

This then, is the direction that Chinese orchestral music is currently taking. The music is no longer about mere technical virtuosity, no longer about just melodies and chords, but the songs are like musical poems, each one telling a story, a plotline, telling of how the people felt and how they rejoiced or suffered, lived or died...

Tian Shan Sheng Hui (Festival on Mt. Tian), this is the original orchestration and the only version of it, as far as I can tell. Granted, other orchestras may have slightly different tempos, and the solo drum and xiaodi portions may have
trills and ornaments in different places, due to the flexibility of Chinese music. But on the whole, the piece is usually performed the way the composer wrote it.

Usually, guzheng songs are more traditional than most. Throughout history, the guzheng has always been featured as a popular instrument among scholars. To be regarded as an educated man, a person had to have "qin qi shu hua". Translated literally, it means "musical instrument,
chess, books, drawing". And the qin referred to is usually the guzheng. As such, the guzheng has a very large repertoire of traditional chinese music.

Instruments like the pipa were developed at a later date, so their repertoire is not as large.

The best thing about Chinese music is that it is usually eminently singable. This is especially so for the main melody, and I'll find myself humming certain parts when on the road. I don't know, I find Chinese music to be full of emotion, and I love singing along to it.

For example, the 'zhu ying yao hong' part. I love the part where it goes "la so la   do la do   la so mi so la, do re mi so mi re do   la do so la mi". In Western notation, it would be something like "A G A   C A C  A G E G A, C D E G E D C A C G A E."


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