From Buddhist Caves to the Pulitzer Prize:
Music From China Ensemble

Hear original music for Chinese instruments written by four leading composers from China, including Pulitzer Prize winner Zhou Long, performed by North America’s top virtuosos on Chinese wind and string instruments. All the works on this podcast received their Washington premiere at this 1998 concert by the New York–based Music From China ensemble and the New Music Consort. Two of the works were inspired by the eighth-century Buddhist caves in Dunhuang, where music scores were found along with a trove of ancient religious manuscripts.


From Buddhist Caves to the Pulitzer Prize: Music From China Ensemble

Zhou Long, conductor

Music From China

Chen Tao, dizi and xiao
Hu Jianbing, sheng
Gao Hong, pipa
Yang Yi, zheng
Susan Cheng, daruan
Helen Yee, percussion
Wang Guowei, erhu, huqin, percussion

New Music Consort

Michael Aberback, percussion
Eric Phinney, percussion
Paul Vaillancourt, percussion

Arranged by Zhou Long (1989)
Dunhuang Music (Tang dynasty, 618–907)

“Qing Bei Le” (Cup of happiness)
“Shui Gu Zi (I)” (Water drum I)
“Shui Gu Zi (II)” (Water drum II)
“Ji Hu Xiang Wen” (Dialogue in presto)
“Chang Sha Nu Yin” (Song of Chang Sha Girl)

Chen Tao, dizi
Hu Jianbing, sheng
Gao Hong, pipa
Yang Yi, zheng
Susan Cheng, daruan
Helen Yee, percussion
Wang Guowei, percussion

Kui Dong
Three Voices (1998)

Chen Tao, xiao
Wang Guowei, erhu
Yang Yi, zheng

Zhou Long
(Metal, stone, silk, bamboo) (1997)
(Chinese winds and percussion version)

Chen Tao, Chinese winds
Hu Jianbing, Chinese winds
Paul Vaillancourt, percussion
Michael Aberback, percussion

Wang Ning
National Style (1989)

Chen Tao, dizi
Yang Yi, zheng
Wang Guowei, erhu

Chen Yi
The Points (1991)

Gao Hong, pipa

Zhou Long
Tales from the Cave (1998)

Wang Guowei, huqin
Michael Aberback, percussion
Paul Vaillancoun, percussion
Eric Phinney, percussion
Helen Yee, percussion


This recording was made live in concert at the Meyer Auditorium, Freer Gallery of Art, on November 15, 1998, as part of the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series.

Notes on the Program


In the last decade, Chinese new music has become an important feature at many music festivals and concerts and has gained enthusiastic recognition. The flourishing of Chinese new music in the West has its roots in a controversial movement termed xin chao (new tide). The movement began in China during the early 1980s and centered around a group of composition students who, after the Cultural Revolution, were among the first to enroll in music conservatories.

Shocked and inspired by the newly introduced music of twentieth-century composers such as Bartok, Penderecki, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, George Crumb, and Toru Takemitsu, xin chao composers abandoned China's established compositional practice of “adding Western functional harmony to pentatonic melody.” The raw energy and unfamiliar dissonance in their compositions greatly stirred music critics and the public. The xin chao movement sparked excitement, frustration, and ideologically charged criticism. Amid heated debates, many composers left China to pursue further studies elsewhere.

In their searching for musical expression that is at once Chinese and universal, Chinese new music composers have carried out a deep and comprehensive exploration of Chinese culture, both elitist and folk. A fascination with the historical and “authentic” China (before the mid-nineteenth century) marks the distinctive aesthetics of Chinese new music. Composers draw their ideas and lyrics from legends and historical stories and from ancient poems and texts, as well as from classical philosophy and cosmology.

As illustrated by several pieces in today's program, the Tang dynasty (618–907), held by the Chinese as the most glorious period in the history of Chinese art and culture, has captured the imagination of many composers. The Chinese fascination with the past, however, has little in common with the historical performance movement in the West. For the Chinese, the past is not frozen in time; its spiritual and philosophical essence flows continuously into the present as an unbroken river transcending historical boundaries. Through the artistic imagination, images of the past reflect and mirror the present. This romanticized approach toward the past, interestingly enough, bears the imprint of nineteenth-century European intellectual traditions.

Composer Zhou Long states, “The age-old tradition of Chinese instrumental music has bequeathed us immortal classical music and folk arts with rich native taste and spirit. The question facing com­posers and musicologists devoted to the creation of new Chinese music, then, is how to carry on and enhance this splendid heritage.”

Ensemble and solo music have been the preferred genres in China through the centuries. In most cases, program music is presented; compositions refer to preexisting tunes, nature scenes, or historical stories. Often, titles may also suggest underlying philosophical or psychological meanings. The traditional performance style for ensemble music is heterophonic (different instruments playing the same melody, each with slightly modified melodic detail and ornamentation). Writing new music for an ensemble of Chinese instruments or a mixed ensemble of Chinese and Western instruments has provided composers, guided by new concepts and ideas, rich opportunities to experiment with texture, timbre, gesture, and performance technique.

  • Su Zheng, Wesleyan University

Dunhuang Music (Tang dynasty, 618–907)
Zhou Long (born 1953)

In 1899 a Taoist monk accidentally discovered in Dunhuang, in western China, a hidden cave-temple closed since the early eleventh century. The cave contained some forty thousand manuscripts dating from the fifth century to the time when the caves were concealed.

Dunhuang is located on the Silk Road, an ancient trade route linking the Chinese capital, Chang’an (now Xian), through Central Asia, to the Mediterranean. Three scrolls from the Dunhuang manuscripts contain musical notations for more than twenty tunes, which some believe were mostly used for entertainment. Since the 1950s Japanese and Chinese scholars have published different interpretations of these notations.

Zhou Long’s arrangement is based on interpretations made by Professor Ye Dong of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. The composer selected five shon songs and arranged them into three structurally related sections. In the brief introduction, the poignant, free-flowing pitches on the dizi (horizontal bamboo flute) and the characteristic drum accompaniment suggest the geographical area and historical period of the original music.

The first section is a variation based on one song, “Qing Bei Le.” The theme of the section, an innocent and attractive heptatonic (seven tone) melody, is played heterophonically by the pipa (four-stringed lute) and dizi. In subsequent variations the zheng (twenty-one-stringed zither) joins the melodic section. In the last variation, led by the pipa and zheng, the rhythm becomes faster, which is a typical variation technique of Chinese instrumental folk music.

Rhythmically the entire first section can be heard as an introduction to the rest of the piece. In the second song, “Shui Gu Zi (I),” the timbres of plucked instruments and xiao (vertical bamboo flute) contrast with one another. The section proceeds with a steady beat, accentuated by the short, teasing sound of the xiao luo (small gong). The remaining three songs are played uninterruptedly in the third section, which has a faster, dance-like rhythm maintained by the drum and xiao luo. The pipa is the leading instrument throughout the section. In the last song, which begins after the glissandos on the zheng, the tune returns with increased energy before the whole piece ends smoothly.

  • Su Zheng

Three Voices
Kui Dong (born 1967)

In its general structure and heterophonically layered melody, Three Voices is a work deeply influenced by Chinese traditional music. The color and shape of the sound of each instrument is distinctly represented. The xiao opens the piece with an expressive melody. It is later joined by the erhu (two-string bowed fiddle), heightening the emotional tension. The paired instruments create a thin, almost static sound-texture. This particular sound reoccurs and is sometimes abruptly interrupted by the zheng.

The fast tempo section is based on a dance rhythm. The xiao and erhu couple with the zheng’s light, humorous melody, and a virtuoso competition develops among the three. Built-up energy is released by the static sound-texture of the xiao and erhu. A short recapitulation of the beginning melody is now softly echoed in the erhu’s solo, creating a remote, unrealistic atmosphere. The zheng interrupts the reverie and concludes the piece.

  • Zhou Long

Composer Kui Dong earned bachelor's and master's degrees in composition from Beijing Central Conservatory of Music and a doctorate from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. Kui Dong is currently a member of the composition faculty at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Jin-Shi-Si-Zhu (Metal, stone, silk, bamboo)
Zhou Long (born 1953)

The title of the piece is derived from an ancient musical concept. In traditional China it was believed that each natural element had a special characteristic and played a unique role in the harmony of the cosmos. Chinese musical instruments have traditionally been classified according to the bayin (eight timbres), the materials used in their construction: metal, stone, silk, bamboo, gourd, clay, wood, and hide. Because of their relationship to the natural world and, therefore, to the cosmological order, musical instruments were considered to have a powerful impact on earthly affairs and human­kind. The structure of this piece follows the Tang dynasty musical form, the daqu, consisting of three movements: san xu, zhong xu, and po.

The delicate texture of the composition reveals the influence of the bayin concept. In the san xu movement the music begins in tempo a piacere. Supported by the string harmonics, a two-note musical idea wanders from the dadi (alto bamboo flute; member of the dizi family) to the flute and clarinet.  Each is played in different registers and with varied duration to introduce their distinct timbre. The composer then transforms the fragmented two-note motives into a six-note theme, announced clearly by the flute and clarinet in unison. This theme returns several times throughout the piece. After a transitional passage, Zhuo Long introduces the first dance section, which is marked by swirling sextuplets, syncopated beats, animated percussion, and high-pitched qudi (another member of dizi family). At the end of the following lyrical section, the six-note theme is heard again, this time on the flute and dadi.  The san xu ends on a lively and dynamic dance section led by an agitated dialogue between flutes and percussion.

Contrary to the diversified san xu, the second and third movements, zhong xu and po, each focus on only one single mood. The quiet zhong xu is in adagio tempo. Here, according to the composer, “the illusory imagination is translated into music by metal percussion with string harmonics.” The xun (ancient clay ocarina) enters carrying a long melody whose sound is nostalgic and mysterious. That six-note theme appears again. At the end of the movement, the xun introduces a charming coda cadenza. The third movement, po, is in presto and is rich in percussive timbres on different instruments.

It begins with a fast interaction between wooden percussion instruments, strings, and bangdi (piccolo bamboo flute, another member of the dizi family). The whole movement is built on two popular rhythmic patterns from Chinese percussion folk music.

Jin-Shi-Si-Zhu was commissioned by the Fromm Music Foundation with support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today’s performance is for Chinese winds and percussion only.

  • Su Zheng

Composer Zhou Long began piano lessons at an early age. During the Cultural Revolution he was sent to a state farm, where natural sights and sounds—especially roaring winds and fierce brushfires—profoundly affected him. In 1977 Zhou enrolled in Beijing Central Conservatory of Music and later completed his doctorate at Columbia University in New York. He is currently music director of Music from China and composer-in-residence with the China Broadcasting Symphony in Beijing.

National Style
Wang Ning (born 1959)

Wang Ning describes his piece as “a contemporary interpretation of the ‘national’ character of Chinese music and instruments”—a rather ambitious plan, one must say, for a composition of eight minutes. By disregarding the title and listening to the music, one is captured by moments of intriguing timbre and texture.

According to the composer, the form of the piece is inspired by a type of Tang dynasty court entertainment called daqu and its compositional movements: an opening san xu (unmeasured prelude), followed by a zhong xu (slow, song-like section), ru po (prelude to dance), and gun bian (dance-like allegro), ending in a coda returning to the unmeasured rhythm. The three instruments (dizi, erhu, and zhenr) represent, respectively, wind, bowed, and plucked-string instruments, according to the modern classification of Chinese instruments. To accommodate the use of incidentals and dissonances, the tuning of the erhu and zheng differs from traditional practice.

The beginning of the piece clearly signals the polyphonic relationship among the three instruments. A controlled, pensive note on the erhu’s middle register is immediately interrupted by a chain of dissonant notes and quick glissandos on the zheng. As if to reinforce the unfinished musical idea, the dizi picks up the pensive mood in the following phrases on its lower register.

Next, a mid-tempo arpeggio on the zheng introduces the songlike zhong xu section. The arpeggio remains as an independent musical feature, intermingling freely with the lyrical duets of the erhu and dizi. A moment of intensification by all three instruments brings the piece to its first climax. After a short pause, the ru po section begins. The erhu and dizi echo each other with continued tremolos, leading to a dynamic passage on the zheng. An explosive single note on the dizi announces another climax, followed immediately by a rather short gun bian characterized by a repeated melodic pattern emphasizing the dance-like rhythm. The music then leads the listener back to the pensive mood of the beginning. Long, sustained notes played alternatively on the erhu and dizi linger on, reminding us of the importance of timbre in Chinese traditional instrumental music.

  • Su Zheng

Composer Wang Ning graduated from Shengyang Conservatory and earned a master's degree in composition from Beijing Central Conservatory of Music. Since 1987 he has been on the faculty of the composition department of the China Conservatory of Music in Beijing.

The Points
Chen Yi (born 1953)

The pipa, a pear-shaped, four-stringed lute, is said to have been named after the sound of its playing technique: “pi” and “pa.” The instrument has nineteen to twenty-six bamboo frets glued on its belly, which, together with its six ledges, are arranged as stops. Pipa music, highly developed in the Tang dynasty, was especially favored among courtesans, as illustrated in numerous paintings and poems. Today’s pipa solo music is the direct result of the collection and transmission of classical instrumental pieces during the last two centuries and of more recent Western influences. A large body of instrumental compositions exists for the pipa. These are classified as wen (civil and lyrical) and wu (military and martial) pieces. The wen style is expressive and elegant, while the wu style is majestic and fierce.

The Points was commissioned by the New York City New Music Consort and received its world premiere in 1991 in that city, with Wu Man as the soloist. In explaining the title and the conception of the piece, composer Chen Yi writes,

“The eight standard strokes in Chinese calligraphy start with the points [of the brush] in different touches. There are sensitive articulations and gestures in the drawing, which enlightened me with the musical imagination for this piece.

“The structure of The Points comes from the eight-brushstroke movements of the Chinese character yong (eternal) in Zhengkai calligraphy; the melodic material comes from Shaanxi opera. In this work I had integrated the spirit of the traditional lyric and martial techniques; but its modern structure, melody, and basic tuning were worlds apart from the traditional. Though the title refers to the contact points between brush and paper that commence and characterize the eight [brush]strokes, “points” also aptly captures the nature of plucked-string music. The melody is created out of the musical points plucked forth by the fingers. The tuning of the pipa in this piece (A#- D#-E-A) is different from the traditional (A-D-E-A) in order to create my new chords more easily and effectively by playing open strings.”

The dramatic opening passage represents the first downward stroke. Strumming, vibratos, and portamenti come together to create a strong dynamic contrast and an intense atmosphere. To sustain the intensity, the composer uses the rhythmic pattern common in xiqu (Chinese opera): a free and gradual increase in speed on a repeated single note or a short melodic motive. Then, as the composer remarks, the “sustained crescendo comes to a dramatic halt, as when the flowing energy of the brush is suddenly withdrawn.”

Sectional dynamic contrast, based on the two traditional pipa styles of lyrical and martial, weaves the rest of the piece together. According to the composer, the section following the introduction is closely related to the Qin operatic vocal style. Each single note is full of nuances, and, therefore, the melodic contour becomes ambiguous. A stunningly powerful passage with uninhibited energy cuts into the end of the section, representing the upward horizontal movement of the fifth brushstroke.

The composer draws on classical sources for the traditional techniques of the martial style while using nontraditional position jumps and spanning strings to allow greater flexibility with rhythms and dynamics. The music then suddenly paints a delicate and hazy picture of floating clouds, and moments of uncertainty are heard in the wide and quivering vibrato. A string of vigorous strumming leads the music into the next section, characterized by sixty measures of fast sixteenth notes modulating from low to high registers.

In contrast to the stormy energy at the beginning of the piece, a cantabile section of delicacy and tranquility concludes the composition. Through subtle fingering variations and gradations of timbres, each note transmits deep emotion. The whole piece ends on a long lun zhi note lasting thirty-six beats. As the finishing brushstroke, the tremolo enters in forte and gradually disappears into space.

  • Su Zheng

Composer Chen Yi started studying violin and piano when she was three. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Beijing Central Conservatory of Music and a doctorate from Columbia University in New York. She has served on the composition faculty at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and has been composer-in­-residence of the Women's Philharmonic and Chanticleer in San Francisco. She is currently the Lorena Searcey Cravens/Millsap/Missouri Distinguished Professor in Composition at the music conservatory of the University of Missouri, Kansas City.

Tales from the Cave
Zhou Long (born 1953)

This is a recent piece by Zhou Long, inspired, once again, by ancient Dunhuang, known for its hundreds of caves with splendid Buddhist paintings and sculptures. In describing the piece, the composer mentions specifically the music and dance scenes depicted in the Dunhuang frescos. Zhou Long does not, however, allow the past to confine his artistic imagination. He is equally attracted to the contemporary folk music of northwestern China, especially that of the huaer, a mountain-song genre. Thus, in this piece, the mysterious past is juxtaposed with the immediate present, and this musical collage is played out on percussion and huqin, a generic term for various Chinese two-stringed fiddles that came to China from central Asia.

The musical ensemble for this piece is innovative. In a traditional Chinese ensemble, the huqin, always playing the melodic part, is never alone with percussion instruments. Here, the composer explores both the melodic and percussive timbres of the huqin through varied and skillful combinations of the solo huqin and the percussion quartet. The music begins with an adagio introduction. A loud single drumbeat creates an expanded sonic space embracing the soft and melodious erhu (one kind of huqin). Next, dense tremolos on the erhu introduce a mystical atmosphere. After a conclusive crescendo, the banhu (another member of the huqin family) begins a warm folk-song-like melody alternating with fast percussive passages. The music becomes increasingly joyous, with greater dynamics, reminiscent of a village gathering. In the midsection the erhu's playing takes on a mountain-song quality. Against a persistent rhythm, the winding melody unfolds slowly as sung by a human voice, delicate and sensual. The scene soon changes, however. The last section arrives with a thick percussion playing several rhythmic patterns drawn from traditional Chinese opera and wind and drum folk music. The erhu blends with the percussion, and its percussive timbre becomes prominent. After a pause, in a coda-like section, the erhu and drum rival each other with unrestrained energy, and the whole piece ends in revelry.

  • Su Zheng


Music From China performs a varied repertory of ancient music, regional folk genres, traditional opera, and new music composed for Chinese instruments. Founded in 1984, the ensemble has presented Chinese music to audiences throughout the east coast. The ensemble includes distinguished artists from China who perform on two­ string fiddles, lutes, zithers, bamboo flutes, hammered dulcimer, and percussion instruments. Zhou Long, musical director; Wang Guowei, artistic director; Susan Cheng, executive director.

Chen Tao, dizi, graduated from Beijing Central Conservatory of Music, where he later served as instructor. Mr. Chen has toured extensively and has made many recordings.

Susan Cheng, daruan, cofounder and executive director of Music From China, is an experienced Chinese music performer and lecturer and has served as an arts administrator for nearly twenty years.

Gao Hong, pipa, graduated from Beijing Central Conservatory of Music. She has received numerous fellowships and awards and has toured throughout the United States and Asia. She is currently on the faculty of Metropolitan State University in Denver, Colorado, and MacPhail Center for the Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Hu Jianbing, sheng, is a graduate of Beijing Central Conservatory of Music. As a composer he has produced compositions for BMD Recording Company of Hong Kong and has performed throughout Asia.

Wang Guowei, huqin, joined the Shanghai Traditional Orchestra in 1978 as erhu soloist and later became concertmaster. He was a producer and host of a music programs radio broadcast in Shanghai. Mr. Wang is also a composer and arranger.

Yang Yi, zheng, completed her formal training at the China Conservatory of Music in Beijing in 1989. She is a member of the Beijing Gu Zheng Research Institute, Eastern Gu Zheng Research Institute, and China Music Therapy Society.

Helen Yee, yangqin, has appeared as a soloist and ensemble player with Music From China and with other music groups. She per­formed in the 1987 off-Broadway production of the experimental opera Fire Works.

New Music Consort

New Music Consort is an internationally celebrated ensemble that travels the globe playing American music. The New Music Consort is the ensemble-in-residence at the Manhattan School of Music. Claire Heidrich, Chen Yi, and Frank Cassara, directors.

Michael Aberback, percussion, is a new music specialist with a focus on performing new works by American composers. He has performed in ensembles throughout the east coast and is principal percussionist with the Wayne Chamber Orchestra and Ridgewood Concert Band.

Eric Phinney, percussion, has performed with numerous orchestras and ensembles and is a member of the Ethos percussion group and EKKO. He is a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music. For the past six years he has been a student of north Indian classical music.

Paul Vaillancourt, percussion, has taught percussion at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, and Ottawa University in Ontario. He has been a featured soloist with the National Arts Centre Orchestra.


This podcast was coordinated by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts. The concert was originally presented as part of the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series. Audio engineering by SuMo Productions. Web layout by Gio Camozzi. Copyediting by Nancy Eickel. Ensemble photograph courtesy of Music From China. Special thanks to the artists for granting permission to share their performance at the Freer and Sackler Galleries.

Related Images