by Jenny Q Chai

While the U.S. and Europe have gone through a century of contemporary music, it is only the very beginning for China when it comes to Western contemporary classical music. Perhaps this is because such music is not China’s own culture, or perhaps the Chinese are still too enthusiastic about the Romantic period (even Debussy and Ravel are not often played in China). The only contemporary person recognized by Chinese audiences is Tan Dun, but more for his Crouching Tiger score. About his more experimental writing, he was often attacked by hostile conservatives, even on broadcast TV shows. So, it makes the prospect of someone like me, a Chinese-American contemporary pianist, performing contemporary music in China quite interesting.

Being the first one to bring prepared piano to China in 2006, I had the honor of watching the news of prepared piano soon take over Chinese press that summer. That reaction was unexpected, because prepared piano was nothing new to me. Meanwhile the media used the phrase “prepared piano arriving in China for the first time” in headlines everywhere. The piece was called Mallet Dance for two prepared pianos, by John Slover, commissioned by me and Piotr Tomasz.

During that performance, audiences exclaimed during each new sound with joy. They especially gasped when Piotr put small wooden balls onto the strings of the piano, the balls bounced up and down when Piotr continued to play. [ed. note: watch a live video of their performance]

It was a joyful time, sharing something so American to over 1,300 Chinese concert-goers. The concept was to imitate traditional Chinese instruments, especially those played at an ancient Chinese wedding. I think that’s a big factor in why Chinese audiences were able to relate to the sounds.

After that summer, I went back to the States to continue my studies. At the time, I didn’t imagine that I would be the one to bring contemporary music to China. For that time was before my conscious realization of my deep connection to and enthusiasm for new music. Not until 2011 when I relocated back to Shanghai after devoting myself to new music for the last 7 years, did it become clear to me that I would be promoting new music in China.

After being offered a contract to perform at the Shanghai Concert Hall, I proposed a concert program including the Debussy Etudes interspersed with contemporary pieces. My program proposal was heavily contemplated by the presenter, who then backed out of the contract, stating that they couldn’t get it approved by the government in time.

Losing hope in big official venues, I opened FaceArt Music InterNations with my fiancé Piotr Tomasz, wanting to make FaceArt an edgy performance space somewhat like (le) poisson rouge. We did about three creative programs, all with fewer than 10 people showing up every time. In the end, only the education part of FaceArt took off and was able to support the operational costs of FaceArt. I started mixing contemporary works by such composers as Cage, Kurtág, and Messiaen into my teaching, and still performed contemporary music once in a while at FaceArt. In addition, I invited pianists and composers from the U.S. to perform new music and conduct workshops for a group of our own audience members, mainly made up of students and their parents. They received our guest artists better and better after each educational event, and began to pride themselves on being the students of a contemporary pianist.

It wasn’t until last year, when I received an invitation to perform an all-contemporary solo concert at the “Carnegie of China,” the National Performing Arts Center, that I started to see some change in the attitude of people towards new music. Then the most authoritative classical magazine, Piano Art, published a lengthy 14-page interview with me, in which I discussed contemporary music and especially Cage, an American who uses Chinese philosophy like the I-Ching, and how ridiculous it is that Chinese people don’t even know when someone outside of China is utilizing Chinese philosophy for music.

I gave a lecture on Cage to 300 middle school Chinese students, and that’s another story.

To be brief, there are many interesting aspects I am starting to see in the Chinese reaction towards new music. The majority of people often have quite a lot of curiosity about new music. A group of conservative and political musicians are very much against it. Top university non-music major students adore it.

Social media plays some part in it. As I started posting more and more tweets on Chinese Twitter (called Weibo) about composers such as Cage, Carter, and Ligeti, there were up to a hundred re-tweets. But recently, someone (I’m guessing a composer) on Weibo started a discussion and expressed his own honest feelings about how he thinks Cage’s music has no value, it’s all about gimmicks and anyone can do it. I got excited and wrote back quite a few responses about what I think is the actual value in Cage, his philosophy that sound is music, and his use of the I-Ching and chance music. I encouraged further discussion, but received no further response. I guess the person felt intimidated.

Actually, there has been a huge resistance to Cage in China. There was a very interesting live talk show on CCTV, where the host invited Tan Dun and a very old-fashioned conductor who used to be very famous for conducting communistic music. From the beginning of the show, this conductor started trashing Tan Dun’s and Cage’s music ruthlessly, saying anyone who makes some water can call it “Water Music,” but it’s no music. But now that he is a celebrated international composer, somehow he thinks he is justified to do anything. He also complained about how Cage puts stinky fish into the piano, etc. Tan Dun was quiet for a long time when this conductor went on and on with his opinion, then finally, when the host asked Tan Dun for his response, he said: “I didn’t know you would invite him, otherwise I wouldn’t have come. I have nothing to say to such a person with such taste and level.” And he stood up and walked out of the broadcasting room. The live audience waited anxiously for Tan Dun’s return for 45 minutes, but he didn’t come back. After that, the host interviewed the audience, and it turned out there were really sophisticated people in the audience. There were an American music critic, a few Chinese-Americans, a Spanish student, and they started having a heated debate with this conductor, accusing him of being close-minded. I remember one woman from Hong Kong asking the conductor if he’d ever actually heard Cage’s music, and his answer was no, but that he had heard people talking about how Cage’s music was made, and that put him off already. That answer made him seem extremely ignorant and stupid in that setting in front of such a sophisticated audience. I can’t help but wonder, was this conductor set up? Why did they purposely find such sophisticated audience members?

Just two weeks ago on September 13th, I gave the season opening concert for the Shanghai Symphony, performing the wildest/experimental music ever written for piano, which included playing with baseballs and a baseball mitt, singing, tapping, and more. I originally also wanted to perform Cage’s Water Walk. But since it requires a big collection of household items such as a vase, flowers, mixer, pressure cooker, a bottle of Campari, ice, rubber duck, etc. (and the biggest item being a bathtub), the presenter couldn’t let me do it this time.

It turns out on that day, there was a crazy storm. The subway collapsed, and there were 4-hour-long traffic jams. Many people said they never saw Shanghai like this before. People were saying it was like The Day after Tomorrow. Yet the concert had a full house which overflowed to standing room only in the second half. To hear all the various ways people made it to the concert was very touching. Some walked in the huge storm for one hour, some got stuck in traffic for 4 hours. Some even came without any tickets, because the concert was sold out a month ago.

Media people also rushed in, even in that kind of weather. The five biggest newspapers reviewed the concert, all focusing on how new music is so well-presented and so new to Shanghai, but that it’s not against the ears. And they wrote about me playing with an iPad instead of printed scores, and told people what new music is about, and that it comes from the older period of Classical Music as its heritage. China’s biggest NPR station came right before the concert and did an interview with me. They asked me about new music, as well as about the educational flaws of the current Chinese music students, on which I have quite a lot of opinions, having dealt with many problematic cases. One of the biggest TV stations, DragonTV, also announced my concert in the morning before the concert.

I am quite surprised by all these positive reactions, especially the media reaction. People were telling me that people in Shanghai are a lot better at accepting new things and especially international trends than, for example, people from Beijing or elsewhere. Well, looking at Shanghai’s history and current stage, it is for sure the most international city in China. I hope I’ll be able to play more new music concerts in China and make a difference.


An adventurous and prodigiously talented young player, concert pianist Jenny Q Chai cultivates a mercurial and engrossing stage presence and seeks to create “fairy tales for grown-ups” in her themed and multimedia concert performances. Read more about Jenny on her Ariel artist profile or her personal website.



Posted on September 24th, 2013 by arielartists

  • Felton Harvey Butch Bohannon

    Walls fall in small pieces, one piece at a time. Infuriating, but is not your journey exploring new music more satisfying than dealing dealing with wildly popular, but fleeting, acclaim.

    • Jenny Q Chai

      Hello Felton,
      Of course, making new music is not for the acclaim at all, or I should be doing pops.
      But, just like you said about walls falling in small pieces, someone has to start breaking down the little pieces, and not be stopped because of the height of the wall. I’m happy I’m one of the breakers and will do the most I can while I’m in China. The rest is left for the future.
      And the acclaim is just one of the ways to see some acknowledgement and changes.

  • Cole Ingraham

    I found the Tan Dun story especially telling. The fact that the audience would wait that long obviously shows that they do not find his work as offensive as the conductor did. I also love it when someone shoots their mouth off and gets completely shutdown but the artist saying “I’m not even touching that.”

    In my brief time here in Shanghai I’ve seen the same things you have been pointing out. The majority of people tend to be very open to and interested in new music. This seems like something very specific to China. Other countries I’ve been tend to be more closed to drastically new art forms initially and only after enough artists begin doing similar work does it stand a chance of general acceptance. This isn’t true for 100% of people: just the majority. Your Shanghai Symphony hall concert for instance was extremely well received here. If that same program had been presented to people in the US or EU (provided they did not know of Cage, Stroppa, Cowell, etc. already) could very easily have gone over very luke warm. Maybe this is related to the rich history of protesting new music (rioting after the Rite of Spring premiere, leaving the concert hall during 4’33″, and so on) in the west that simply doesn’t exist (to my knowledge) in China.

    I am glad to see that in the past few years the overall acceptance of new music has been growing here. The grass roots approach of winning over small venues has always been a staple of cutting edge art and typically leads to larger ones. In many ways I feel these stand out more because of the air of being “underground” rather than more mainstream. Underground usually raises to the surface at some point with a stable audience base anyway.

  • John Slover

    I did my doctorate studies in composition in Shanghai, and heard a lot of people criticize Cage’s experimental music, and aleatoric and indeterminate music in general, over the years. Not all the critics were Chinese, and most of them were passionately interested in new music (primarily European). From a certain perspective, there’s a valid case to be made against aleatory. The argument runs something like this:

    When a composer writes aleatoric music, they create a range of possible musical outcomes from their score. This means that either (a) there is actually one outcome which would be aesthetically preferable to the others, but the composer chose not to write it out; (b) there is no outcome which is better than the others, often because the level of actual freedom given to the players is minimal and the desired effect will be achieved whatever the players do (as in “controlled aleatory” where the goal is simply a mass of sound); or (c) the composer has not bothered to determine whether or not one outcome would be better than the others, because aleatory is used for philosophical purposes, rather than musical.

    If you approach music from the perspective that the composer should have absolute knowledge and authority, as a sort of god of each musical universe they create, then the response to (a) would be “why not write out the ideal solution, instead of risking a sub-par result?”, to (b) would be “if it really doesn’t matter, why not just pick something and go with it? Aleatory shouldn’t be used as a compositional shorthand by lazy composers.” The answer to (c) is the criticism most frequently leveled at Cage: “aleatory may be all fine and good from a philosophical perspective, but philosophical purity doesn’t necessarily lead to good music. Whatever statement you’re trying to make by manipulating a stage full of randomly tuned radios, it’s probably not first and foremost a musical one.” A good aesthetician, my classmates would shrug, can still write mediocre music.

    On the other hand, if you reject the idea that a composer must be deity of their own piece, there’s a lot of value to certain forms of aleatory and indeterminacy. A composer may abnegate absolute control over micro-level details, but retain indirect authority over the piece as a whole by adjusting macro-level parameters (sort of like throwing a band-pass filter over a randomly-generated white noise sample). If done right, the result is sort of like how the U.S. Federal Reserve works– a government can control its economy much more effectively by setting interest rates and adjusting currency flow than it would by dictating to each citizen how they must allocate their finances. This model of indirect control is more apparent in Cage’s later “number” pieces, where the timing of events was fluid, but Cage maintained strong control over the sonic building blocks that would make up each event.

  • Meg Wilhoite

    This is really important work, because the ethos of new music is the freedom to question norms and think of new ways of expression through the use of organized sound. Really, the fact that FaceArt has taken such an educational focus is essential, because who knows what amazing music will eventually come from students who are encouraged to think outside of the box? A generation of innovative composers and performers could come out of the FaceArt experience, creative voices from China that might have never developed without someone showing them the way. I’m eager to see what happens next!

    • Melanie Maaß

      To my mind, this is absolutely right. The FaceArt experience fosters creativity and innovation. “In all beginnings dwells a magic force” (Hermann Hesse, Steps, 1941). What will happen next?

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