The Birth of Yage-the Chinese Art Songs Yage – The Chinese Lieder

The Birth of Yage-the Chinese Art Songs

My Thoughts and a Declaration


                 Twenty-three years have passed since I first went to Italy in 1988 to pursue my Bel Canto study and eventually became a professional opera singer. During those two decades, as an Oriental opera singer performing the Western operas on Western stages, I traveled almost the entire world. During this period of time and all the places I went, I saw that the Western vocal music (not speaking of the symphony and the other instrumental works here), from Mozart, Beethoven, to Schumann, Schubert, Mahler, to the French Fauré, Berlioz, and the Russian Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and of course, all those Italian Bel Canto art songs and folk songs, were sung around the world and appreciated by each culture, and naturally became a part of it; but our Chinese music, on the other hand, was only enjoyed within China and by ourselves. Why so? This question has been bothering me and has occupied the most of my thoughts.

         During the past 30 years, after China opened its door, the East-West economic and cultural exchange has improved a lot. While the Western commodity rushing into every corner of our country: fast food, luxurious cars, “name brand” merchandise, etc. etc., along with it, the pop culture has flourished too. Meanwhile, I also saw the tide of the “classical music” (or the “serious music” called by the Chinese) and musicians flowing into China: the opera, the musicals, the symphony, instrumental and vocal recitals, to name just a few. Only recently I attended the premier of a high caliber international chamber music competition in Beijing – the music that we could only hear on the radio or from the recordings in the past. It was a “dream come true” to me for I could sit in the music hall and watch the live performance in Beijing, a long-cherished dream since I was a boy. This is really a tremendous accomplishment! However, at the same time, as a singer and musician, I still feel something is missing. But what is it? After lots of painstaking search and thinking, I realized that what we are missing is a kind of unique Chinese music – the kind of unique Chinese vocal music, to be precise. This type of singing, in comparison with the Western art songs, should be the counterpart of it: they should parallel, should be able to carry a musical conversation, but it must be created on the foundation of the Chinese history and culture, based on the life experiences of the Chinese people, and it must be original and must be the highly expressive Chinese music and vocal art. In other words, we should create an art form that speaks the “universal language” that matches the artistic level of the other cultures, truly expresses the inner world and the noble spirit of the Chinese culture, but not merely imitating the Western arts or repeating the old lifeless Chinese art form from the past. We are urgently in need of a new art form – an artistic expression that will be able to convey the human emotions and spirit at a deeper level with more sincerity, maturity, more natural, and more truthful to the self. This new art form, resembling the Western art songs in essence, should be a combination of poetry, the universal humanity, and the rational search of the spiritual world of the poets and the singers. It should be a form that is romantic as well as philosophical, and should be written in a universal musical language.

         I have been asking myself from time to time: why do we Chinese always think the Western world (in terms of music) as superior to us and we the Chinese as inferior? Do we really this humble and even self-abased? And is it true that the others are sophisticated and we are “rustic”? The fact is, the great achievement of the Chinese poetry and music (which was called 雅乐, “elegant music”) can be traced back as early as the Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC – 256 BC), and the development of the poetic system in the Dynasties of Tang and Song (618-1127) had already achieved the highest artistic level. The origin of the Chinese written poetry, similar to the Western poetry, started from the ballads (《诗经》, “the Book of Poetry”, one of the Confucian classics) – the sung-poetry, in which the musical elements are as sophisticated as the Western poetry. Then, why is the problem of us being inferior?

         I will never forget what Mr. Qiao Yu said during an unexpected meeting in 2005 (Mr. Qiao is a renowned and respected lyricist in China). When talking about the prospective of the Chinese opera, he said: “The day when the Chinese opera is born, it must be the time of a perfect marriage between the Chinese language and the Western singing technique.” With only one sentence, he hit right to the point! What he said was just what I had practiced, observed, and pondered for many years. He summarized it all with only this one sentence! Yes, our mother tongue – the Chinese language.

         Here, for a brief overview of the worldwide recognized categories of the vocal performing arts: we have the Italian Bel Canto, German Lieder, French Chanson (or mélodie), Russian Romance, and the musicals (the British Gilbert & Sullivan and the American Rogers & Hammerstein). What makes them universal – being accepted and appreciated without boundaries and keeping their own identity and independence at the same time lies in the perfect union of the Bel Canto singing technique (emphasizing on the mastery of breathing control and limpid diction, and infuses this vocal technique into the utterance of the sung-language) and their own languages. In other words, in terms of singing technique, they have no substantial difference, what distinguishes them from one to another is the different cultural backgrounds, each unique style, the regional cultural characteristics; and the most important is the sense of their own language and the strict and standard linguistic rules (here, the “rules” I mean is a linguistic concept rather than the musical concept). That is to say, all these types of songs apply the same singing principles to serve the different characteristics and features of each language. To me, in terms of the timbre and style in singing, language is the foremost important base.

         As a professional “Bel Canto” opera singer, along with other Chinese singers, I was able to win numerous prizes at the international vocal competition and was on the rosters of a number of opera houses playing title and leading roles of Western operas on Western stages, that is no doubt a great achievement for China as a country, but what I have cared for more is that we - China, as a nation - should also have an art form, which has its own distinctive cultural characteristics and is being able to be accepted and appreciated by the Western world; and further, not only to inherit our own cultural traditions, but also to carry forward our noble artistic spirit to the world. If we can comfortably sing the serenade by Schubert, why can’t a non-Chinese singer sing “Tristesse at the Yangguan Pass” (《阳关三叠》) in the tune of a Tang poem?

         Nowadays, we are used to taking the airplane to travel around the world and no one ever questions about who invented it. An airplane is only a carrier and the pilot can be Chinese or anyone from any country. Just like we are used to using the light bulbs, we don’t need to remind of ourselves that Edison invented it when we turn on the light each time – what is important is that – we have the light in darkness.

         Today, this musical carrier - the one that carries the common artistic value, the same ideal and goals of all human beings – is the art form that I care for and seek after – deep in my heart, it’s the renascence of Yage (雅歌, “elegant songs”). In nature Yage is to express and convey the profound inner emotions and true spiritual world of the poets through singing, aiming to provide the listeners with the meaning of the poems as well as the aesthetic beauty of the music. Yage singing is the pure, simple style that combines the unified, scientific, standardized singing technique and the strictly regulated Chinese pronunciation with the rigorous, high styled, exquisite, yet plain and undecorated natural presentation. It should be able to overpass the geographical boundaries and be accepted by other cultures without bias while maintaining our own unique characteristics. This is to say, besides the five categories of the universally recognized art songs that mentioned earlier, we will create the sixth category – Yage. This is not a wishful thinking. From my understanding of the modern Chinese music history, from my observation of the trend development of the world music, from my own experiences of performing worldwide, and from my tireless searching and thinking over the past 20 years, I can say with confidence that we already have a solid ground to achieve this goal. What we need more at this stage is to build a platform on which the Yage project can be launched and operated; and we need to gather a group of individuals and organizations that believe in the same ideas and share the same goals to work together to further explore the future and to realize the ideal.

         The essence of Yage is the fusion of the Eastern and Western musical elements. As a matter of fact, a number of Chinese intellectuals and scholars already started the pioneer work as early as the 1920s after they returned to China following years of study abroad, representing mainly in the fields of music and painting: composers like Xiao Youmei, Zhao Yuanren, Huang Zi, Qing Zhu, and the painter Xu Beihong, for example. Sadly though, this great work was interrupted and jeopardized several times during the civil war in the 1930-1940s and then by the decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Fortunately, in today’s environment we are able to follow the footprints of these pioneers, do research on them, gather and study their works, absorb the valuable elements from their creation and use them as the guide for our own work – to organize a team of music composition, performance, audio / video production, and ultimately make Yage known within and beyond China.

         In the current society, people have already gained the knowledge of keeping a healthy diet, drinking the fine wine, purchasing luxurious clothing and furniture – but, how many people ever think of – besides the satisfactory nutrition and the high-class material things, we also need to take care of our ears? The ears are actually the most innocent victims in our body! Unfortunately very few people consciously supply them with nutrition – to listen to finely composed, exquisite music in order to nurture our ears as well as our spiritual wellbeing. Nowadays we are used to attending social activities, including cultural events, in the noisy environment. We have long been forced to be enclosed in a space with ear-breaking loud acoustics till we are physically and mentally exhausted. I have also discovered that in some occasions the higher the sound volume is, the fewer people really listen. Then why even using the amplifiers? The food we eat needs the digesting system to work its way into the systems in our body, but the sound we listen to hits our nervous system right away! That’s why a few nice words can make one in good mood the entire day, while a derogative sentence can hurt someone for a long time. Most people haven’t realized that our ears also need to be taken care of – earwax can be removed from the ears, but the noise we listen in will be kept and accumulated till it gradually develops to stress and illness. By saying “listen”, I mean, to establish a type of cultural activity that will train ourselves with the sounds of the pure beauty. This is an experience of the inner spirit and it can nurture the kind of noble feeling that we inherited in our human nature. It can help us discover the sensitivity of pursuing aesthetic beauty resided in us but not listening merely for the purpose of entertainment. Do we remember when was the last time we closed our eyes, sat quietly, and focused our attention on music? Do we still have the habit of listening?

         I do believe that in today’s society, the one that’s extremely commercialized, materialized, and is glutted with the products of the entertainment industry, only music – the high-style fine music – can lift us from the superficial and restless environment, and bring us back to the pure-land deep in our hearts. When I witness the authentic, together with the fake “luxurious merchandise” flooding in like germs spreading to each corner of our country and baffle our faith in our value system, I really feel the pain! As an artist, it’s my responsibility to provide spiritual food to our people and our nation. Although it’ll be a long and hard journey, I will never give up. Currently we are in urgent need of not only supporters from the arts circle, more importantly, we are in desperate need of the individuals, corporations, organizations, and ideally, the government level academic institutions that share the same idea and value, to participate, to support us, and to invest in this worthwhile project. Together, we will create our own unique art form and spread it to the world. This is the historical responsibility of our generation.