Yunnan Folk Songs (2010- 2011), 19 minutes
Instrumentation: Mezzo-sop, baritone; fl-ob-cl; sheng (Chinese reed) hrn; 2 perc; string qt
Commissioned by Fulcrum Point New Music Project in Chicago through a grant from the MAP Fund, a program of Creative Capital supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. Katie Calcamuggio, mezzo-soprano; Brad Jungwirth. baritone, Stephen Burns, conductor, Chicago, IL. Premiere date: March 22nd, 2011.
Yunnan province in Southwest China is home to twenty-five different officially recognized ethnic minorities, or “nationalities,” each of which has its own language and culture. Since the early 1980s, Professor Zhang Xingrong of the Yunnan Art Institute has traveled throughout Yunnan, making field recordings and transcribing songs of many of those nationalities in their original dialects. Yunnan Folk Songs is based on my interpretations of seven of those recordings, from the Yi, Hani, Lisu, and Jingpo nationalities. The dialects in which the songs are sung are not written, but have been passed from generation to generation entirely orally, making literal translations difficult. The translations of each song are accordingly based by and large only on general meanings.
When I first heard the recordings, which I ordered directly from Professor Zhang, my heart skipped a beat. The singing immediately made a deep and profound impact. I was in awe of the singers’ raw voices, representing the uninhibited qualities of people expressing their genuine feelings through their melodies. I was also struck by the fact that most of the songs are harmonically and rhythmically complex, including contrapuntal textures unusual in East Asian music, with as many as eight independent vocal parts.
My process for recomposing these songs has been to preserve their original flavor, meaning, and essential melodic lines, while creating my contemporary reaction to the source materials.
1. Wushan Mountain Song – The mountain song is one of four major song forms of the Yi people living in the mountains on the north bank of the Hong River, and represents an invitation to sing songs to relax. In my interpretation of one of the traditional mountain songs, the singers are instructed to imagine calling out and communicating between mountaintops. (Yi Nationality)
2. Overture based on Courtship Song – This movement is based on an instrumental tune played by a Hani reed instrument called the qi chu lai wo, which is often played by a male who encourages his lover to resonate the sound with her hands at the lower mouth of the instrument. I was most fascinated by the fact that even though this instrument can play only one note at a time, long skips between the notes of the primary line allow the resultant melody to include two contrapuntal lines. I tried to reflect this in my orchestration and the division of the melody among the entire ensemble. (Hani Nationality)
3. Pig Herding Song – Sung while looking after pigs, singers call out alternately in a coaxing voice, hollering to the pigs, and with various nonsense syllables – la, luo, and shua – for example. This was a fun movement to compose, but at the same time very challenging, as there are two very different melodic lines – one in strict meter and the other very free – that have to work together. (Lisu Nationality)
4. Love Song While Planting the Rice Fields – The source for this movement is a song that would traditionally be sung at night in a hushed manner when young people get together. The Hani live along steep mountain slopes with majestic terraced rice paddies in Southern Yunnan. This song is quite intricate, involving multiple voice parts. I have counted four parts, though other Hani songs have as many as eight parts. The murmuring voices weaving in and out of the surface, as well as the strumming lute accompaniment, are textures that I tried to develop in the orchestration and the setting of the vocal parts. (Hani Nationality)
5. Rice Pounding Song – This movement is based on a song traditionally sung while husking rice using a large pestle and mortar: “Getting up very early, it is still dawn; the husked white rice is fragrant.” (Jingpo Nationality)
6. Wedding Lament – A young woman about to leave her family to get married is reluctant to leave her family to marry into some else’s family. Her family members are all unhappy to see her go. According to Professor Zhang Xingrong’s writings, the Hani tribe was originally a matriarchal society but was driven by the male ancestors to become patriarchal. The female ancestors, in return for the transfer of authority, asked for estate compensation but were refused. As a result, the female members feel helpless and express their anguish with vocal cries. The Hani bride traditionally sings this lament to commemorate her female ancestors. The louder she cries, the more blessings she will get from her ancestors, and the happier the marriage will be. The song signals the end of maternal authority and the beginning of paternal authority, especially during the period of arranged marriages, or literally translated as the “trade-of-marriage.” (Hani Nationality)
7. Youth Dance Song – This song originated with the Ahsi or Axi culture, which the Chinese government groups as members of the Yi nationality. A very catchy tune with appealing rhythms, I chose this upbeat tune to end the rich song cycle. (Yi Nationality)
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