Chants of the old

Chants of the old
Liu Sola, who finds new energy in ancient music, will perform with her ensemble at the ongoing Beijing Music Festival. Jiang Dong/China Daily

The following for ancient Chinese music may be witnessing a decline, but Liu Sola, a pioneering musician, finds it contemporary. Chen Nan reports.

When The Heaven & Earth Totem/China Beat concert opens on Oct 19 in Beijing's popular bar area of Sanlitun, the audience will experience something which is more like a shamanic ritual.

"I hope our post-ancient rhythms can lead our audiences into a trance. Ideally, it's a concert for a stand-up audience, so you can walk, dance, jump and shout. That's the energy we spread through our music," says Liu Sola, one of the country's pioneering musicians, who will perform with the Liu Sola & Friends Ensemble at the 18th Beijing Music Festival, which runs through Oct 24.

Liu, 60, graduated from Central Conservatory of Music in 1983, the top music academy in China, as a composer along with classmates including Tan Dun and Chen Qigang, the first generation of Chinese composers to be recognized in the West.

Breaking away from the shackles of academia, she has been pushing the boundaries of music by collaborating with musicians of various styles, including jazz, rock, Peking Opera and Chinese folk music. She is also an award-winning novelist, a film actress and a vocal performance artist.

In 2003, she founded her group by teaming up with Chinese instrumentalists, including Chinese percussionist Li Zhengui, pipa player Yang Jing, guqin player Wu Na and rock guitarist Liu Yijun.

During the upcoming performance in Beijing, the ensemble will feature new members, including Gert Mortensen, a percussionist from Denmark who worked with Liu on her operatic work, The Afterlife of Li Jiantong, in 2009.

Mortensen was trained in the prestigious soloist class at The Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen and is now a professor and head of timpani and percussion at the school.

To allow Mortensen's percussion to blend in with the Chinese musicians in the ensemble, especially traditional Chinese instrumentalists, Liu has composed seven new works for the performance, including the opening piece, The Heaven & Earth Totem.

Liu says that the works deal with the relationship between humans, animals and nature.

"I am interested in the primitive energy of music. There are many traditional Chinese music works that imitate animal sounds. Ancient records speak of music that imitates the phoenix singing, which symbolizes the sound of a supernatural power," says Liu, who will give a vocal performance with Chinese soprano Wu Jing.

She adds that besides the notes she composes, she also leaves space for the musicians to improvise.

"It means that each musician is given a chance to express himself or herself through improvisation. They have to think independently and show who they are at that moment," she says, adding that Mortensen will join Chinese musicians in the work, Golden Pheasant Out of the Mountains. The work features the ancient Tujia ethnic folk music form, Daliuzi. The music form from Hunan province was recognized in 2006 as part of China's intangible cultural heritage.

She also says that since many types of ancient Chinese music find a mention only in history books she resorts to guesswork and experiments to recreate the sounds.

"It's like a scientist doing experiments in a laboratory. You have to fail many times to taste success. That's what I do when I write music," Liu says.

"Balancing a lot of Chinese percussion with very few Chinese pluck instruments and coming up with the right sound is also a big challenge. The process is hard but it's also very exciting," she says.

Liu still remains cool and sharp. She says that her unconventional music is determined by her life experience and personality.

Born in an intellectual and political family in Beijing, Liu had classical music training as a child. She first got noticed with her award-winning novel, You Have No Choice. It tells the story of a group of frustrated modern music composition students. Her other novels, including Small Tales of the Great Ji Family in 2000 and Female Purity Soup in 2003, have been translated into several languages.

In 1987, she visited the United States, where she met and worked with many jazz and blues musicians, including American bassists Fernando Saunders and Bill Laswell. She later released albums in the US, such as Blues in the East and China Collage, which introduced her rare style to international audiences.

Liu, who has lived in London and New York, says that her collaboration with international artists enables her to be versatile.

Liu, who now, spends most of her time in Beijing, continues to create music and perform with her ensemble.

On Oct 28, Liu will perform in a concert, titled Broken Zither, at the Wuhan Qintai Music Festival, Hubei province. The work was composed by Liu in 1993 and was included in her album Blues in East.

The following for ancient Chinese music may be witnessing a decline but in the eyes of Liu it is contemporary and inspiring.

"I want to give those old spirits a new structure, otherwise they can be only in museums. When you hear my music, you feel excited, not only because of my funky composition, but also because you hear those old spirits come through," she says.