I hate to ‘name drop’, but when I was 15, I met Mr Gao Ping whilst competing in the Indonesian International Piano Competition where he was adjudicating. While I confess that it wasn’t until after the event that I realised that I had had dinner for two weeks in the presence of a local celebrity, I was incredibly drawn to not only how down to earth and knowledgeable he was, but particularly how he valued musicality and expression in performance to an extent my young self had never come across before. When I heard his three-part work ‘Distant Voices’ performed by a fellow studio mate, I was immediately drawn to the subtle nuances and the music’s extraordinary capability to speak to the audience.
I normally hate modern and twentieth century music. Well perhaps hate is a strong word, but I would say that I at least particularly despise much of the music composed in the modern and twentieth century eras – obviously with some exceptions as even the addle-headed me can appreciate the work of the ‘greats’.
In all honesty, this ‘deep founded hate’ undoubtedly stems from, well, stupidity. I first discovered my loathing for this type of music when I first started to play it – or attempt to. It was ridiculously difficult to read for me and even harder to understand. At the first lesson of any modern piece, my teacher would always exasperatedly shake his head, resignedly pick up his pencil and proceed to circle all the wrong notes I had accumulated – there were times when I was sure that it would have been easier to just circle the entire piece. It was worse when I actually started listening to modern music – the harmonies and melodies often made no sense to my ears. While everyone else around me was amazed by the performance, I could only sit there dumbfounded and wish that I had spent the twenty dollars to buy a program. By that time, I was sure that I had some sort of mental deficiency that prevented me from understanding modern music.
But you know what’s strange? It wasn’t just me. All around me I became more and more aware of a confusion and lack of interest in music from such an important era. It began to dawn on me that perhaps in the pursuit for fresh and innovative compositional techniques, composers began to break the foundations of the musical structure our ears recognise and understand the best. I began to wonder: would this ‘innovation’ end up destroying music? (Yes, very dramatic I know).
However, when I heard ‘Distant Voices’ composed by Mr Gao Ping, I was immediately enamoured. The first part entitled ‘Nostalgia’ features a very simple and poignant four-note ostinato threading the feeling of longing throughout the piece. The ostinato itself reminds me of droplets of water dripping slowly in a calming and very sobering manner. Though short, the piece develops in a very ‘bell shaped’ manner with the ostinato slowly gaining momentum – almost like a wave slowly gaining power before collapsing in a beautiful wave over the shore. More importantly, upon listening to this piece of music, I was not confused or caught up over trying to find the melody, but rather I was swept away by Gao’s music and for the next four minutes, I was completely enthralled with and floating along the course which he has designated- a course filled with reminiscence, heartbreak, beauty, but most importantly a deep longing for a home suddenly impossibly far away.
After listening to student performances (including my own) of ‘Nostalgia’, I must say that the far superior version is Gao’s own recording – rich with emotion and a Debussy-like sound spectrum. Mr Gao shows us with textbook perfection how his music should be played. Thanks to the wonders of Youtube, you can hear it here:
And I strongly urge you to. This piece is not my favourite piece at the moment purely because of its ability to move the listener- we are fortunate that there have been genii before him who have also walked this earth with the ability to do so. But rather, ‘Nostalgia’ is my favourite piece of the moment because it has made me excited about the music of today – about modern and twentieth century music. This piece has made me realise that not all modern music is hard to understand, and that the best composers are able to integrate modern compositional techniques in a way that appeals to still growing musicians and listeners like myself.
So next time you, like me, are confused by why the percussionist is shovelling dirt on stage, or why you’ve just sat there for four minutes and thirty three seconds with no sound emitted from the musicians onstage, go home and listen to ‘Distant Voices’ by Gao Ping, and let the music take you away to a place of ‘Nostalgia’.
In May 2014, Sylvia Jiang traveled from New Zealand to perform in our Sydney showroom as part of the Emerging Artists series.