How Light Arrives ...
for 15 musicians
WEDS7 Prebys Chair Concert at UC San Diego Conrad Prebys Music Center, San Diego, CA, U.S.
Conducted by Steven Schick; Performed by the Palimpsest Ensemble.
Flute: Teresa Díaz de Cossio
Oboe: Juliana Gaona-villamizar
Clarinet: Madison Greenstone
Contra-Bass Cl.: Kleb Kanasovich
Horn: Benjamin Jaber
Horn: Elyse Lauzon
Trombone: Berk Schneider
Percussion: Garrett Mendelow
Percussion: Fiona Digney
Piano: Dimitrios Paganos-Koukakis
Violin: Kathryn Hatmaker
Violin: Ilana Waniuk
Viola: Adam Neeley
Cello: Peter Ko
Bass: Matthew Kline
My long-standing research on indigenous Mongolian songs is traceable to my childhood, when I studied the piano with my first musical teacher, Mongolian ethnomusicologist Xingwu Li. After I finished afternoon lessons with performances of Bach and Beethoven fugues, Mr. Li always played Mongolian long songs on his old cassette tape machine. These songs made a lasting impression upon me at the time. In many reminiscent moments of my life, I often hear them, hauntingly, in my mind, reminding me of home. After coming to the University of California San Diego music department to pursue my doctoral degree, composers, professors, and musicians inspired me to develop these impressions into research projects. Composer Lei Liang’s research and recording projects with Mongolian folk artist Serashi revealed how the recordings of performances of Serashi were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution in the 50s of 20 century. This drove me to consider how Mongolian music could be filtered and selected by listeners in China as well as worldwide, raising a noteworthy issue. The central government filtered only typical indigenous songs leaving abundant, valuable indigenous resources untouched. In order to direct scholarly attention to Mongolian long songs, I approached the research in many ways. I worked with Miller Puckette on using Pure Data, which tracked frequency, amplitude and temporality to trace the specific vocal gestures and phenomena of Mongolian long songs, especially the melismatic gestures. The findings were exciting yet perplexing. In some instances, I found that Mongolian vowels have a significant impact on melismatic behavior in long songs, and that those impacts are often timbre-related rather than phonic or semantic. What surprised me was that the melismas were dramatically distinct, despite tracing the same song and musical parameters with different singers. This suggested that the singing methods of long song melismas are incredibly different now than they were decades ago. This raises questions about how social, political and environmental factors intertwined to affect the drastic differences in long song singings.
In August 2019, I continued research guided by these questions in my Inner Mongolian hometown. This enabled deeper field studies, further questions and additional conclusions. The behaviors and the types of melismas in the Mongolian long songs are closely tied to Mongolians’ living way. Within centuries of nomadism, the songs were sung as narration and functioned as literature, as daily communications and as tools while dealing with nomadic daily routines. One of the stories shared frequently while I was in the herding area was about herdsmen sing long songs to ewes in the winter to help them produce milk to feed cubs. Long song is a traditional Mongolian song known for its colorful melismas. Styles and technique of long song singings are rooted in the nomadic daily routine, ecological relationships and spiritual experiences. For example, while herdsmen ride on horseback, the joggling gestures produced by horse-riding were juxtaposed with their simultaneous singing. Within a few centuries, the melismatic character became a distinct musical idiom. The different types of melismas are coherently linked to distinct geographical regions; in this case, geomorphologic shapes influenced by the joggling gestures tied to horseback riding are a deciding factor in classifying the melismas' type and style. Presently, Inner Mongolia's nomadic steppe is degenerating rapidly, leaving only limited and vulnerable prairie ecosystems. As a result, the Mongols’ living style has significantly changed through the decades, leaving only old generations with a nomadic lifestyle in the area. New generation Mongols prefer to live in metropolitan areas and cities. The gap between the old traditions and new generations’ interests further complicates research into the traditional singing style. Furthermore, the Mongolian linguistic function and structure has significantly changed during the last several decades, as an increasing number of Mongols have mixed and lived with Chinese people in the cities and started speaking Chinese. These linguistic changes reshape the tongue position while speaking. This also affects the resulting timbre while making a vowel sound in the mouth, changing the articulations of Mongolian dialects in different regions and entirely changing the way the vowels are articulated in long song singings.
Western musical pedagogical systems’ impacts upon folk traditions have further altered long song traditions. In the past, this folk tradition was closely tied to Mongolians’ nomadic lifestyle and was self-motivated and self-governed. Most musical performance and activities were driven by homemade instruments. As Carole Pegg argues in her book Mongolian Music, Dance, & Oral Narrative: Performing Diverse Identities that the homemade and handmade instruments were from materials taken from “an environment believed to be inhabited by spirits and were consequently surrounded by ritual.” Music produced in this idiom has pervasive microtonal and freely improvisatory nuances interacting with space, time and individuals. However, presently, long songs are taught in the music classroom and in universities in Inner Mongolia and Beijing, with equal-tempered well-tuned pianos. Singers are asked to sing incredibly high to demonstrate so-called virtuosity and to sing in tune to prove a perceived standard of professionalism - all ultimately to fulfill and cater to the prevailing taste in Western-influenced music schools and audiences. The essence of the original singing form is entirely missing in both the musical and spiritual spheres. Long songs were conceived as songs to nature, to the earth, the sky god and one's self - with a pristine natural instinct tied to embraced ritualistic and environmental experiences rather than singing to and catering to any kind of power, authority, aesthetic, standard, or taste. Marketplace products labeled as Mongolian long songs misrepresent the art form, instead consisting of the modern twisting of the art’s basic nature and omitting the art's true origin, sometimes devolving into the shallow realm of blending a stereotype electronic music sonority.
When I got this chance to write this piece, I came back from a summer-long field studies in my hometown, Inner Mongolia. What inspired me deeply from my field studies were those behind surface factors that affect and alter the indigenous traditions. I am also impressed with how tiny nuances decisively contribute to the indigenous music culture, for example, how tongue position affects shaping vowels and thus further shaping the timbre variations in singing the long song melismas. I composed this large ensemble piece to adore the nuanced unseen culturally embodied factors in the sonic and, more specifically, the timbral sphere. I achieve this by experimenting with subtle timbral contrasts at the very threshold of human perceptibility. However, in order to articulate those nuances, the performers must move their muscles and use their instruments in noticeably unusual ways. For example, one method I employed with the flute is to require flutists to shape vowels with specificity while playing. Conventionally, flutists naturally shape vowels into the flutes when they play as long song singers naturally choose the order of vowels they want to project in the long song melisma. The specificity of shaping vowels in real-time flute performance further shapes the timbre nuances. My goal is to have similar designs to all the instruments. As a result, by emphasizing nuanced and situated muscle movements, I compose the piece with fresh timbral possibilities. We cannot go back to the remote past or restore the prairie ecology of old, but evoking that past is one of the reasons that we make music— to transcend the limits of time and space and, eventually, to transcend the constraints and blocks in peoples’ mindsets.