Feeling Absolutely Famous: A View from Beijing

Feeling Absolutely Famous: A View from Beijing

In the summer of 2004, I learned that a good friend of mine was moving to Shanghai. She debated the relative merits of living in China versus the United States; uprooting her children and the life she knew to move to a completely different and unknown environment. In the end, it seemed there was no contest; living in a vibrant international city in a country on the brink of great change won over car-pooling her three children in suburban Menlo Park, California. She packed up her family and moved within the month. She told me I’d be crazy not to visit them. So, immediately, I began to think about going to China.

An American pianist in Beijing

I had just finished recording Music for Hammers and Sticks (innova 630), a CD featuring music by American composers including Zhou Long, originally from Beijing. Zhou re-wrote his beautiful piece Wu Ji for this project, and we premiered it at Weill Recital Hall that spring. Originally scored for piano, zheng, and percussion, the new version was for piano and two percussionists. I loved the sounds of the Chinese gongs as they blended with the other instruments. When we rehearsed, I sensed Zhou Long was listening for a particular Chinese sound with which none of us were really familiar. He would ask Peggy Benkeser to hit the gongs over and over again until she got that special bending pitch. I was fascinated.

As I was dreaming about China, I began to think about a new piece for piano with added percussion that I could play. That summer I surrounded my piano with crotales, gongs, woodblocks, and chimes, and experimented with all these sounds placed within my reach. Music for Hammers and Sticks grew out of my love for percussion sounds blended with piano, but the ensuing project and tour became bigger than I expected. Traveling to different cities with percussion equipment was difficult, and the amount of work it takes to assemble all the various instruments and then tear it down was daunting. I was used to closing the piano lid and heading to the nearest restaurant for a well-earned meal and glass of wine. Now I busied myself moving cymbal stands and learning how to put together and take apart a five-octave marimba. Where had the days of solo piano gone?

I called Zhou Long and asked if he would be interested in writing a piece for piano and Chinese opera gongs. Santa Clara University agreed to support the commission and we set a date for completion the following spring. In the meantime, Zhou Long suggested I contact the Central Conservatory in Beijing about playing a concert, and they responded by inviting me to play in the 2005 Beijing Modern Music Festival. I asked if I could play a new piece by their former student and they readily agreed. Pianogongs was set to premiere in Beijing.

In the ensuing months there was much email back and forth between continents. The director of the festival, Ye Xiaogang, a prominent and highly respected Chinese composer, and former classmate of Zhou Long and Chen Yi, suggested I include some women composers on my program. While not a fan of gender-specific programming (I tend to choose music because I like it—not because it is written by a woman or a man) I immediately thought of Alex Shapiro, whose beautiful Sonata I have played many times and recorded on my first CD, New American Piano Music (innova 552). I agreed to play a piece by a professor at the Beijing Conservatory, Gong Xiaoting (a woman!), and added the Toccata by Emma Lou Diemer to round out the “female representation.” The program also included George Crumb’s A Little Suite for Xmas, A.D. 1970, two etudes by David Rakowski, and Steve Heitzeg’s Sandhill Crane: Migration Variations. There was discussion with Ye Xiaogang about including two ensemble pieces, Joan Tower’s Petroushskates and Crumb’s Voice of the Whale, but in the end it was agreed there would not be enough rehearsal time. I suspect there were “extended techniques” in both of those pieces that might be challenging for their players. I was prepared to explain how to pluck notes inside the piano and make eerie harmonics using a shot glass on the strings, but I couldn’t explain the technical demands of singing into the flute to imitate whale song or playing cello harmonics to sound like seagulls. Finally, we agreed on a solo piano program, with Zhou Long’s Pianogongs providing a unique addition.

When I arrived in China at the Beijing airport, I was met by two composition students and a driver from the conservatory. They were surprisingly chatty and quite interested in talking about American music and my recital. I was recovering from laryngitis, so I smiled and nodded a lot and tried to stay awake for the trip to my hotel through some of the worst traffic I had ever seen (where did all the bicycles go?). At my hotel I was introduced to another graduate student, Zhou Juan, who gave me chrysanthemum tea and suggested I needed rest. I thanked her, ate some noodles in my room, and settled in for a solid twelve hours sleep. The Central Conservatory and the Beijing Modern Festival were wonderful hosts, and they assigned Zhou Juan to look after me during my stay. She had never traveled or studied outside China, but her English was very good and we communicated easily and became friends. She arranged all my rehearsals, took me everywhere I needed to go, and made sure I ate fabulous meals each day.

Composer/conductor Huang Ruo, McCollough, composer/theorist Philip Lasser and some new friends in the Forbidden City

Although I arrived mid-week, I experienced a large part of the festival. Spanning eight days, the Beijing Modern offered a wide variety of concerts: everything from orchestral music to children’s chorus, with as many as four to five events per day. Woven into that schedule were master classes and “summits in harmonic theory” from visiting composers and professors, including Samuel Adler and Philip Lasser from the United States, as well as Huang Ruo, an American composer and conductor originally from China who was now the Artistic Director of the International Contemporary Ensemble based in New York. I was the only American soloist playing in the festival, but the contemporary ensemble Present Music, based in Milwaukee, played a concert that included music by John Adams, Michael Torke, Randall Wolff, Jerome Kitzke, and Michael Daugherty.

During this concert one of the Chinese students turned to me and asked, “All of these American composers must be very famous—yes?” I realized that while China’s borders have opened, their exposure to contemporary American music is still limited. While I admire all of these composers, I think of the word famous as being associated with pop icons like Madonna or Elton John. Even my students at Santa Clara are not immediately familiar with Charles Ives or John Cage. I contemplated the elevated status of the composers presented on the program: was it possible that an audience for new American music might be bigger in China than it was in the United States? I noticed the rapt attention of the audience as they hung on every note. When composer Jerome Kitzke began his piece, The Green Automobile, I wondered how they would respond. Here was an American composer practically screaming, while his fingers danced up and down the keyboard. The lyrical text, full of poetic American references (not translated into Chinese), might be strange to them. How much of it would they understand? Did it matter? How would they react?

They loved it. They loved all of the music on the program, and the applause exploded in the great hall as the ensemble took their bows. Jerome Kitzke was a rock star in China. Present Music was a huge success. The students sitting around me said they had never heard anything like this before and they couldn’t wait for more.

After the concert, Zhou Juan asked me about the pieces she had just heard. What were they like? How were they arranged? I asked her what music was available to her at the conservatory library and she told me that while they could look at scores, they were not able to check them out. Recordings were limited. This seemed surprising to me for a music conservatory, even though I knew the students had little first-hand knowledge of new music we considered standard in America. I reminded myself that we had had many years to experiment with new techniques while China had only recently opened its doors to new sounds. This exchange between cultures is still new and evolving and I viewed my role in Beijing as that of a cultural ambassador, bringing new American music to a country where Western music is not always the dominant sound.

Indeed, the majority of music presented at the Beijing Modern was from Asia, and one of my favorite concerts in the festival was a Vietnamese ensemble playing traditional and new music on instruments that were distinctly non-Western. There was also a concert of contemporary works by Korean composers featuring the Kayagum and AURA Ensembles, as well as the Macao Symphony Orchestra featuring the English music of Benjamin Britten and Malcom Arnold. There was jazz from Finland, a seminar on “Aesthetic Positions of European Festivals of Contemporary Music,” and a variety of Chinese music ensembles from all over the country featuring new music in all genres.

A highlight of the festival was a recital of Chinese contemporary lieder. The English translation of the titles evoked images of songs Schubert might have composed if he had grown up in the Cultural Revolution: “Mine the Petroleum for My Motherland” alongside “Fishing Melody” and “Go Across the River to Pick the Hibiscus”. I had become acquainted with the pianist and organizer for this concert, Wu Long, who had studied and worked in the United States. He was a delightful lunch companion and knowledgeable about western musical culture. He moved easily back and forth between Mandarin and English and helped me navigate my new surroundings. After my concert he gave me a CD entitled “Liebestraume: Love’s Dream” which featured solo piano works by Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Liszt, as well as some contemporary Chinese composers, all beautifully played. I received many CDs in China with similar romantic titles, or some with photos of the composer gazing into the camera with a wind-swept, super-model pose. The CD aesthetic seemed somehow different and more glamorous than our own.

McCollough takes a bow with Festival Director Ye Xiaogang

Before my own concert I was nervous, not knowing what to expect from the Chinese audience. Would they like the music I had chosen? Each work was a premiere in China, and I knew pieces like the Crumb and Pianogongs were in a style many of them had not heard before. I asked Zhou Juan if she would translate for me so I could speak to the audience about some of the music. In Steve Heitzeg’s Sandhill Crane Variations, I tap the keys silently in imitation of the sound of bird wings, and at the end of the piece I lift my arms in the gesture of a sandhill crane in flight. I knew the crane was an honored bird in China and so I thought this piece would be appropriate. However, I didn’t want the Chinese audience to think I had completely lost my mind. The effort of translating was slow and difficult, but the audience listened carefully and appreciatively. When the piece ended there was a moment of silence before they burst into applause. I needn’t have worried about the concert. Ye Xiaogang told me afterwards that each piece was unique and wonderfully programmed. I felt I had succeeded in choosing a variety of American solo piano music they would remember. Perhaps even some of the composers would now be “famous” in Beijing.

Looking back on my trip to China, what impressed me most was the eagerness and openness with which they greeted new music. Every single concert I heard at the Beijing Modern Festival was well attended, if not sold out, and there was an excitement in the audience that I rarely see in the United States. It was invigorating to feel that thirst for new sounds, and to be a part of a festival that seemed determined to showcase a variety of musical cultures.

Since I have been back in the United States, I have been following the increased programming of Chinese music, both in the Bay area and elsewhere in American cities. The Kennedy Center’s month long “Festival of China” is notable not only for its grand scale, but also for the variety of Chinese arts that are showcased, everything from Beijing Opera to handkerchief dances and martial arts, with over 900 performers participating from regions all over China. At the same time, colleagues who travel to China note with some sadness the changes that are taking place there. They worry that China will become too much like the west, with our reserved concert audiences and polite and “appropriate” applause. While we are promoting our music to China, we unwittingly bring with it our western sensibilities and concert culture. A team of arts administrators recently traveled from China to Lincoln Center to learn new techniques for marketing and selling the arts (as it has been so successful here). Globalization is great—except when it is the same everywhere.

My friend Lisa was back home briefly this summer, and our conversation often turned to China. While she enjoys the obvious luxuries we have here in the United States, and the easy access to convenience goods from places like Safeway and Target, she loves the stimulation of her life in China more. It’s an exciting time to live there. And, as we both have discovered, audiences for American music are very good—exceptional, in fact.


Pianist Teresa McCollough has commissioned, premiered, and performed many new compositions by today’s emerging and established composers. Her new CD, Music for Hammers and Sticks, with percussionists Tom Burritt and Peggy Benkeser, features new commissions for solo piano and percussion by composers Alvin Singleton, Alex Shapiro, Belinda Reynolds, Zhou Long, Steven Mackey, and Joseph Harchanko. McCollough lives in the San Francisco Bay area where she is also Associate Professor of Music at Santa Clara University.

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