My name is Zhou Yuanten, but call me Eddie. I am a doctoral student at Xinjiang University –in the far, far west, but at Brunel to study this year. My English is good. I lived in Boston, Massachusetts for undergraduate years. I majored in piano at the New England C and then discovered I wanted to compose rather than play. So I go to MIT and soon I discover the English do it so differently, so I apply to Brunel. And at Brunel they then say of this place ‘you have to go.’ So here I am.
So surprising to be greeted in Chinese! And not just Nin Hao, we have a conversation! His accent is Northern Mandarin. He is writing a novel, he explains, about poets Zuo-Fen and Zuo-Si. We have 15 minutes conversation every day and I help him with his characters. Strange, to most of the class he is nobody, but to foreign students here we know him through his website and his software. I have even played his colours piece, The Goethe Triangle.
It is joy to be respected by a teacher and his sessions are like no other I’ve had here, and here I mean the UK. Oh, so laid-back, so lazy so many teachers. People lack energy here. They are dreamers and only think of themselves. He is full of energy and talks often about this Imogen of whom I never hear. Her father a great composer and she copied his music from when she was a girl – such beautiful calligraphy. Her father loved India and learned Sanskrit. He should have learned Mandarin; at least that is a living language. ‘Imo’, he says, ‘is my heroine, my mentor, the musician I most revere.’ He showed us her library and what was her studio in one of the old buildings here. He gives me this little book about her ten years in this place. A strange looking lady; there’s a photograph of her conducting Bach in the Great Hall. She looks like she is dancing.
This morning some are not here, but there are little notes on the desk with apologies perhaps. He leaves them untouched and we make chords again, and scales and arpeggios and Slonimsky’s famous melodic patterns. We write and write. He sings, we sing too. There is a horn and a cello with us today. They play and make jokes. They show us harmonics and tunings and bend our ears in new directions we do not expect. Those who complain about this course not being ‘advanced’ will eat their words; only I think some of those are not here.
As Chinese we hear sound in a different way I think. In our language tone is so important. To each word there are four tones that make meaning quite different. Chinese uses only about 400 syllables, compared to 4000 in English. So there are lots of syllables, like ****, that have multiple meanings. I tell him the story of the Lion-eating Poet, which he does not know!! I am writing this out for him, all 92 characters. Just one word **** but with four meanings – lion, ten, to make, to be. The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den is the story of a poet (****) named **** who loves to eat lions (**** ****) goes to market (****) to buy ten (****) of them, takes them home to eat (****) and discovers they are made (****) of stone (****).
So I have no trouble hearing what others struggle to hear. We make pieces that are all about tone, and on a single note. Mark, the cellist, plays the opening of Lutoslawski’s Concerto – forty-two repetitions of a tenor ‘D’ a second apart. I had never heard this – a cadenza at the beginning of a concerto. Now we write a duo, on just one note. We write; they play. We are like many Mozarts trying to write only what we have already heard, making only one copy. I use the four tones and must teach the players the signs. I demonstrate and he says of the 1st tone – ‘Going to the Dentist, the 2nd – Climbing a ladder, the 3rd – ‘The Rollercoaster’, the 4th –‘Stepping on a pin’. We all do it!
And there are all these microtones. We listen to a moment of Ravel’s Bolero and pieces by Thomas Ades and Julian Anderson, then in detail (and with the score) to part of Duet for piano and orchestra by George Benjamin. This is spectral music. He is daring to introduce this – very difficult subject - this idea that a sound could be mimicked (? Is that the word – to impersonate?) by analysing it for the frequencies that make it up, and then getting instruments with similar acoustic properties to play the frequencies as pitches. So the need for microtones – goodbye equal temperament! Great in theory, difficult in practice.
This afternoon we are to study spectral composing using our computers. Until now we use our computers or smart phones to listen to extracts. He has this page of web links on his website for each session. Instead of listening through hi-fi we listen through our headphones. Better of course by far, no birds sounds or instruments playing next door. We can hear it again anytime. So there is software to download, Fourier analysis I suppose, he tries hard not to use any science or maths because there are some here who object, but they are fools. Even Bach knew of acoustics – designing the organs he played.
We finish this morning studying harmonic rhythm and this word tonality nobody seems quite able to describe. To him even the chromatic scale is tonality, and he shows in a duet for horn and cello how our ears take in tonality change. This is not about keys, but about groupings of pitches – anywhere – so a tonality can be spread across several octaves. So often, he says, composers are not aware of the tonalities they create, they don’t hear harmonic rhythm. They’re missing an opportunity! Sound can be coloured by awareness of what makes up a tonality. So understanding spectral music must help towards this. It is very liberating all this. If we take sound as a starting point rather than a system we can go anywhere.
Yesterday he asked me about a book he is reading. Did I know it? A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo. Of course I know this very funny book. He said he liked to think of music in the same way the character of the Chinese girl Z thinks about love.
“Love,” this English word: like other English words it has a tense. “Loved”, or “will love”, or “have loved.” All these specific tenses mean Love is time-limited thing. Not infinite. It only exists in particular period of time. In Chinese, Love is ài in pinyin. It has no tense. No past and future. Love in Chinese means a being, a situation, a circumstance. Love is existence, holding past and future.
And so it is with music. Music is a being, a situation, a circumstance. It holds past and future. It is wondrous, just like love.