Meet the composer: Qigang Chen on studying with Messiaen, Chinese musical influences & more

Composer Qigang Chen has had an impressive career, which has seen him study with Messiaen, work with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and Herbie Hancock (to name but a few), and take on the role of Director of Music for the Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony. Ahead of performing his piece L’Éloignement on Sunday 24 April, we caught up with the composer to learn a bit more about his musical influences and experiences.

You've had an impressive career as a composer. Do you have any personal highlights?

Different periods of my career each have their own outstanding or defining events. These include my exposure to traditional Chinese music at home as a child and the bitterness and frustration of the Cultural Revolution. They include becoming a part of the first class of students to re-enter the Central Conservatory of Music as higher education resumed following reform, and being part of the first group of students to go abroad. Particularly important was my arrival in France in 1984 and subsequent work with Olivier Messiaen. From that time on I met a whole series of both Chinese and other members of the musical world who supported my work. Then came my Olympic experience as Director of Music for the Beijing Opening Ceremony in 2008, expanding my horizons as a freelance composer. From my position as Director I saw the work of so many different individuals, and was left believing even more firmly that artistic work is not a superficial endeavor. Finally, I have had the opportunity to travel the world for performances of my work, meeting musicians, conductors, and soloists from different cultural backgrounds, seeing their different artistic perspectives and professional attitudes. These experiences have all been vital, and without any of them I would not be who I am today. 

Let's go back to the beginning. Can you tell us how you first got involved in music?

When I was young, the influence from my family was the most important thing. My mother worked as a film music administrator and my father loved traditional Chinese music such as Peking Opera and Kunqu, and he also played the dizierhu, and guqin. At one time he hoped that when I was older I would study at the Beijing Chinese Opera Academy and become a Peking Opera performer.

I first began to learn music as an elementary school student, and later auditioned for the middle school attached to the Central Conservatory of Music, where I began to receive more systematic musical training. After I entered the Conservatory, I started studying the clarinet. During the Cultural Revolution in 1973, I was assigned to the Zhejiang Song and Dance Troupe, and at the same time began to study composition and conducting. Back then I wasn't sure if I would pursue conducting, composition, or something else. However, I eventually discovered that when I composed, I had the patience to work all night until daybreak, refusing to give up until I was satisfied – I had a taste of the joy of creation. After the Cultural Revolution, I was part of the first class of composition students to be admitted into the Central Conservatory in 1977. From this time on, composition became everything for me.

You were taught by Olivier Messiaen – his last student. What was the most important lesson you learned from him?

Yes, Messiaen accepted me as his last (and at that time only) composition student in 1984. At that point, he was 76 years old and had already been retired from his post at the Paris Conservatory for ten years. From October of that year until May 1988 I brought my works to him every month, meeting for three or four hours at a time. His greatest influence on me was teaching me to be myself, and not to try and be someone else.

'He taught me to search for and compose a music that was truly my own.'

Can you hear the influence of your years with Messiaen in your music?

Yes, his influence is deeply embedded in my work. When I first arrived in France, my knowledge of French language, music theory and composition were all in urgent need of improvement, but I gradually began to understand his way of thinking about music and his educational methods. He used the example of composers such as Bartók and Ligeti as a way of encouraging me to search for materials of value in Chinese music. Messiaen’s own harmonic language was richly colourful, and he knew the harmonic style of every period from the entire history of Western music from the middle ages through the French Impressionists like the back of his hand. He could demonstrate every sort of harmonic sequence and combination at the keyboard, describing them from the perspective of both function and colour, helping me to broaden and liberate my concept of harmony. All of this can be heard in my subsequent works.

His influence on me was also important in another way. When assessing a musical work, he would often ask: ‘is the composer sincere?’. In other words, he believed music should not be written to prove something or in service to something else, but only as an expression of the creator's inner world.

Your music is described as showing 'a marked influence of traditional Chinese music'. What are the features of traditional Chinese music?

Chinese traditional music, for example ancient melodies, or materials from Kunqu or Peking Opera, is in general more linear compared with Western music, and primarily concerned with timbre, breath and atmosphere. The different musical styles that comprise this body of traditional music have clear contrasts of character and affect, for example Kunqu is elegant and refined, the music of Northern China is passionate and earthy, and the music of Southern China is supple and exquisitely detailed.

How does this appear in your work?

To me, blending traditional Chinese music into my work was something very natural, it’s written in the genes of my dual cultural identity. Before going to France, my education included much that was purely Chinese, uninfluenced by Western artistic concepts. This equipped me with a real feeling for and understanding of this culture, something akin to the way Westerners seem to have a cultural inheritance from Christianity in their blood. After I went to France, these memories of traditional music began to re-emerge with ever more clarity. For example, my love of the uninterrupted musical line is perhaps an outgrowth of early exposure to traditional Chinese music, or even painting and calligraphy.

Also present in my work are materials of my own derived from traditional Chinese music. This kind of musical language is in my blood, and I only need to find the best means for realising and expressing it. The result is something that, although it owes much to Chinese classical music, as well as Western classical and modern styles, is nevertheless distinct from all of them.

'This kind of musical language is in my blood.'

What should we listen out for in your piece L’Éloignement when it's performed on 24 April?

Some of the materials in this work come from a folk song of Northwest China, a region dominated by the vast Loess Plateau. Zou Xi Kou (Going from the Western Gate) is a song of love and survival sung by the locals of this region when they were away from home. Its melody is mournful, unaffected and refined. The French title of the work, L’Éloignement, means ‘distance’. On one hand this refers to the specific materials of the work, and on the other it is also an expression of my own feelings on being away from China for many years, longing for my homeland and my family and struggling to adapt to a new environment. 

Conductor Xian Zhang has previously said aboout this piece that ‘the combination of Western classical music techniques with Chinese folk tunes is unique, and can only be found in pieces by Chinese composers who lived abroad’ and that she ‘feels a strong sense of homesickness’ in L’Éloignement. Do you agree with her?

Xian Zhang is an outstanding conductor, and I must agree with her. I became closer to traditional Chinese culture after arriving in France, only then beginning to appreciate its true quality. When I was in China, like many other composers in the country, I did not feel so much affection for it. It was only after going abroad that I began to know it deeply and realise that the cultural influences I had absorbed since childhood were a treasure not to be abandoned lightly.

To finish with, do you have any advice for young and early-career composers in the 21st-century?

Every era has its own challenges, so the experiences I have accumulated throughout my life may not be useful for young people. But I do believe one thing very firmly: true creation is a link between the future and the past, only a deep knowledge and comprehension of the past and present combined with serious and steady work can provide the young composer a viable point of creative departure.

Some feel that today's young people lack a sense of social responsibility. On the contrary, I think that freedom, openness, sincerity, independence, and heartfelt expression are the true manifestation of social responsibility, and it is these things that require the most courage.

Answers translated from Chinese by Niccolo Athens

Hear Qigang Chen's L’Éloignement in our concert on Sunday 24 April at the Barbican, conducted by Xian Zhang.

Chen, Howard & Stravinsky
Sunday 24 April 7pm, Barbican

Ravel Mother Goose – Suite
Dani Howard Trombone Concerto
Qigang Chen L’Éloignement
Stravinsky The Firebird – Suite (1919 version)

Xian Zhang conductor
Peter Moore trombone
London Symphony Orchestra

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